09 March 2011

Advice for the Leader-lorn: Compassionate or Responsible – Which to Choose?

“Advice for the Leader-lorn is an irregular series in which Dr. Mark answers your leadership questions. If you have a thorny leadership situation that you’d like Dr. Mark to address, send your question to Dr. Mark.

Today’s question comes from Brazen Careerist member, J.S., who posts, “When in conflict [i.e., conflicted over which alternative to choose], which do you want your leadership to be: responsible or compassionate?

A challenging question, J.S.! When a leader confronts opposite polarities for a decision that appear to pit “being compassionate” against “being responsible” in the leader's mind, one is almost automatically moved to ask questions like, “being compassionate towards whom in what context?” and, “being responsible to whom or to what objective in which context?” The answers to such questions are never obvious; nor are they easy. So what is important to do is to understand the context within which the polarity itself takes on useful meaning, which is distinctly different than simply asking the context of the decision itself.

The polarity exists as a polarity in the leader’s mind only relative to a particular frame of meaning. In this case, the polarities of compassion versus responsibility may gain useful meaning when framed in ethical terms; that, in turn, suggests checking in with individual, role, and overarching organizational values. First, one must do a values check with respect to the organization of which the leader is a leader, and a value check of the leader's intrinsic personal values. Notably, the leader’s intrinsic values as a person may not necessarily coincide with those of the assumptive role of “leader.” It is often the case that people – particularly in BAH organizations – will assume a set of behaviours and attitudes that they believe are consistent with an extrinsic expectation of the leader role. That, in part, is why otherwise good people do what turn out to be some very bad things. If there is a misalignment among the organization’s values (your organization has had this “values” conversation among its members, right?), the values of the leadership role, and the values held by the individual who occupies that role, then what you have is a mess—and importantly, no basis from which to be able to come to an appropriate decision.

When it comes to alignment of values, the leader must first be a whole human being, because without that grounding, there can be no ethical foundation for leadership; hence, there is no foundation for effective leadership in a contemporary context. The organization as an entity must understand its collective values, to ensure they are aligned with the whole values of its constituent members (specifically, all those whom the organization touches, which comprise more than those who show up for work at 9 a.m., and those entered in the accounting system).

Assuming there is consistency (more or less) in this intrinsic organizational values check, the next move is to appeal to the organization’s “Effective Theory of Action.” That is, the leader must consider the question, “will the decision have the effects that are consistent with those the organization intends?” (also known as the organization's tactility – whom it wants to touch, and how it wants to touch them). An organization’s tactility can be expressed via the five valence relationships that bind an organization’s diverse member constituencies—economic, socio-psychological, knowledge, identity, and ecological, with no one valence having precedence over any other, that is, an organization ideally strives for balance.

With this dual framing in terms of values and tactility, finding an appropriate and effective course of action that respects both polarities of being compassionate and being responsible should be either relatively straight-forward, or at the very least, rendered “discussable” and sufficiently well-framed to engage appropriate members in a useful conversation.

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