Leadership and Morality

How can we manage complex problems that can only be solved involving different parties with different interests and backgrounds?

In order to be able to solve complex problems, we first need the ability of transboundary perception as well as a personal maturity that allows us to draw our own conclusions from perception and to represent them. The former requires mindfulness and a perceptual horizon that extends beyond the immediate field of activity. The latter presupposes that we have developed principles against the background of which we evaluate what we perceive. Principles are a necessary condition for acting on one’s own responsibility, an action that everyone is responsible for to themselves and against the background of Kant’s imperative. They prevent unreflective, directive action and opportunistic behavior. They lead to decisions whose consequences we are personally responsible for in the sense of Heinz von Foerster, who recommended managing effects, not intentions. These qualities can be fostered through education and through leadership.

However, complex problems often cannot be solved alone; rather, they require the judgment and consensus of many. Therefore, the will to allow diversity and the ability to engage in constructive discourse are also necessary prerequisites for an effective solution. We often block ourselves mentally in the search for truly effective solutions because we define our mental boundaries too narrowly. Therefore, it is important to expand our solution space. We need to replace demarcation, positioning and opposition with togetherness and a joint search for solutions in a dialog. This is particularly necessary in view of the increasing specialization and differentiation of disciplines. Truly innovative, truly groundbreaking solutions often emerge in the overlapping areas between professional disciplines and between cultures. Obviously, we increasingly need people who understand how to moderate the discourse at these interfaces.

It is not only necessary that leaders possess these qualities, but that they encourage the development of these skills in their organizations. This leadership task is to create appropriate frameworks within which diversity can flourish and constructive discourse can occur. Acting on one’s own responsibility and developing solutions in dynamic structures requires that leaders foster commitment and the development of collective decision-making processes. To avoid disrupting the emergence of functioning regulatory mechanisms, leaders must learn to trust and not intervene unnecessarily. This also requires a certain tolerance for error. But solving complex problems requires networked thinking and action that feeds on the organization itself. Increasing complexity acts as a driver for a paradigm shift in leadership. I have coined the term “enzymatic management” for this pioneering, facilitative style of leadership. Like enzymes, leaders cause things to happen without involving themselves. While they are a formative part of the system, they deliberately stay out of operational decisions because they know that the networked expertise of confident and communicative people on the ground creates a constructive group dynamic that leads to the best decisions in complex situations.

Such complex phenomena are found not only in microeconomic environments, but also at the global level. Global climate change, global population movements, demographic shifts, the risks of globally interconnected financial transactions, global competition for access to resources are some examples. Individuals cannot bring about solutions, only joint and concerted efforts can. If we fail to address these problems, they will harm everyone. Global problems need global answers. In terms of the microcosm of business practice, this means that comprehensive problems must also be solved in a comprehensive manner. In any case, this requires a constructive, solution-oriented dialog between all parties involved that excludes opportunistic behavior. The challenge is to enforce such an attitude, which promotes the good of the overall system, in a world that primarily rewards individual, economic success.

How do we achieve morally justifiable, self-responsible action?

In order for self-responsible behavior to be ethically justifiable in our society, especially in business practice, it is advisable to address the concepts of morality and ethics.

Moral norms are not written down like laws and declared valid and binding for everyone in a community. They are a general behavioral repertoire, a cultural asset that is adopted by the individual from the society in which he or she is integrated and is processed, accepted and further developed by each individual.

But it is only by critically questioning moral norms, by reflecting on morality, that we examine moral norms for their conformity with our own ideas and develop our own values from them. This process of reflection and consideration is what we call ethics. In developing our values, it is important to know that we are often limited in fact, but free in principle. Only on this condition of freedom in principle, which is after all the basis of our constitution, can we decide how far we want to consciously restrict our freedom voluntarily, out of conviction and against the background of our value concepts through morals.

Particularly in the case of heterogeneous participants, the question also arises as to which morals should be followed. It is important to realize that there can be no assimilation to a common ethical model. This is what cultural relativism teaches us. However, we can certainly agree on certain common basic beliefs that are beyond question by all participants. In this way, fundamental norms are agreed upon that are no longer negotiable. They are not the result of a dialog, but the basis for a dialog on concrete challenges. These fundamentals should no longer be discussed or relativized. It is in the context of global social problems that the unbreakable human rights have been agreed upon. Such efforts were attempted 4,000 years ago by Confucius, 2,000 years ago by Plato, and in our time by Hans Küng with his Global Ethic Project. Such foundations must also be created in economic practice as a starting point for dialog, so as not to fall back again and again and question fundamental things for negotiation tactical reasons and discuss them anew.

Beyond that, however, it is also important to take clear positions that are supported by the respective individual values. These positions reveal more far-reaching convictions of the parties on which a consensus should be reached if possible. The clear expression of one’s own principles promotes better assessment and mutual reliability among the discussion partners.

On this basis of shared fundamental values on the one hand and more far-reaching positions on the other, a constructive dialog characterized by tolerance can take place. Such a dialog is fruitful if the participants neither pursue a general denial nor make maximum demands. Otherwise, no solution will be attainable. The tolerance of the discussion partners forms the scope for negotiation. The more tolerant the participants in the discourse are, the greater the probability of a solution. Tolerance must not, of course, go so far as to tolerate intolerance on the part of other interlocutors. This would also nip any attempt at rapprochement in the bud. Ideally, the tolerance of all participants is similarly pronounced.

Constructive dialog based on principles and tolerance at the same time is not just an “ethical dry run,” but creates practical added value that translates into better results. Ethically defensible behavior can thus bring economic value.

In the enzymatic sense, executives do not have a formative function in terms of content, but they do have a function in creating the prerequisites. In addition, managers can certainly moderate the process of value identification. For example, they can ask the question from where the members of their organization, and thus ultimately the organization itself, draw their values. Are the values drawn from the environment or from an inner self-reflection on morals?

Such a process of finding values must come from within. It needs time to mature, but also guidance. A guiding principle that is not internalized should be avoided, because it remains ineffective. But once awareness of one’s own values has matured, people and organizations become reliable partners who do not need specific instructions to know how to behave in certain situations, but are fundamentally solidified and can handle situations with confidence. In this way, leaders can make a decisive contribution to the stability of organizations.


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