“What’s the right thing to do to get the situation resolved?”

Tuesday 06 April 2021
Former army general, CEO and leadership coach Bill Moore explores how to bring moral purpose to your leadership
Silhouette of a head with a compass where the brain should be

While deployed on military operations, Bill Moore CBE CCMI CMgr experienced the effects of a breakdown of the rule of Law on civil society.  This was especially the case in Iraq and Sierra Leone. Leading through these crises would have been far more difficult without the British Army’s values as a basis for decision-making.

“You have to fall back on something,” Bill explains. “Falling back on your own principles or values helps navigate your way through a crisis.”

After his military career, Bill moved into the private sector where he spent six years as chief executive of The Portman Estate, whose portfolio includes 110 acres of London’s West End and two rural estates.

Today, as an executive coach, he helps people to work through the moral considerations that come with leadership. Ultimately, he says, it comes down to a simple question: “what is the right thing to do to get the situation resolved?”

Values must be grounded in something true

Having the right culture is the key success factor for any organisation, says Bill. But if you want to  embed values into that culture, you have to bring people with you.

The Portman Estate had a strong culture before he joined; one of his key tasks as the CEO was to enhance it.

Along with the board and the executive directors, he brought everyone together to determine six agreed and appropriate values. (These were revisited two years later.) Behaviours were developed across the organisation to further strengthen the culture of the company.

“We worked out how we would live those behaviours and values, rather than just portray them on a website,” he says. “Bringing people together and getting them to generate what they thought were the right values and behaviours is really powerful. It served us well, in the way we operated, how we worked with our subcontractors and customers, and dealt with issues.”

Building legitimacy takes time

Having an agreed framework gives leaders legitimacy when they inevitably have to take tough moral and ethical decisions. “You may not agree with the decision, but you can see, morally, how I got there,” says Bill.

Leaders must also engage with their people from the start. Your team needs to trust that you have the best interests of the collective organisation at heart. That initial engagement in developing values and behaviours is invaluable in this.

“In the days of a crisis, akin to military operations or a pandemic such as Covid-19, that piece of legitimacy becomes far more stark. People want to see that leaders have taken legitimate decisions. This engenders trust and, as we all know, trust is hard won and easily lost.”

You may need ‘moral courage moments’

“It may be the leader’s ultimate decision at the end of the day, but conflicts are best resolved by talking through issues and seeing other people's points of view. Sometimes there is not the time to do this fully in a crisis, but the principle is sound.”

An open culture really helps here; allowing staff to challenge decisions in a constructive way gives the leader a sense of the collective feeling.

One of the company values at The Portman Estate was moral courage; team members used to approach Bill for ‘moral courage moments’ to discuss difficult issues that they felt passionately about. “That normally meant that I had not considered the issue fully,” says Bill.

“If you're not listening to the people with whom you are working, decision-making can become a very singular activity, and will probably not produce the best results.”

The leader’s moral compass will encourage moral behaviour

Bill recalls a time when an error had been made that was affecting The Portman Estate’s relationship with some customers. During the subsequent team discussion, two people volunteered that they could have done their job better in the circumstances and outlined how they could improve. The meeting was incredibly short as a result.

“That’s the sort of culture that you want to try and engender; everybody makes mistakes. The best thing is to admit those mistakes and learn the lessons from them. That's where moral purpose comes in; it’s not just about commercial gain, it's about doing what's right for either the people involved or the community or your own company's reputation.”

Embedding an ethical culture isn’t easy, but it’s crucial that the senior leadership is fully on board. “The senior leadership is vital in this process. In most businesses the senior team is technically competent. Where improvements are sometimes needed is in senior leaders’ behaviours. This cohort’s actions are more visible and whatever they do has a wider effect on the organisation as a whole.” Employing a consultant or coach can help the team explore all the options.

As a leader yourself, it’s useful to assess and reflect on your own moral compass. “Understanding your own moral compass is a key leadership characteristic. It helps shape your decision-making and enables a leader to both sculpt the values of an organisation, and act when there is a danger of these values being breached.”

For resources on how you can lead with a moral purpose, log into ManagementDirect and check out the many resources that could help you. By searching for ‘leadership style’ you’ll find checklists like understanding management and leadership styles and models like this one on transformational leadership.
For self-analysis on where to get started, log into the Career Development Centre.

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