God and Leadership – theology and ethics in business

By April 19, 2015Theology

Faith in Business is about workplaces. And what characterises most modern workplaces is their secularity, if only because diverse workforces rarely share the same religious belief systems. This immediately presents the Christian leader with a technical problem. Is it legitimate for them to appeal to an authority whose existence others doubt? And this in turn raises these questions: by declaring their beliefs at work, are they falling foul of HR policy or Human Rights legislation; are they abusing their seniority with impressionable subordinates; and are they courting reputational damage in terms of career progression? Or, by not being ‘out’ as Christian (or any other religion, come to that), are they themselves being inappropriately silenced and failing to role-model integrity; and failing to tap into an important ethical resource that can really help business; and risking spiritual damage by failing to bear witness?

We all resolve these dilemmas in different ways, but there are a few frameworks that help to illuminate this landscape, and to explain where theology, ethics and leadership meet.

First, Theology. Faith in Business’s Director, Richard Higginson, supervised my PhD here, part of which was an exercise in theological typography. In a rather sophomore way, I devised a scheme that attempts to explain all theology ever. You can watch me on youtube explaining it at the William Temple Conference. To summarise, theology tends to be either theology about content (what we should believe, etc) or about process (how we should do theology itself). And these theologies are deployed either in a ‘family’ context to other Christians, or in contexts where a shared belief cannot be assumed (e.g., public square debates). If the context is the former, belief is shared. So while there may still be differences of opinion, for instances about the precise nature of God, all parties agree that God exists. If theology is deployed in the second context, a context of asymmetric belief, like a workplace, there is not this level of agreement about the fundamentals.

If there is a dispute in the first case, and we ask, why? why? why? we will tend to get back rather quickly to the basic authority of Scripture, or the person of Christ, or the activity of God. Of course we’ll still argue about these, and how tradition and the Church have interpreted them, but the debate tends to rest safely there, because at heart we all believe that a Christian God exists. But in secular spaces, or those spaces where there is no common faith narrative, the why? why? why? tends to stop rather uncomfortably with the messenger: because I say so. Which is why being a Christian in the workplace feels rather exposed, because the person of the messenger becomes at least as important as the message, because it is the warrant and backing for it.

I should say here that this is also why the Church has got rather keen on data. If you are struggling for legitimacy, this is one of those warrants and backings that is accepted by the Academy. This probably also explains why theologians are happiest talking technically about theology within the academy – where this is a perfectly worthy occupation – rather than getting cracking in the public square more generally.

This being the case, we should absolutely expect personal attacks on any Christian who dares to speak out. Aristotle regarded ad hominem attacks as fallacious, but in our context they are par for the course. The Green Report, anyone? And everyone hates a hypocrite, particularly one who is ‘holier than thou’.

So Christians in business have to be extremely tough, particularly if by being leaders they have made themselves visible both within their organisation and beyond it. Luckily we’re hugely well-resourced by our faith, with access to rich ideas on vocation, sacrifice, humility, sin, love, virtue and reward. Fine, but just coping isn’t enough.

Why? Because there is a lot of data out there to suggest that business is in deep moral crisis. Partly this is because the triumph of utilitarianism as the prevailing ethic drives a technical approach to maximising ‘utility’ that encourages a case-by-case tactic which is rootless and relative. Partly this is because as you rise to the top of ever-larger organisations, your environment becomes more male, more competitive, and more populated by people who have studied economics or have MBAs. All of these things correlate with poorer ethical decision-making. And partly – and most devastatingly – it is because as Machiavelli most brilliantly pointed out, perception is more influential than reality.

Let’s unpack this last one – perception is more influential than reality. This for leaders is actually a technical matter. As you get more senior, you take on responsibility for more levels of the organisational pyramid, until you end up in rather isolated splendour in the boardroom, where the chances of you having ‘face-time’ with the vast majority of your staff are basically zero. Like a lighthouse, your job is to beam, rather consistently and brightly, and hope that all your vessels stay safely on the horizon, busily fishing, because if they loom close it usually means they’re about to get shipwrecked. This technical remoteness in turn gives rise to some standard behaviours, beautifully described by Art Kleiner’s Core Group Theory. He identifies 3 dynamics, three of which can prove particularly distorting if the leader remains unaware of them. First, Amplification. Cues from the leader can be distorted, so a bad mood brought on by a bad night’s sleep can be interpreted by followers as displeasure or dreadful news, or a flip comment can be misinterpreted, amplified and telegraphed through the parish. Perception, not reality. Second, Facsimile. Because they don’t always have ready access to the original, followers develop their own version of their leader, like an angel on their shoulder, to act as the yardstick in decision-making: what would the boss want us to do? If the person has an inexact knowledge of your mind, perhaps because of time pressure, distance, or fear, this can lead to incorrect decisions being made in your name. Again, perception, not reality. Third, Priorities. If the leader pays attention to one particular metric or behaviour, the organisation morphs into position behind it. If you pay attention to the wrong things (shareholder value?), you can inadvertently shift the whole organisation’s energy in the wrong direction. Again, perceived priorities, perhaps not actual priorities, because actions speak louder than words.

This is bad news for leaders. Most leaders seem to suffer to varying degrees from imposter syndrome and think they are just about to be found out. So the idea that you could be quite this powerful is frankly terrifying. Could an off-the-cuff remark really make such a difference?! Most fresh leaders respond to the step-up by becoming control-freaks, and by trying to do everything. Mainly they are defeated by the clock or by their health, or helped by the timely intervention of a mentor or coach. The wise leader – as Machiavelli would have suggested – makes peace with the situation and turns it to the good.

So, as a Christian leader, you are in a contested space, you are vastly more powerful than you think you are, and most organisations could do with some serious ethical bolstering. Result! But how to take advantage of this brilliant opportunity? What I learned from my PhD is that it is all about mood. Most theology is either indicative (we believe…) or imperative (thou shalt…). What would it be like if we used the interrogative more, and asked more questions? How could we also harness the optative and the subjunctive to express our hopes, dreams and uncertainties? So if you are going to be moody at work, be this kind of moody. And if you want one project to take away, it should be this one. What one project or working practice or habit or entity could you start paying very deliberate and studied attention to that would do the most to shift the ethic of your organisation? Discuss!

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