The Broader Implications of Citizen Leadership for Organizations and Corporations

Citizen leadership has a direct bearing on the organizations and corporations that are the driving force of much of our society and culture. Among the broader implications of citizen leadership for these organizations, large and small, is this: corporate character counts. In more familiar terms — corporate “culture” counts.

Despite what might be printed, published or circulated about an organization’s culture, in practice all we need to do is look at how our people interact with one another, and how individuals conduct themselves towards our customers, clients and communities. Those observations are all we need to discern our prevailing and dominant values. Nothing is 100%, of course not, but there are predominant patterns. Let us look to the patterns of our actions and decisions. Those patterns will speak volumes about who we are.

Is that the signature by which we want to be known in the world?

Because we are.

For example: if truth is a principle that you want to be known by, and you regularly act in ways that are truthful in word and deed, internally and externally, then that’s how you’ll be known. Actions reveal who you are.

But, your principles and values do not come free of charge. You have to be willing and committed to ante up, even when it cost you. That is called an investment — that’s an investment in your integrity and an investment in your credibility, in the bigger picture, an investment in your culture.

Another example; if truth is a principle that the people — say at XYZ Corp. — want to be known by, but they — the individuals who make up XYZ Corp. habitually misrepresent the facts — public pronouncements about truth and ethics notwithstanding — then that’s who they are and that’s how they’ll be known. They can rationalize or excuse their choice of actions for any number of reasons: competition, pressure for quarterly numbers or closer to home, compensation — individuals saying to themselves, I do what I get paid for — but here’s the thing, values  — like truth — do not lend themselves to a cost-benefit analysis.

Now there are those who just don’t care. There are cultures that hold, “We have money, we have power, we have influence. It’s a free country and we’ll do as we please.” At least we know where they stand, what they stand for, and what we can expect.

But, there is a more sinister school of thought — one that adheres to the notion that “Principle is okay, up to a certain point, but principle doesn’t do any good if you lose.”[1]This is the culture that cloaks itself in principle — like truth — but if principle turns out to be inconvenient, then its members conveniently set it aside. In this culture, the overriding objective is “to win.”  And whatever currency “to win” comes in — be it profit, power, influence, reputation or the like — the ends justify our means.

For the Citizen Leader — corporate or individual — the ends do not justify the means. Instead, in a citizen leader culture, the means are routinely examined through the filter of our principles. Some of the means will need to be discarded because they do not fit with how we want to be in the world. Other means will present us with viable options — or more precisely, values-based options. These options safeguard our character as we pursue our goals — whatever form our goals take — profit, power, influence or reputation.

To borrow from the great American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson:

As to means there may be a million and then some, but principles are few. The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own means. The man who tries means, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble.

When all is said and done, it is the individuals in our organizations, our corporations and our institutions who will decide on their means, and on their choice of actions. It is the prevailing pattern of these individual choices that will define our corporate culture.

And so we are face-to-face again with these two questions: Who am I? and How do I want to be in the world? It’s just that our scope has grown from personal character to organizational culture.

Culture doesn’t happen because we will it to happen. It happens because we and many other people in our community turn our wills into behaviors and words and choices that honor and demonstrate the values that we choose to espouse. Building culture — a purposeful culture — is an act of dedication and ownership — personal and collective. Everyone can be involved. Everyone can accept ownership and take responsibility. Now, whether everyone accepts that ownership, whether everyone takes responsibility by holding themselves and one another accountable – that’s another issue. Accepting ownership for oneself is an act of citizenship; asking others to accept ownership and holding them accountable, regardless of our position or title, is an act of leadership. Not to do so, especially if we are entrusted with the responsibilities of a leader, is an act of abdication.

It was a series of acts of abdication among those who were most entrusted with the mantle of leadership at Penn State that allowed for the incidence of child molestation and the ensuing lack of any meaningful investigation that we learned about last summer. It has been a whole history of these acts of abdication among the leadership at the Boy Scouts of America and among the hierarchy of the American Catholic Church that have allowed for the scandalous abuse of children and the ensuing evasion from prosecution for both the perpetrators and their protectors.

On the other hand, it is an act of leadership that we see being played out at Harvard today with the candid disclosure and investigation of cheating among some 120 students. In the words of Jay Harris, dean of undergraduate education: “Without integrity, there can be no genuine achievement, either at Harvard or anywhere else. We have held, and will continue to hold, every Harvard College student to that same high standard.”

So in the broader sense, when we view citizen leadership on the scale of an organization, a corporation or an institution — be it in education, sports, religion, business, media or government — character still comes first. Who am I? and How do I want to be in the world? The principles that reveal our culture still count.

[1] Campaign advice given by former Vice President Dick Cheney to associates when he was White House chief of staff.

Source: Worse Than Watergate: The Secret Presidency of George W. Bush, by John W. Dean.