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Posted 21 December 2009

Again the season of pious words and dirty deeds is upon us. Why is it always in the run-up to Christmas that business leaders go to great lengths to pretend that they are not remotely arrogant, ruthless and almost monomanically selfish, but knowledgeable, caring, inclusive … indeed terribly good with people, cuddly pets, colour coordination and ikebana?

Why do they, year after year, force that hypocritical spiel upon their underlings? Don’t they know that they know? Even as the lower ranks get drunk on eggnog and snog behind the filing cabinet at Christmas parties, the selfsame lower ranks know only too well that task forces are already at work drawing up lists which jobs will be axed after the holidays.

It amazes me that business leaders seem to believe that people are too thick to distinguish between their words and their deeds. Actually, people tend to learn very quickly that every time their bosses tell them “be realistic” they are asking them to compromise their ideals.

That’s why people do not buy into their leaders’ pious words. Just watching telly in the evening has made them realise that actions and responsibility have been separated. Leaders cock up and still walk away with a golden handshake, while investors lose their money and employees their jobs.

It’s the disconnection of actions from responsibility that has contributed to our current malaise.

Yet, without a realignment of the two, there will be no respect. Without respect no trust. And without trust no sense of community. 

Societies, like companies, aren’t held together because people share a common destiny as frustrated unmotivated cynics waiting to get out at the next opportunity.  People do not want to be kept on their toes or like to feel stretched. If they did, they would not have donned a suit and joined a company but would have auditioned for a corps de ballet and run around as men in tights.

Philosophers say that what binds us to each other is our shared belief that there is a moral purpose to it all, that our behaviour should be governed by what is right rather than by the consideration “can I get away with it”?   

There are no guarantees that the gap between actions and responsibility, between what is and what ought to be, can be closed. But it is up to us to try.

Jeffrey Immelt, CEO of General Electric, said recently: “Leaders do share a common responsibility to narrow the gap between the weak and the strong. The residue of the past was a more individualistic "win-lose" game. The 21st century is about building bigger and diverse teams: teams that accomplish tough measures with a culture of respect."

He said it all: respect, trust, responsibility are at the heart of progress.

 

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