I’ve just recently returned from holidaying in the United States on the coast of Maine. While there I happened to meet Professor Fred Kaplan, who is a distinguished author of literary biographies. His most recent, Lincoln, the Biography of a Writer, is a book that I found fascinating, not least for its insights on leadership. In Lincoln’s case – and many in the US believe him to have been the greatest ever President – there can be no doubt that his love of literature played a pivotal role in shaping and sustaining him as a leader. This seems to me a point worth pondering given that we now live in a culture that values the explicit and measurable over the implicit and inherently unmeasurable.
Ever since the ancient Greeks, self-awareness has been a central theme of Western philosophy and literature and there’s now scientific evidence to show that it’s essential to human health and flourishing. Recent corporate reputational crises suggest that we should now apply this understanding to organisations as much as individuals.
It seems that no organisation’s reputation is safe these days, however highly regarded it may be. Recent reputational crises have come about under the watchful – and often judgemental – eye of the media which now seems embroiled in a crisis of its own with current allegations of ‘phone-hacking at News of the World.
The response to corporate reputation-shredding varies from heads rolling and internal inquiries to calls for structural and regulatory reform of whole industries, as with banking. Any and all of this may well have its place but in the end no reform, however radical, is likely to have impact unless organisations ask some fundamental questions about their values and core purpose and how these are expressed in practice. Whenever reputational damage occurs it’s usually because there’s been some critical break in the link between stated values and behaviour. And that can only be because either there is knowing hypocrisy being practised or – much more likely – because in some key sense the organisation has lost its way and lost its sense of its true self.