Leaders, Governance and the Chaplain

At the 9th World Congress on Corporate Governance, held at the Royal Overseas League in London last week, I was responsible for chairing a session on Social Capital. Asked by the organisers to introduce myself, it seemed a good idea to spell out why I was there as job titles, and lists of accomplishments say very little about our approach or interests. So why does a Workplace Chaplain have an interest in Corporate Governance?

“My name is Graham Wilson. Originally a behavioural scientist and subsequently trained as a psychotherapist, I am one of a team of part-time Chaplains to the leadership team at one of the largest defence and technology companies which is responsible for a substantial proportion of the primary research that goes on in the defence and security sector worldwide. We develop much of the technology used by soldiers, sailors, aircrews, spies and counter-terrorism agencies around the world, as well as an increasing proportion of quite extraordinary spin-offs in all kinds of different areas.

It doesn’t take a PhD in rocket science (and we have quite a few of those) to appreciate the ethical dilemmas that daily face the defence industry, and the opportunities for corruption in its commercial dealings. Lord Wolff, in his study of the business practices of one of our competitors, demonstrated clearly the governance problems that face ALL organisations, but especially those in this sector.

Contrary to what company law would have us believe, businesses are NOT corrupt – they cannot themselves BE corrupt. It is usually one person (or at most two) within the business that is unable to control their own impulses when they see an exceptional opportunity. And, let’s face it, we recruit leaders in organisations precisely because of their ability to seize opportunities.

Around these “mis-leaders” they have, through their inspiring leadership, created a small cohort of people who will comply with them – suspending their personal judgment of what is right and what is wrong. The more this has happened, the harder it is for anyone to put forward the voice of reason when something inappropriate is about to happen.

Most of us have dual standards as to what is right and what is wrong. One standard applies to what happens to ourselves and the other to what happens to society in general. For example, if someone parks outside our house we may get agitated and take it as a personal afront and yet we ourselves might easily pull up in our car where we shouldn’t.

Mis-leadership in organisations tends to happen when these two standards become widely different. In this case, the mis-leader believes that they are right, indeed HAVE a right, to take risks whereas the rest of the world shouldn’t do so to anywhere near the same degree.

Few of the business leaders who have been found to be mis-leading their organisations are obligate law-breakers – indeed many have strong personal moral codes which they confuse with those of society – sometimes even taking a moral high ground that the rest of society would consider extreme. This is particularly obvious when they take personally, something that someone has done with no intention of harming them, perhaps not even knowing they were involved.

As a chaplain, my job is to build a close working relationship with a handful of leaders in my organisation, providing them with a sounding board for their ideas, plans, strategies and tactics. Encouraging, even cajolling, them to consider the emotional, spiritual, ethical and humane issues that underlie their intentions. Although this is an unusual remit, it is not without precedent. Many military leaders, since 1914, have told in their memoirs how they were pleased to engage with the Chaplain who brought just this kind of kit-bag of interests. Even in the world of fiction, if that is what Star Trek was, the captain of the Enterprise had a personal leadership mentor in the character of Counsellor Deanne Troi.

No solution is perfect, and obviously my own organisation complies with all the basic governance standards expected of a multinational business (especially in our sector). Our role as Chaplains though is about the development of leadership talent, promoting a model of authenticity, openness and transparency, however as a consequence we act as a safeguard against that potential maverick mis-leader.

Hence I have an interest in corporate governance, from a people perspective, that is a long-way removed from tick lists, auditing, compliance and structured responses to questions from the procurement department of our customers.

Thank you.”

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