When you look at the people you lead – direct reports, employees, volunteers, people in your organization, movement, community – what do you see? Do you see the face of God or do you see cogs in a machine?
While this might be a bit of an extreme question, leaders must truly confront it with honesty. How much do I recognize the inherent dignity of each and every person regardless of position or power, or how often do I consider people merely as a resource, a tool, or a means for me to accomplish a vision or a task that’s important to me?
Every leader hopes that the first mode – recognizing the dignity of others – is their manner of relating to people. But if we are truly honest we recognize that we slip into the second mode at times, where we begin to think more about what people can do – for us or our vision – than who they are as persons with dignity and inherent value.
Virtuous leaders make efforts to cultivate a heart and a mind that neither takes people for granted nor dismisses them if there is nothing they can do for them. Virtuous leaders cultivate a deep sense of the dignity and worth of every person. Magnanimous leaders help others to discover this dignity in themselves – thereby becoming great by bringing greatness out in others.
Recently I had the pleasure of spending some time with my friend, Paul Labbe, and I asked him to share some of the key insights he’s gained as a virtuous leader over the past number of decades. Paul started his career as a Trade Officer at the Canadian Embassy in Paris, then returned to Canada as Chief of Staff to the Minister of Industry, Trade and Commerce. Between 1997 and 2000 Paul was CEO and Chairman of Citibank Canada and prior to that, President and CEO of the Export Development Corporation, Canada’s official export credit agency, and President of Investment Canada. Paul has led complex organizations with thousands of people and worth millions of dollars.
What became clear in my conversation with Paul was that the dignity of each person was at the heart of his leadership character. It began with simple things. Paul always made a point to walk the floors. He didn’t want to only be available to his senior executives, he wanted to be present to people at the front lines of the work. He would walk to them and talk with them rather than phoning. He would ask them questions to see how they were and how the work they did was going.
At times, Paul had to balance the differing concerns of many different stakeholders. When it was politically sensitive and at times confrontational, Paul described that his desire was to reach out to others with differing opinions and always to seek to understand others; to take their perspective into consideration and ultimately make what he felt was the best decision for the situation.
With his staff, Paul afforded tremendous dignity. A hallmark of this was the investment he made in helping people to develop. He took an active role in mentoring leaders and desired the very best for them. He would make substantial investments of time and training in junior leaders. And if an opportunity came along for them, he would not hold them back. He truly wanted the best for his people no matter how important they were to him or to his organization. If he couldn’t offer them something comparable or better he would encourage them to take the opportunity, even though that meant a loss for him. He respected the value and dignity that they had as fellow human beings, not simply as cogs in the machine. This sense of the virtue of dignity enabled him to lift others above himself and his own needs.
In many ways this virtue of dignity has been lost or is lacking in our world. But one can only imagine how our workplaces, our communities and our families would be transformed through its cultivation. At the heart of dignity is a care for others and recognition of their profound worth. Virtuous leaders recognize that the dignity of all people touches also on something transcendent. As Jean Valjean professes at the end of the famous musical, Les Miserables: “And remember the truth that once was spoken; To love another person is to see the face of God!”