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This article was first published in the November/December 2019 International edition of Accounting and Business magazine.

A walk back through the management texts of yesteryear reveals a fascination with what managers actually did throughout the day. Today, a combination of technology and process redesign means there is very little that remains mysterious in this domain. Focus has instead shifted to ways in which we can develop great leaders (as well as managers) who arguably, hold in their hands more of the future success of their organisation.

The difference between leadership and management can be debated. But if we believe that leadership is about the discretionary decisions to be made for the business while management is about ‘simply’ delivering consistently and predictably on predetermined plans, then having great leaders at the top of the organisation really matters. And particularly so when it comes to confronting ethical and legal dilemmas.

A whole industry of competency models and personality assessments has grown up to satisfy the thirst to find ways to develop the most effective leaders. In the right hands, such tools can play a powerful role in personal and organisational change. They help guide and provide feedback on how the leader goes about their role with their colleagues and in the wider business culture.

When competencies are infused with an enterprise’s values, they can provide a clear steer not just on the ‘how’ but also on some of the ‘what’ of the leadership role. ‘Do the right thing’ is the rule for aspirational leadership (and employee) behaviour in more than one organisation from Amsterdam to Zhengzhou. But neither that nor any other such aspiration can ever hope to capture the range of ethical dilemmas that face most leaders. In fact, having tight definitions of the organisation’s required leadership behaviour has not proven to be an insurance policy against corporate scandal or malpractice.

So if leadership competencies and behaviour cannot be relied on to put a brake on unethical or illegal behaviour for the individual leader, what can?

Listening to the body

Perhaps we need to strip away the ‘industrialisation’ of leadership and get back to basics to discover what sits at the heart of leadership – literally the heart. Courage comes from the French word for heart (coeur), which used to be considered the seat of all feelings. Nowadays, neuro-cardiologists have the technology to measure and confirm that the heart has a functional brain in its own right. Leaders who can tap into the innate intelligence of the heart’s ‘brain’ are able to draw on a richer wisdom. It is this head-heart connection that helps the leader focus on what’s important and right in the face of moral or ethical choices.

But attempts to encourage leaders to step out of their head and into their body so that they can listen to what is really being said by others, and not just hear what they want to hear, are typically met with raised eyebrows and uncompromising scepticism in most boardrooms. After all, it’s not what leaders traditionally have been trained to do, and it flies in the face of strategic analyses, formal presentations and spreadsheets. For most leaders, tapping into feelings is unfamiliar, uncomfortable and takes practice.

So what is the practice? As with changing any habit, the first step is to have the desire to do something differently. After that, it’s as much about not doing as it is about doing.

Leaders can easily fall into the reacting-thinking loop in the face of unwelcome news. Imagine a leader being given information that, for example, suggests that safety or quality standards have been breached. Quite likely, their reacting-thinking loop pushes them to respond with a challenge back, a verbal justification or a jump into analytical problem solving.

Adding in a feeling-believing loop offers the leader a broader sense of what’s possible. Neuroscience suggests that this loop helps the leader make use of, rather than run away from, how they feel about the unwelcome news, and therefore face what’s important or a priority. This loop also opens up the relational connection between the leader and the person who delivered the news, thereby helping to break down hierarchy and encouraging others to speak up. In turn, this leads to a more open environment where mistakes can be properly rectified before they risk escalating into corporate scandal.

The feeling-believing loop

This practice is not about stopping reacting or thinking. Rather, being able to access feeling-believing simply offers the leader wisdom beyond their positional power and into the ways they connect with people and the communities they serve. The leader’s thinking that then follows is based on a broader foundation of input rather than on a knee-jerk emotional reaction. To ‘not do’ in the moment takes courage: to pause, connect with and reflect on what the leader is actually feeling aren’t typically welcome guests on the business agenda.

If listening is one side of the leadership coin, then speaking the leader’s truth is the other.

Courageous conversations require the leader to stay engaged with how they’re feeling, to feel ok with any discomfort they may be experiencing, and to speak their truth – to peers, senior or junior colleagues, or shareholders. And after they’ve told their story, they need to manage any reactions others may have. History tells us that authentic moments of truth on the part of a scandal-hit CEO do more to rally a share price than any amount of half-hidden untruths or justifications. Rather than relying on an elaborate leadership construct to tell them what’s right, leaders merely need to look inside themselves: the answer was there all the time.

Alison Young is a director of Leaders in Change.