Difference between conviction and belief

The Attractions and Dangers of Conviction for Responsible Leaders

There is a lot of nice-sounding stuff written about conviction in leadership – it’s a source of authenticity, courage, charisma and purpose.

In fact, conviction is not difficult for responsible leaders. The problem comes when the values that you commit to, are not the values that are supported by the organisation’s senior leaders or systems.

I am aware of at least two situations at the moment where people I know, (good, decent people) are being harassed by their organisations for standing up for their values. In fact, they are facing what an acquaintance called, ‘the organisational immune system’.

The organisational immune system is responsible for the eviction of many whistleblowers from their organisations. Recently, the Chief Executive of the NHS, Amanda Pritchard, condemned widespread sexual abuse and even rape that takes place within the NHS, admitting it is “incredibly hard to speak up”. A survey revealed that that one in eight NHS workers – 58,000 – had reported experiencing unwanted sexual behaviour last year.

If conviction (acting on your values as opposed to self-interest) is so central to leadership, why do we get so many scandals within large organisations from Boeing to the Post Office and the Confederation of British Industry (CBI)?

What is not mentioned in the many articles I read about conviction in leadership is that, to be frank, it is often not wanted.

Why might this be?

Firstly, there is a confusion about the term values. I often refer to motivational values and ideal values. For example, a senior manager may sincerely believe that she values honesty, equality, diversity and respect. However, these are her ‘ideal values’. In fact, what drives her action are motivational values such as personal ambition, competition, winning, wealth and status. When it comes to a conflict between the two, motivational values often trump ideal values.

Secondly, those who act on motivational values such as personal ambition are much more likely to get to the top than those who are motivated by more idealistic values. These are people high in social dominance orientation. They believe in hierarchies, competition, zero-sum power games and the superiority of those who get to the top. These people do not want to be reminded that their values are, frankly, often unethical. In most of the cases of corporate scandals I have studied, the senior managers have known there was an issue but either did nothing about it or actively blocked investigation into wrongdoing.

Thirdly, for social dominants, people who raise embarrassing issues around the ethics of the organization, are viewed as trouble makers. This is based on what I call the ‘unholy alliance’ that often exists in large, powerful organisations. This is a tacit agreement between social dominants motivated by self interest, and a block of workers whose main motivation is security (the ‘colluders’). Fear seeps through many organisations like a pervasive, damp fog. People are scared of losing their job, their self-esteem, their status and their social safety. Social dominants know this and have many tricks up their sleeve for playing on these fears. So the unholy alliance consists of social dominants protecting workers, if they are compliant. These colluders are often rewarded because social dominants value loyalty above everything. So a colluder will often be promoted over others regardless of their job performance.

This leaves responsible leaders with a dilemma. Speak up when they see wrong doing and be punished, or remain silent and feel guilty. This was beautifully illustrated in Rory Stewart’s latest book, Politics on the Edge, when he was told that if he disobeyed the government in relation to a vote, he would never get promotion under the current leader. He followed his conviction and remained for years on the back benches.

Conviction is a two-edged sword with its advantages and disadvantages. The advantages include:

  • Providing meaning and purpose
  • Providing energy for change
  • Aiding decision-making
  • Cultivating charisma and followership
  • Building trust
  • Building confidence
  • Cultivating an inner sense of authenticity and honesty

However there are downsides to conviction:

  • It is dangerous – if you work for a certain kind of organization you may lose your job
  • People often feel judged when you stand up for your values
  • Many people place self interest above ideal values and don’t like being reminded of this
  • You may be vilified and punished as a result of stirring up uncomfortable feelings in others – you provoke people’s shadow side
  • You may in fact be judging people – which is not a great quality in a leader
  • It can lead to burnout and rage – wanting the world to be different from what it is, can be a source of stress and unhappiness

So what’s to be done???

Everyone will have their own answers to this question.

The obvious response is leaving your organization for another which is in alignment with your values. But there may be significant costs to this. For some it is not possible.

Then there is the option of quiet conviction. If the culture is not supportive, instead of consistently pointing out the wrongdoings, because this will only harm you, simply live out your values through your actions rather than words. Just be a damned good leader and be the best you can without overly challenging everyone. It’s difficult but it is an option.

For me, I feel it is important to balance conviction with compassion. When I reflect on the first tenet of Buddhism that life consists of suffering (or unsatisfactoriness), I imagine the silent colluders in organisations spending their lives in worry – fear of losing their job, fear of not bringing in enough money to pay the rent or the children’s school lunch, fear of not being liked….That is part of the suffering that Buddhism refers to, the suffering of the ego.

Even social dominants worry! For social dominants, life is about being on top – they are always worrying about who is winning, how to keep their power, wealth, position and status. Life is competition and ‘he’ who dies with the most toys, wins. They constantly strive to outstrip the other – and there is always someone somewhere who does better than they do. Their sense of identity, their egos are tied to their wealth and status – if they drop a notch, this is a fundamental threat to their self-esteem. I would not want their lives!

I have also learned a lot from the Bhagavad Gita. As responsible leaders we are called to do our dharma (our ‘duty’, our calling or our purpose). But we are not to attach any sense of identity to the outcomes of our actions. We cannot control the outcomes. For example, a report on climate change recently noted that it is highly likely that we will crash the 1.5 degree target and painted a gloomy picture of the likely consequences. This puts us in a complex psychological position – if we think about the consequences we feel anger, depression and fear; if we wonder what we can do about it, we feel powerless and hopeless. So all we can do is our dharma, just do what we can – accepting that the world will do what it will and that we will, despite everything, try to respond from a place of good intention and compassion. We cannot control China’s or the US or even Europe’s emissions. We can only influence what we can influence. So we do what our conviction leads us to do and retain our humanity and our hope in the resilience of our species, our communities and our families and ourselves.

In a world where there is so much negativity, conviction is needed but also needs to be balanced by compassion and peace. For me, this is an inner spiritual journey – which is very hard but there is nothing like facing the challenges confronting us with an inner sense of peace.

I wish you peace, compassion and conviction on your responsible leadership journey.

About the Author: Karen Blakeley

Karen Blakeley

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