Dear Leader,

I want to remind you that leadership matters as a force for greater good in the world, and that this is part of your job description. Here are two stories to illustrate what I mean.

I remember being in a leadership seminar as an early practitioner when one of the facilitators declared something along the lines of: Effective leadership is about influence to achieve goals – we cannot judge the goals and outcomes themselves. If someone is successful at using their influence to galvanize the collective, they are an effective leader. This statement had followed the segment on the importance of leaders operating from a non-judgment stance in our interactions with others and instead being curious and asking questions. The concept of non-judgment and the leadership practice it engenders had made sense to me until this definition of effective leadership entered the space. The statement that followed affirmed why I had had an immediate disturbance in my belly at the attempt to conflate non-judgment with definitions of leadership by divorcing cause and effect/outcomes from the definition: By this definition, we can see that Adolf Hitler was an effective leader.

I’ll save you the long version and simply say that I left the class. I did so, after a lengthy debate in the moment that I was part of effecting and follow-up conversations with the facilitators in which the co-facilitator confessed she had always been unhappy with this framing but that the other facilitator was leading and insisted on that definition. I also registered my protest for the harm and retraumatizing impact of this line of teaching with the institution and understand that the framing and definition of leadership was ultimately revised and contextualized. If this framing were maintained in our leadership parlance, you know who else in modern history would fit the definition of an effective leader.

Several years later, I was at the Academy of Management Conference at a presentation by Robert Quinn and Kim Cameron, renowned for their work in positive organization scholarship. They spoke of their continued work and research on Inspiring Positive Change and virtuousness and understanding how to amplify transcendent deviance. In the question period, someone stated in the guise of a question: But isn’t your research biased? Given it is inherently one sided, looking for good and virtuousness outcomes only? Kim Cameron’s answer was decisive and memorable: “I am not interested in studying extraordinary evil.” He went on to say there is much around us already amplifying practices that cause human harm. He and Quinn reinforced their interest in what connects us to our greatest good and helps us thrive by making the impossible, possible.

In the wake of 2020, I have found myself often thinking about these two stories. All the trauma of 2020 and into our present has underscored for me why effective leaders, who work to transform systems that cause harm and focus on the greater good can literally be the difference that makes the difference to the wellbeing of our human experiences, livelihoods, organizations, societies and the planet. For me, effective leadership is leadership influence and practices used as a force for greater good. I have found myself, like Kim Cameron, thinking I am not interested in amplifying what causes harm.

If you have any doubt that leadership matters as a force for greater good, I hope the past few years of political drama in the US and beyond has helped remind us that leadership cannot only be about influencing others towards shared goals. I believe that leadership must also fundamentally be grounded in influencing public consciousness towards the greater good and the benefit of our collective societies and the planet. Fundamentally, leadership cannot be divorced from moral standards and ethical behaviour, because the minute we take the greater good out of the equation, we lose our social consciousness, and the collective soul of our humanity that distinguishes us in the animal kingdom. We lose the power we hold as a species that has language, can make meaning, can connect to each other and therefore can organize to greater extents than other species, helping each other in ways that enables us to survive, and thrive. In other words, it is our capacity for looking beyond ourselves to the greater good that makes our humanity thrive. I believe therefore that to have thriving societies, leadership must be a function of influence for the greater good and this expectation must be enshrined in our moral codes, standards of ethics and expectations for leaders.

L = f(influence +greater good) for thriving societies

When we lose our collective moral compass, we transform our capacity for good into our shadow, our human capacity to cause harm and destroy. Leaders, who for me are defined as formal (positional) and informal/everyday leaders—and in today’s world, social network influencers—carry the onus of responsibility to ensure that we are aware of the space where this shadow exists. We must use our influence and power to help guide and guard against crossing from our human light to our shadow side.

Of course, the controversy has and will always lie in the challenge of defining collective standards of goodness and moral codes, while balancing them with subjectivity and individual rights. It is the complexity of balancing objective truth (what are the facts) with subjective truth (my experience) to arrive at normative truths (collective/social standards), knowing that in the complex truth of life, these may require constant re-evaluation.  

The questions we must ask about these four types of truths are what we call wicked questions—they are full of polarities and possibilities and may shift over time as our understanding of life and human organizing grows. We contend with questions such as:

  • Who defines good?
  • What happens when what is good for you is not good for me?
  • What moral codes apply to collective societies vs. individuals in society?
  • How do I make the right chose when trying to balance all these perspectives?

This is the leader’s work to do—sifting through all the perspectives and possibilities to look for what is best for the greater good. These are all ultimate judgment calls for sure, but they are judgments that must not be confused with the non-judgment we aspire to in everyday communication and interactions. And my hope is that where the objective truth of the harm we cause through systems and structures we continue to uphold is made plain, we, leaders, will have the courage to call for and lead the changes needed for our greater good, even when it means challenges and changing norms. It is my hope that as leaders, wherever we find ourselves—we will remember that this is part of the mantle we carry and will always choose to use our influence for the greatest good.

And all this is top of mind for me as we step into Black History Month, and I continue to contend with my role in all the leadership spheres of influence I inhabit, in ensuring that #BlackLivesMatter. We must ensure thriving societies, now and into the future, so that our children, and future leaders, inherit a better world and planet.

How are you leading to ensure the greatest good?