Noted American educator and sociologist Morris Massey may not have delivered a keynote address or taught a class since 1995, when he effectively retired, but his ideas are more relevant than ever as we struggle through the age of COVID-19.
In his exhaustive examination of human values and their intersection with marketing and business management, Massey established the concept of a Significant Emotional Event (SEE). In his own words, he defines an SEE as “an experience that is so mentally arresting that it becomes a catalyst for you to consider, examine, and possibly change your initial values or value system.”
It would be an understatement to propose that we are experiencing one of those right now. After decades of relative peace and some of the most prolonged periods of economic growth in history, we have seen the global economy brought to a near standstill as countries imposed severe restrictions to slow the spread of the virus. Massey may not have been able to foresee a challenge like this, but it is clear COVID-19 meets all the conditions to be considered the most significant SEE in generations.
If COVID-19 is a good example of the “mentally arresting” event that Massey described, then what kind of change will it prompt? How will our values—and value systems—be altered as we head off into a period of great uncertainty?
So much of our life has changed and so many of the most profound impacts have been felt in the workplace. Millions of people around the world have lost their jobs. Those who have been able to continue working have been forced to work virtually from home and in the process, change the way we interact with our co-workers and customers. We can no longer take for granted our ability to earn a living or find fulfillment in our careers.
That stream of change is going to put enormous pressure on business leaders. These are unique times in unchartered territory. Leaders will need to consider all options as they attempt to make up lost ground or—in more extreme situations—stave off the death of a company or industry.
The world’s foremost thinkers on leadership culture are sounding the alarm about this watershed moment. “In moments like these, when the choices we make are so impactful, people desperately want to believe that their leaders know what they are doing. But they quickly learn that in times like these, leaders either grow or swell—they either grow out of their weaknesses and rise to the level of the challenge or all of their worst weaknesses swell to new levels,” Pulitzer-prize winning New York Times columnist Tom Friedman wrote.
Truth and trust are essential elements if we are to have any hope of answering Friedman’s central question: what makes a good leader, particularly now when leadership is under so much pressure? After many years of involvement in the ethics and compliance industry, I would strenuously argue that the key leadership success factor is decency.
Throughout the history of commerce, we have tried to define and enforce basic decency in all aspects of the way we do business: from the promises we make to customers, to the way we treat our employees, basic decency has always been a goal, albeit an often-elusive goal. Even as Compliance and Ethics became distinct functions within large business organizations, and lawmakers attempted to legislate a higher degree of decency, we often fell short of our worthy goals.
I have spent much of my professional life trying to answer one simple question: can decency be institutionalized in a company so that it is an everyday occurrence, built into the culture and modelled daily by leaders? If we were able to do that, we would need far fewer dedicated resources in the area of ethics and compliance or sweeping laws to enforce decency.
Before we can bake decency into our organizations, it would help if we could fully define exactly what we mean. This is where the debate becomes particularly muddy given that there are so many people using so many words to define positive, productive leadership culture.
Taken together, the ever-growing roster of leadership gurus emphasizes success factors ranging from adaptability to self-control, innovation, creativity and agility. However, most of those concepts are largely applicable to issues like productivity and bottom-line success. What about skills that speak directly to our capacity for basic, human dignity?
Again, you can find a whole range of skills and characteristics that might describe the truly decent leader, but I will focus on seven core ideas: accountability; civility, compassion, empathy, honesty, humility and principle. Applied in concert, these are the skills that will help an organization develop and maintain a civil culture that values truly ethical behavior and integrity even more than profitability.
Civility is a priority that far too few organizations embrace. The stories of sexual harassment, frat-boy cultures that tolerated rampant bullying, organizations that have failed to fight systemic racism and homophobia are all products of cultures that do not stress civility.
Some of the other skills on my decency code checklist—empathy and compassion in particular—fall into the category of Emotional Intelligence, a topic of growing importance in leadership development circles. Together with honesty and an adherence to a principled approach to business, you have what I would consider the proper foundation for an organizational culture that prioritizes decency.
Just as important as knowing the right skills is to understand how those skills need to manifest in the day-to-day operation of your organization. I have identified many different examples of truly decent leadership to help describe the kind of culture that embodies my seven core skills.
Some involve iconic figures like Ruben Mark, the former CEO of Colgate Palmolive, who famously and regularly took the time to visit with workers on the overnight production shift in some of his factories for informal chats.
There are other examples, like Nabisco, a global company that instilled a talent recruitment model that involved following up with all unsuccessful job applicants to explain why they did not get hired. Ingrained in the company’s culture is the idea that everyone that meets Nabisco deserved to be treated decently. “Everyone eats cookies,” has become a core motivator in this belief.
The late Herb Kelleher, the colorful and innovative founder of Southwest Airlines, was one of the world’s foremost role models in the area of corporate decency, opining on everything from employee engagement and experience, to sharing anecdotes about arrogant and verbose leadership. He famously warned leaders to avoid puffing out their chests too much. "Think small and act small, and we'll get bigger. Think big and act big, and we'll get smaller."
These are all examples of how decency is essentially timeless; it is something that will help you lead through good times and bad times alike. However, it would not be a stretch to say that manifesting decency in your leadership practices and cultures is never more important than it is in a time of crisis, like the one we find ourselves battling through now.
What does decency look like in today’s pandemic-impacted environment?
It would involve leaders who avoid the “out-of-sight, out-of-mind” trap with employees who are working virtually. It means finding new ways to continue development activities and committing to recognizing employees who may be electronically tethered to the organization. For those leaders who embrace the concept of Emotional Intelligence, it will mean acknowledging your employees’ fears and anxieties, and sharing your own with them.
Noted British author Charles Handy characterized moments of significant organizational change like the pandemic as “a work world of seemingly endless whitewater”—challenges that require special leadership competency that can help replace confusion with order and hopelessness with confidence.
As we’re starting to notice, successful whitewater navigators have even modulated their predominant leadership styles: collaborators become more decisive; authoritarians become more collaborative; quiet and humble leaders step up and communicate as never before; cerebral or process-oriented leaders are forced to anticipate and become more intuitive. All of us who are navigating through these uncharted waters will be grappling with the realities of Morris Massey’s aforementioned “Significant Emotional Event.”
As leaders, our job is to create hope where it may be lacking and transfer our strength and wisdom to those people who may be feeling weak or depleted.
Our willingness to creatively go above-and-beyond our job descriptions will go a long way toward making a difference in the lives of the people we lead. This is an idea that many great thinkers have embraced, but the late poet Maya Angelou may have put it best when she said, “I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”