Honour – the dog that didn’t bark

By July 10, 2012Business

No company worth its salt neglects these days to have a set of corporate values. Merrill Lynch famously had theirs etched in stone in the lobby of their London office. To these are customarily linked a set of leadership competencies, to facilitate the annual appraisal process. I’m sure these change with the weather, but Barclays traditionally had a set of ‘leadership imperatives’ which included things like ‘Driving Value Creation’ and ‘Pulling Together’. The list included ‘Inspiring Others’, ‘Straight Talking’ and – Bob – ‘Sharing Power & Responsibility.’

Their then CEO, Paul Varley, delivered the 2009 Hugh Kay Memorial Lecture in St Martin-in-the-Fields, and spent a lot of his talk being a little bit smug about his bank not having had to be rescued by the taxpayer, and invoking Barclay’s Quaker founding values of prudence, plain dealing, philanthropy and probity (he also praised the Barclays’ commitment to paying taxes, which with hindsight is intriguing). His talk makes interesting reading in the light of recent discoveries. For example, at one point he says: ‘most bank employees are not motivated by earnings per share or share price (even when, as is the case of a majority of our employees here in the UK, they own shares). They are motivated by a desire to help – a very Christian value. It is the helping of their customers that brings a sparkle to their eyes.’ I wonder where he is in the current debate?

Varley aside, the Barclays story raises for me again a professional niggle, about the value of all of these values if they don’t defend against bad behaviour, and the point of these competencies if they result in incompetence. Enron was famously a business school poster-child even as it imploded, and I’m sure every business miscreant has just aced an appraisal against the most searching review of corporate competencies and behaviour. So it would be silly of me just to recommend another super-value to add to the mix, as a panacea to cure corporate evil. But were I to do so, the one I would choose, as a specific requirement for leadership, is Honour. This, for me, is the dog that isn’t barking. The fabulous Stefan Stern has elsewhere written about the need for more corporate shame and, for me, honour is shame’s Siamese twin. Honour is not always a clean virtue, having been used through the ages and by many cultures as a vehicle to control and subjugate women through their sexuality. Chivalry has also been pilloried, Monty Python-style, as an anachronism, and in many cultures has been taken to extremes through suicide and honour killings. But if we de-couple honour from these particular readings of it, the concept has a lot to teach us.

The last duel to be fought on Scottish soil took place in 1826, between David Landale, a linen merchant from Kirkcaldy, and his bank manager, George Morgan, on a point of honour. Landale held that Morgan had slandered his business reputation and, while he had never before handled a pistol, he managed to shoot Morgan, a trained soldier, through the chest, wounding him mortally. The whole business of gauntlets, gloves, and pistols at dawn seems irrelevant to the current banking fiasco, no matter how attractive it might be to call out your bank manager like Landale did. But why do so few leaders offer to resign, until they are forced to do so? Even if the Board refuses to accept a resignation, it should surely be a leader’s first reaction when something goes wrong on their watch. If a leader can claim ignorance of something happening ‘further down’ their organisation, either they are not doing their job properly, or the organisation is too big. If any case can be made for the extraordinary amounts that leaders are now routinely paid, surely it is because they are responsible for the organisations they lead, for better, for worse. In his famous dictionary, Samuel Johnson lists the first definition of honour as ‘dignity; high rank’. Honour has always been seen as part and parcel of a senior role in society, hence the terminology ‘honours’ for decoration by the monarch. And while it might feel a bit Baden-Powell, I would add it to my list for leadership, and ask for evidence of honourable conduct in any leadership interview or appraisal. As a Board member, I would routinely hold my CEO to account, until they got the message that anything that happens on their watch is their responsibility. And as a member of society, I will keep asking the question – what is the honourable thing for this leader to do, and why are they not doing it?

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