Our political leaders present models of behavior that are likely to be imitated. Their example may be interpreted as defining the characteristics of success itself. For this reason, it is imperative that those of us who write about leadership give voice to the necessary virtues of success that will sustain our culture, companies and country, particularly when they are different from those on display today. Many Americans are losing faith in our nation’s leadership while those outside our country are losing faith in America’s ability to provide leadership to a world longing for those very freedoms we enjoy.
For this reason, I want to explore the virtues of leaders, the principles and characteristics that are a necessity for a world that requires collaboration and suffers from conflict. I won’t bother to point out the variance between current behavior of our leaders and these virtues. That will be obvious.
In its most simple form, leaders throughout history have created order and mobilized energy and effort of their followers in only two fundamental ways. The first is by authoritarian control, dominance and fear. The second is by creating trust and loyalty – the force of attraction. You could describe these as “soft power” or “hard power.” Every leader tends to rely more on one or the other and to some degree every organization requires a measure of each. The need for hard or soft power shifts with a transition from crisis to stability, from war to peace, and from the simple to complex systems of organization.
The flow of history demands a shift from authoritarian control and the motivation of fear to the virtues that lead to attraction, trust and loyalty. In a simple organization, such as the primitive hunting party, the family farm, or small craft shop, it was possible for a leader to rule by force or hard power. The members of that organization had few or no options. They could not put their resume on a website and search the “100 Best Companies” to work for. But, as the circle of human activity expanded to include more members, specialized organizations, and higher levels of skill, the options of the individual increased. Mobility increased with complexity and the virtues of soft power became a competitive advantage.
The Logic of Non-Zero Sum Behavior
Robert Wright, in his excellent book Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny argues that a Darwinian selection process is hard wiring into our genetic code a capacity and requirement for cooperative behavior. The more complex the organization or society, the greater the need for inter-dependence, and therefore the greater the requirement for what he calls non-zero sum behavior. For much of human history wars were fought to increase the ownership of land, a fixed or inelastic commodity. The game was zero sum: if I captured half of your land I would be more wealthy and powerful and you would lose an equivalent amount of wealth or power. This zero-sum logic a pre-capitalist assumption. It is an assumption of capitalist economics that the ability to create wealth is elastic, not fixed. You may invest in my company and I may invest in your company and we may cooperate and both become more successful by capturing greater market share or even creating new markets that did not previously exist. This is a non-zero-sum assumption and it requires collaborative behavior. It requires trust or soft-power. Zero-sum assumptions and behavior are destructive of cooperative behavior and therefore of the creation of new wealth.
“The psychic unity of humankind is the reason that around the world, on every continent, cultural evolution has moved in the same direction. The arrow of human history begins with the biology of human nature…. The arrow, as I’ve noted, points toward larger quantities of non-zero-sumness. As history progresses, human beings find themselves playing non-zero-sum games with more and more other human beings. Interdependence expands, and social complexity grows in scope and depth.”
The degree of non-zero-sum behavior varies by industry. If you are a real estate developer much of your success is based on single transactions. You deal in hard capital and hard labor. If you buy a property for a good price and build a building that you then sell, there are only two time bound transactions. One party may have little trust in the other, but they may be convinced that the “deal” is a good deal. On the other hand, manufacturing automobiles is entirely different. Success is based on building brand loyalty and developing a network of suppliers, a supply chain, that you can trust to partner in continuous improvement. That is not a singular transaction, but a marriage, an ongoing relationship that requires high levels of trust and years of close collaboration to succeed. Designing and manufacturing automobiles requires intellectual capital more than material capital. The real estate developer may learn to rely on zero-sum transactions and hard power where the auto executive must learn to rely on collaborative behavior and soft power.
The development of business organizations, from the family farm to public corporations and more complex diversified and multi-national organizations required the progressive development of collaborative behavior and systems. This development exactly parallels the development from tribes to city and nation states to international treaties and organizations. It should not surprise us that a leader drawn from a more primitive transactional business, a zero-sum mindset, would find himself uncomfortable in an inter-dependent global economic system. Retreating from the Trans Pacific Partnership and questioning other multi-national treaties and organizations has little to do with the reality of job creation or economic advantage and much more to do with a psychological insecurity brought on by complexity and the requirements of inter-dependence and trust.
Possibly the greatest asset of the United States is the two great oceans, the Atlantic and Pacific, that have provided a significant measure of security not available to a European nation. For this reason, European nations and the European Union, following two world wars that destroyed their continent, are more appreciative of the power of cooperation and inter-dependence than are Americans. It is a luxury of our geography to proclaim “America First” as if we did not depend on other nations. To a European ear, it sounds much too close to the sound of “Deutschland Uber Alles,” a rallying cry to cheering populist crowds that led to the death of fifty million people and the destruction of the continent. The Third Reich and the wars of Europe for several hundred preceding years were based on zero-sum thinking and the reliance on hard power. The European Union, as well as other international treaties, are all built on the assumption of collaboration and non-zero-sum logic. They are consistent with the seeming inevitable march of human destiny.
The nature of work itself has also transformed the requirement of leadership from hard to soft power and collaboration. The industrial age moved us to a new age of capital in which ownership was shared and traded on open markets and increasingly the essential labor became less manual and more intellectual or knowledge-based. The information economy has created a third stage of transformation that requires higher levels of intellectual capital, high levels of collaboration, and the ownership of the critical capital is neither money nor land, but the skills of software developers and engineers. This capital lies within the individual person who can move from one company to another with relative ease. This high personal control requires abandoning the motivation of fear or authoritarian control and demands creative means of building collaboration and trust into our organizational systems.
The Ten Virtues of Leadership in a Non-Zero Sum World
Every leader and every organization must decide what cultural attributes and what virtues of leadership will lead to success in a world of collaboration and interdependence. I suggest that if your organization and your leadership held itself to account for the pursuit of the following ten virtues, you would assure the creation of a high performing culture of collaboration that would attract the best possible talent.
Benjamin Franklin was famous for his self-improvement plan. Franklin was at the same time both self-assured and humble. He recognized his own weaknesses and set about the task of self-improvement in a systematic manner. He identified thirteen virtues and focused on only one each week. Each day he wrote in his diary whether or not he had behaved in a manner that reflected that week’s virtue. It is a good model of self-improvement and let me suggest you attempt the same. Some of his thirteen virtues are among those that follow.
The Virtue of Worthy Purpose
The most fundamental form of motivation is a desire to be worthy, to have a meaningful life and legacy. We will sacrifice our time and energy, we will be attracted and loyal to an organization we believe to have a worthy purpose and to a leader who can communicate that purpose.
The Virtue of Unity
To be united, to have social bonds and trust, is a psychological need as old as our life in the cave. The development of trust in our group is one of the first lessons that is learned in the family and the failure of this learning is likely to result in lifelong dysfunction. All organizational systems require the creation of unified effort, pulling in the same direction, and it is the function of leaders to create this unity. All conflict and war is the result of leaders who sought power through division, retreating to contracting circles, the fear of others, rather than expanding the circle of unity. Cultures in retreat shrink the circle of influence, building walls that signify their loss of faith in their own future.
The Virtue of Justice
Justice is founded on the twin pillars of reward and punishment. A just society is one in which reward and punishment are dispensed with equity, independent of gender, race, or other accidents of birth. When justice equitably follows behavior or performance the organization or society will elicit trust and loyalty on the part of its members.
The Virtue of Empathy
We will follow a leader who demonstrates that she understands our condition and concerns. Great generals, from Alexander forward, have demonstrated genuine love for their soldiers. John Adams said that “There is something unnatural and odious in a government a thousand leagues off. A whole government of our own choice, managed by persons whom we love, revere, and can confide in, has charms in it for which men will fight.” Empathic leaders create affection and affiliation with their followers, while those lacking empathy instill alienation and distrust.
The Virtue of Diversity
Diversity has become so associated with requirements and legalities that too many leaders have lost an understanding of its virtue. Give me a room of ten white male accountants discussing any problem and the matter will be decided quickly. Give me a room of ten individuals with different backgrounds, education and talents, and the discussion will take longer but the considerations will expand to include dozens of possibilities, and the result will be a creative solution with far more potential. Diversity of experience and talents is a competitive advantage in every group.
The Virtue of Excellence
Those who achieve excellence in any field never consider themselves to be there. They are in motion. They are engaged in a pursuit that is never ending. They possess what I like to call creative dissatisfaction. This is the awareness of the gap between who I am, where I am and who I could be or where I could be. For every individual, or every company, there is always a gap between the current state and an ideal state in the future. Those who achieve excellence are dissatisfied and that dissatisfaction causes them to strive to close that gap. Leaders instill a sense of either complacency or excellence by engaging in continuous improvement and self-reflection.
The Virtue of Inclusion
I will be loyal to that which I help to create. This is the fundamental law of democracy. Even a government with which we disagree, will gain our respect if we believe we had the opportunity to have our say, to register our vote. We will not gain the loyalty or trust of employees if they feel themselves to be mere labor, machines in somebody else’s sport. The purpose of creating an organization in which every member is on a team that contributes their mind as well as their labor is to instill this loyalty.
The Virtue of Empiricism
Dr. Deming repeatedly called on managers to manage by the facts, to know the facts, to experiment and to observe changes in data. Empiricism is learning from what the environment is telling you. Science is based on empiricism, the discovery of what is true and what is not true by observing cause and effect relationships. All experiments are an exercise in empiricism. In the future managers and employees will be scientists. Rather than rely on someone “above” telling them what is best for them to do, they will be conducting experiments at their own work location to learn what will work and not work. They will then share this knowledge with others doing similar work.
The Virtue of Integrity
Integrity is the foundation upon which must be built all other virtues and upon which rest the trust and relationship between individual and corporation. The ability to discriminate between what is honest and what lacks honesty is a skill that is critical to the establishment of the unity of people. We live in a society of law and legalism in which the lawyer has become the corporate high priest of right and wrong. That which is honest has become confused with that which is permissible by law. When managers are able to discern and act on that which is honest in spirit, trustful business relationships will be sustained.
The Virtue of Humility
Arrogance is the enemy of improvement and the opposite of humility. To continuously improve, the practice the virtue of empiricism, one must be humble in one’s knowledge. Arrogance suppresses the free expression of others, while humility invites free thought and creative acts. “In a humble state, you learn better. I can’t find anything else very exciting about humility, but at least there’s that.” John Dooner. But, just that, is a very great deal and the root of all future success.
 Wright, Robert. NonZero – The Logic of Human Destiny. Vintage Books, New York, 2001.