Leadership and the Golden Rule
Written by Simon Whitbread
By Simon Whitbread, Leadership Development Director, Windsor Leadership
The 'Golden Rule', as it was named in the 17th century, extols the concept of reciprocity in our dealings with others - 'treat others as you would like others to treat you'. It can also be expressed as, 'do not treat others in ways that you would not like to be treated yourself'. However you choose to think about it, it helps us to consider how we behave towards other people and the implications of our actions.
It doesn’t take a giant leap to extend this concept to our approach to leadership. It would be reasonable to say that 'you should lead others in a way that you wish to be led' or, conversely, 'you shouldn't lead others in a way that you wouldn’t like to be led'.
In doing this though, we should remember a couple of things. Firstly, we shouldn’t use it to justify bad behaviour by saying, 'I wouldn't mind if I were treated that way', even more so when it is not actually true. Secondly, we should not skip a fundamental aspect of this principle and jump straight into specific behaviours or actions. When we consider how we want to be treated or led, the foundation on which we should build our understanding is that we all want to be regarded as individuals.
Balancing our leadership style with the needs of those we lead
Leading and being led is immensely personal; no two people can lead in the same way and no two people want to be led the same. Which means we are left with the challenge of balancing our leadership style and personal authenticity with the needs of the individuals that we seek to lead.
Reflecting on this, our first step should be to find an environment where we can lead in a way that best suits our own style and preference. It sounds obvious but if you are a big picture, hands off type, who likes to skip from project to project, then it’s going to be hard to lead in an environment that requires attention to detail, focus on tight deadlines, and a hands-on approach. As basic as that may sound it is amazing how many leaders struggle because their own style is so far removed from the organisational context.
Participants on our programmes regularly debate the concept of whether you can lead an organisation that you don’t have any technical knowledge of. Can a leader from one sector move to another and be as successful? The answer is often a resounding ‘maybe’ and far from being about the technical knowledge, it is often much more about human traits, defined by our personality and communication preferences, which draw people into working in an industry in the first place.
So, if you want to thrive as a leader and your style does not match the role in which you are working, maybe it is time to think about a change. Sometimes talented leaders have only been able to properly flourish once they have found the place in which they belong.
Public, Private and Personal Leadership and the Golden Rule
Once you have found an environment you are comfortable leading in, there are still a few contextual factors that affect how you tackle leadership in that environment. James Scouller’s work on leadership explores three different levels. According to him leadership operates on a public, private and personal level. At each level there are distinct aspects that need to be addressed, however there are many overlapping areas and interdependencies between them.
The outer level, public leadership, refers to how we lead groups of people, whether it is small teams or whole organisations. Activities we might carry out in this capacity include sharing a vision, structuring an organisation, motivating a team and a whole host of other things.
At this outer level it is useful to reflect on the negative form of the Golden Rule, ‘do not treat others in ways you would not want to be treated yourself’. As it is not possible to define one way in which everyone wants to be led, it is sometimes simpler to talk about what people do not want. No one wants to be consistently lied to or kept in the dark, no one wants to feel like they are being treated unfairly or unequally to their colleagues. It wouldn’t take long to create a list of commonly held principles for any organisation which defines what people don’t want. Each year lots of organisations across the globe use Gallup’s Q12 employee engagement survey in this way to measure some of these commonly held ideals. Whilst not all of them can be directly linked to a leader’s approach, they all speak of the culture that a leader creates and enables within the organisation they seek to lead.
The middle layer, private leadership, refers to how we lead individuals. The one-to-one relationship of two people within an organisation. Here is probably the simplest interpretation of the rule, ‘lead others in a way that you wish to be led’. To do this you need to have a conversation with them to find out how they want to be led, not to debate your expectations or the outcomes they need to deliver, but to discuss how you can best help them achieve these. In most cases people know what they need, to enable them to be their most effective and develop and grow in their role. Where they are not sure, it’s your job as a leader to help them discover this.
An aspect of private leadership relates to an important skill that all leaders need to develop - emotional intelligence. Understanding your own emotions and the impact these have on others, as well as being able to read other people’s emotions and help them to understand their own, is an essential part of being an effective leader.
The final inner level is personal leadership, and it refers to how we lead ourselves. As well as including knowledge and skill, and our attitude towards others, it also deals with our self-mastery. How we approach leading ourselves is as important as how we choose to lead others. On first thoughts you might not think that the Golden Rule has anything to say about this. However, there is one last way that we can reflect on this principle. The Golden Rule teaches us to treat others as we would like to be treated ourselves, it could also be said that we should not treat ourselves in a way we wouldn’t treat others. A common failure of leaders in an organisation is to consistently take a ‘martyr approach’ to leadership.
Recognising your own needs and the needs of your organisation
We often recognise and speak about the damage caused by leaders who think only of themselves, but we rarely speak out about those who neglect themselves in the belief that this is of benefit to those they lead. I would argue that organisations don’t generally need martyr leadership in the same way they don’t need heroic leadership. Whilst there might be some occasions where one or the other is needed in the short term, consistent use of either approach can be at the detriment of the leader being able to continue effectively in their role. Ironically both often stem from a belief that you are the only person who can solve a problem or ‘save the day’. Heroic leaders do so by considering themselves more important, whilst martyrs consider themselves to be worthless. Neither is good for the individual or the organisation.
Again, developing your self-awareness and emotional intelligence can be essential in understanding what you need to do in this space. Equally as essential, is recognising what you need as a leader and the self-care that you need to show yourself.
So, as you reflect on your own leadership and how to shape your public, private and personal approach, think about the Golden Rule and the many ways it speaks to us. It can have a positive impact not only on our organisations and those we seek to lead, but also on ourselves.