The Rabbi who gave the sermon was compelling. She was a bright, young woman - an engaging speaker.There was a great balance of wisdom, self-deprecation, and charm in her talk. But then she started to use a word that landed with a kind of thud. Like a stone on the windscreen, it shattered my picture of her. It was the word leadership. Leadership, leadership, leadership. It came thick and fast and I started to feel uneasy. But I realised it wasn’t because of her, it was me.
She was using the word in an appropriate context. She was talking about how young people need to develop leadership skills in order to face the complex world. It is exactly the kind of thing I would say – I do often say in fact! But in my heart I felt a yearning. In all this talk about ‘leadership’, are we missing a bigger point? Surely what young people need, what we all need, beyond our ability to lead, is to learn just to be good people?
I think the fact that this was a sermon, in a place of worship, hit home with me even harder. It is as if the word ‘leadership’ has become a kind of screen behind which we hide a deeper subtext, one of simple ‘goodness’ with which we are slightly uncomfortable. It is as if ‘being good’ makes us feel embarrassed, a little awkward and vulnerable. Whereas leadership is a nice, agentic, macho word that makes us feel stronger on the outside than we actually feel on the inside. It is like when we talk about emotional intelligence, when really the words intimacy, caring and even love, are too hot to handle.
And we in the learning and development industry are responsible, because perhaps we lack a bit of courage. Maybe we should be challenging the organisations we work in to talk about being good people, not because of the business benefits this may hold, but because we have a moral duty to do so? And yet I believe that in business, there would be benefits of goodness, albeit as a by-product. Wouldn’t many of the gifts we crave, such as efficiency, engagement, effectiveness, even dare I say profit, may be delivered by good people, doing good things together? Is being good the next step to building better organisations and communities, as a side effect of building a better society?
A short story:
I sat with the Production Director in his office. Usually our conversation was about production flows, quantities, staffing and the management of the mechanics of the plant. But this conversation was different. This time we talked about fear. We talked about loss, life and love. He cried a little and so did I. It was as if the walls dissolved, both inside us and around us. It wasn’t ‘leadership coaching’ anymore. It was two people in a room, having a conversation, just trying to be good people, making a healing connection. And it was more productive, profound and perhaps more impactful for all that. Maybe he will be a better leader because he is a good person – I don’t know for sure, but that wasn’t the point of it.
‘But what does it mean to be good?’ This is what people say to me when I suggest goodness as an alternative to leadership. This is almost a killer blow: how we can we talk about being a good person when we can’t agree on what it means to be good? One man’s beef is another’s poison; goodness is subjective etc. etc.
I must say that (in a fit of mild irritation) I think this may be a cop out. Perhaps we do know, in our heart of hearts what it means for us to be good, well-enough at least not to be bad; well enough to be able to spot when, in the midst of a set of choices, we know what we need to practice more of to be at least a little bit good?
If you want some calibration on this, just watch a soap opera. Any will do, but my favourite is EastEnders. In it there’s a formula you can spot: when something happens, say a wallet is accidentally dropped by someone, or someone gets angry about something, the other person involved in the drama will always choose the wrong thing, the bad thing to do. The wallet will be picked up and hidden and the money in it used for a selfish purpose, or the angry person will be confronted by returned rage, (‘What’s THAT supposed to mean?!’) rather than compassionate listening or empathy. Soap operas work by constantly stringing along the plot through this simple mechanism; when anyone faces a crossroads, they always choose to go the opposite way to the good. Importantly, they usually aren’t portrayed as bad people, but as ordinary people making persistently bad choices. So I would say this shows us that most of know pretty clearly how to practice being good. Just write your life in the opposite way to a soap opera.
And how would this help us, say at work? It seems to me that a bit of goodness, or ‘right action’ would make for exactly the kind of work environment that would lead to engagement, performance and motivation. People would be more honest with each other, more connected, more engaged; the intangible stuff that delivers all the tangible stuff that businesses crave.
Now I don’t want to be preachy and I am definitely not aiming for some moral high ground. It is never up to me to judge whether someone else is good. But I can make a judgement call about myself. Perhaps practising being a good leader is a just one aspect of practising being a good person?