Leading in Crisis with Character

As seen in APeeling in November 2020


While there has been much public discourse in the last few years about leader character, for the most part, these discussions seem to be only amplified in the media when a breach of trust occurs or a gross display of a lack of integrity is demonstrated by a public figure or leader.


In my opinion, there is not enough discussion about good and bad examples of character in the day-to-day operations of our organizations. Even in the best, most reputable organizations, I suspect that small breaches occur each and every day. And without more explicit conversations at all levels by all team members, I do not believe our organizations, in fact our society, will be able to navigate the complex challenges facing us in the years ahead. It is time to put leadership character at the top of our list of priorities for individual and organizational development.


The good news is there has been some great work done on this subject recently. Each and every one of us has access to this solid thinking, with a well-defined language, which we can use to drive change in our own circles.


In the early 2000s, I was working as a management consultant at a top firm. I still have a lot of respect for the leaders and colleagues I worked with there. The character of these individuals was one of the key factors in my choosing to accept their offer of employment when I graduated from business school.


It was demonstrated very clearly in how the leadership managed the bursting of the tech bubble. While many of our competitors were laying off employees in the face of declining client engagements, my firm came up with some creative options to keep most of us employed. These included giving staff the opportunity to volunteer for up to a year at a non-profit at partial salary. I benefited from a different program, which allowed me to take 2 months off without pay to spend time with my newborn son but with a guaranteed return to work date.


However, while the economy was resetting from the bursting of the tech bubble, another set of forces was already in play that would result in another crisis just 8 years later.


The 2008 financial crisis was a human-made crisis caused by a widespread breakdown of leadership in companies and governments in some of the strongest economies in the world.

Early in my tenure, I was assigned to a small team to help develop a proposal for an engagement with a major US retailer. The retailer was looking for assistance to develop a new business unit. I was excited to get that call. It was a plum opportunity for a recently-minted MBA. As I was briefed, I learned that the aim of the project was to launch a new business which offered credit to a segment of the retailer’s customers. But as the days progressed, and I conducted my research into this segment, I grew increasingly uncomfortable.


The segment was made up of low-income, underemployed families with no assets. These families were eager to accept the financial boost that came from access to credit without fully appreciating the risk. Lenders were eager to give these families the credit, because they sold the debt anyway, absolving them of the risk.


I submitted the approach and workplan for the proposal, went on my winter vacation with my young family and put the brief assignment behind me. Upon my return, I was staffed on another project which I felt much better about.


It has been 18 years since I worked on that proposal but, this past year, I have been thinking a lot about that time.


When I was getting uncomfortable about the nature of the project, why did I not speak up and express my concerns? If I had, would it have changed anything? Was it my place, as a new junior employee, to express my concerns? And if I had said something, what would my leaders have said or done to me? I think these are very important questions of character.


After some reflection, I have come to the conclusion that, at the time, while my research into the subprime market might have triggered my “Humanity,” my “Courage” as a new junior employee was underdeveloped. I suspect this was also the case for 1000s of employees working in the organizations that were contributing to the coming storm.


I also believe, as I reflect on my experiences, that as I became more senior at the firm, had I spoken up, I would not have been ostracized. I don’t think my words would have made any difference in the grand scheme of things, but I would not have been humiliated or penalized for speaking my mind. I don’t think that was necessarily the case at other organizations.


I am grateful that in the months and years following that brief, 3-day assignment, I was exposed to ideas, leaders and cultures that enabled me to build a foundation of leadership competence, commitment and character, including courage. I like to believe this leadership character has contributed to my positively influencing the organizations I have been part of since that time. But, like everyone else, I remain a work in progress.


Shakeel Bharmal is a coach who helps executives find clarity. Discover more at www.shakeelbharmal.com

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