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27 July 2017

“Decent” leadership: an old-fashioned concept that is right for our times

Corporate Reputation

According to Google, the word “decency” was six times more likely to show up in English language books in 1800 than it is today. Far from being an outdated concept, however, Peter Tufano, Dean of Saïd Business School, argues that the concept of decency remains relevant – even necessary – in today’s world of brashness and social media self-indulgence.  

Early in the 20th century, one of America’s first business schools had a motto to teach students how to “make decent profits decently.” This phrase has been a touchstone for me over the years and is even more so as the Dean of a leading global business school. In this context, “decent” suggests adequacy, an amount of profits that is “enough” or “not excessive.” Decent profits permit firms to grow at a long-term sustainable rate. And “decently”—an old-fashioned, dated term refers to an implicit moral code that helps us to differentiate appropriate and inappropriate behavior. These two meanings, of adequacy and appropriate behavior, also characterise the word “good.” Both are words that branding consultants would probably reject out of hand as being dated, ambiguous, boring, and bland. Google’s Ngram viewer concurs on the first of these points—according to its analysis, the term “decency” was six times more likely to show up in English language books in 1800 than today. But I think we need to start using and explicitly discussing what constitutes “decent” leadership in this exciting and terrifying world in which we live.

The first element of a “decent” leader is adequacy and effectiveness – one that gets the work of the organisation done. There has been, over the years, idolisation of certain types of “great” leaders—larger than life personalities. But more recent research shows that there are many different types of personalities and hence leadership styles. At a minimum, we should make sure that all leaders in business and government are “decent” in that they can develop a vision and strategy, communicate these concepts effectively, stay focused on the work to be completed, engage others to share this vision, and achieve results. An understated notion of “decent” leadership sounds right for the times when humility is in short supply.

The second, and equally important, element of a “decent” leader is that he or she acts “decently.” There is some risk that the discussion of decency inadvertently thrusts us into a debate about morals, conservatism, and political correctness, but this is a risk worth taking. If we take an inductive approach we could begin with some case studies. Would a decent leader intentionally lie—and brag about it—to get their way? Would a decent leader intimidate and bully others as a matter of course? Would they vilify others on the basis of their ethnicity or race, and either encourage or condone hatred? It would sadly be all-too-easy to draft these case studies today. We would need to put these decisions into some sort of context, but I suspect that in normal circumstances, the vast majority of people would deem these behaviours inconsistent with “decency.”

If we were to take a deductive approach, what principles would constitute decent leadership in the sense of “decency?” While I don’t claim to be a moral philosopher, we can look at how various people have defined and discussed decency over time. Being from Oxford—and a fellow of Balliol College, where Adam Smith studied—I find it useful to refer to Smith’s “other” landmark work,  A Theory of Moral Sentiment. Smith didn’t speak about decency extensively, but did so in a chapter on self control. Decency, Smith wrote, was one of the forces that helped us to control ourselves against the “the love of ease, of pleasure, of applause, and of many other selfish gratifications.” Where gaining Twitter followers is today’s “applause,” decency seems an ever more important factor.

Words matter. Perhaps by naming, characterising, and debating “decent leadership” we might make some progress towards having more effective and principled leaders.

Written by Peter Tufano 
Peter Tufano was appointed Peter Moores Dean and Professor of Finance at Saïd Business School in July 2011 and is a Professorial Fellow at Balliol College, University of Oxford. He is a prolific scholar and course developer, a seasoned academic leader, a social entrepreneur, and an advisor to business and government leaders. 
Oxford Saïd Business School is an Edelman client.

A version of this post originally appeared in the International Business Times.

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