Every day we are presented with opportunities to interact with the people in our professional lives. This includes subordinates and supervisors, colleagues, vendors, business partners, etc. Over time, all of these interactions add up to things like reputation, management style, and personality. This “body of work” is also how people judge things like honesty, integrity, kindness, character and many other traits.
We generally do not think about this at the time of each interaction. Likewise, it is not possible to behave exactly how we want to in every situation. Sometimes a lack of time or stress or multiple demands get in the way of how we would prefer to act. However, on balance, we determine who we are via how we behave. Over time, the sum total of our interactions paint a pretty clear picture for those around us. This is as much about values as it is about leadership, which is not surprising since personal values influence how leaders see the world and thus the same values influence the decisions they make, including how they treat people around them. In fact, leadership without values is a frankly dangerous proposition.
The unfortunate truth is that there are people in the professional world who have enjoyed “success” (usually financial), even though they have hurt people in the process, sometimes quite purposefully. On the other hand, when we talk about legacy as I have in other posts, being a rich “son of a bitch” who trampled other peoples lives is something that even the rich SOB probably does not aspire to. Another way to think about this is the old axiom about what you want on your tombstone. When our time here on earth is all over none of us wants our legacy to be that we were a jerk. On the contrary, since we can’t take anything with us, material success at the expense of other people is worse than a hollow victory—it’s a moral failure. This also applies to how we treat those with less leverage or power than we have in any given interaction. Kwame Anthony Appiah, in a recent Ethicist column in the NY Times Magazine, was responding to a reader question about how an employee was being terminated when he noted, “It’s particularly important to respect your ethical obligations to employees when they have no legal recourse.” This is a critical point. He is saying that leadership decisions (and how we treat people) must come from an ethically defensible place especially when we have the leverage to do whatever we want.
In the end, we are better off and those around us are better off if we have consistently treated people well and fairly; if we have taken the time to listen; if we keep our ego in check; if we take an interest in their issues and their success. We are better off for two reasons. First, treating people around us well and fairly tends to motivate them and engender commitment, which makes us more successful. Second, and probably more importantly, if you have genuinely treated the folks around you well and you have done that over time, those same people will be supporters when you need it most. Those same people will go the extra mile precisely when you need them too.
And it’s the right thing to do.