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The Quest for the 'Civic Gene' and Decency in Leadership

My working life with team building and development has taken me on a journey through many cultures and alternate realities.

All have been quite fascinating and revealing to me.

Some I have been able to delve into at greater depths than others, but for the most part I have been able to view these environments with a privileged objectivity that’s perhaps not easily afforded to those entrenched within the systems.

I’ve been permitted that ‘fly on the wall’ insight into so many different types of organizations and seen that old adage that the ‘scenery changes, but people don’t’ hold true.

Wherever humans work together, more or less the same stuff plays out.

Nationality, gender, culture and generational factors may add layers to be worked through, but at depth, humans operate with more or less the same emotional / neurological and behavioural clusters, just in varying combinations.

One recurring theme for me has been the role played by the individual egos of the leaders, irrespective of what level they are at within an organization.

The worlds I have either worked in personally or been invited into include School, University, Military, Film and TV, Small / Medium sized Business, Start Ups, Corporate, Government, Charity, NGO, Sport, Education.

The way in which ego is managed has always loomed large on my radar as a game changer for whether good leadership and teamwork is sustainable irrespective of industry.

Ego is somewhat of a “Frenemy” you might say.

I also cannot help but assess it as I see it along the lines of “Goldilocks and the 3 Bears” as a too little, too much and just right bandwidth.

Too little ego, well you may miss opportunities and fail to ‘back yourself ‘ in those crossroad moments where some healthy self-belief, decisiveness and bravado could fuel success. In fast-paced, competitive and changing environments one does need some drivers working in your favour, amongst them being some ‘well-managed’ ego (emphasis on the ‘well managed’ bit).

Too much ego and you may end up being “that guy / gal” who progresses through a surplus of overdrive, shameless ambition and self-promotion that leaves a path of chaos in your wake. Some reach a summit only to look back in hindsight to see that the road to hell has been paved with the bones of those they have ridden roughshod over to get to that summit.

So what of the elusive ‘just right’ quotient of ego? What contributes best to long-term success? What is success?

Success and how to measure it is relative to the individual, and very open to subjectivity from external observers anchored in whatever it means to them also.

My definition in this context of sustainable ‘success’ for an individual working within organisations is really the application of the art and science of developing healthy and stable relationships whilst also striving to achieve your professional objectives.

In my humble experience those leaders who have a healthy balance of self-belief with an aura of ‘human decency’ alongside it that enables authentic relationships to develop have proven to be the most successful.

Decency I also hear some ponder? Well, it sadly gets left out all too often these days.

It is often the missing ingredient but it truly distinguishes a leader who has that “just right’ balance. It enables them to deploy enough ego to take a team where it needs to go, but not so much that they lose themselves in a false and / or narcissistic narrative of their own devising.

Authentic people have a knack, or even 6th sense, for perceiving insincerity and at depth will crave simple authenticity and decency in interpersonal dealings between them and their leaders.

The social systems of the human brain (now better understood by modern neuroscience) actually have the ability to sub-consciously sift matters of insincerity and trust, with the warning bells to match.

In Australia, and please pardon my French here, the prevailing national culture also affords people relatively effective ‘bullshit detectors’.

People may ‘play along’ with a leader’s own narrative due to outright fear or the surrendered assertiveness that often comes with overly compliant and plastic corporate cultures, but will readily share their disparaging opinions at home, in lunchrooms or over a beer.

Working within a team and valuing authenticity and openness is the better way to go these days in my humble opinion.

It means looking past peoples rank and job titles alone and seeking insight into not just how you see yourself, but how do others honestly see you as well.

It also means promoting leaders who don’t just get things done, but can do so with integrity and decency. How many recent government and big business scandals find their root causes in a conspicuous absence of integrity and decency?

In a recent book ‘Managing Genetic Diversity’ Meredith Belbin has coined the term “warrior gene” to describe a set of behaviours oriented towards aggressive self-serving ambition and a win at all costs quest for perpetual growth for the sake of growth. The ‘too much’ end of the ego spectrum.

The ‘too little’ end of the spectrum features what he terms the ‘slave gene’, the somewhat weak and passive acceptance of external power and suggestion without question.

When those with too much ‘warrior gene’ have enough followers with the ‘slave gene’ dancing to their tune, it smacks of solo leaders easily manipulating people away from their whatever their own value systems are to achieve whatever ends suits themselves and an often all too small group of stakeholders.

History is full of examples of this cycle ending in tears, and yet the warrior gene prevails in many leadership forums as that most sought after and rewarded.

The arguably healthier manifestation of behavior oriented towards ‘team achievement’ whether it be seen in actual teams or across whole organisations (and indeed entire civilisations), Belbin terms the ‘civic gene’.

This is a co-habitation of ‘just right’ ingredients for forward drive and focus that also comes with an awareness of the genuine well-being and greater good for the broader team and society.

The ‘civic gene’ is suggested to be all too lacking in leadership across many fields of human endeavour. It arises periodically in history to facilitate the flowering of human awareness, learning and culture (for example during the renaissance) to then be subsumed again by other manifestations of the warrior gene.

Consider any recent corporate or government crisis of integrity and the influence of sociopathic, narcissistic and even psychotic tendencies in some of the senior leadership of large organisations is hard to miss.

Perhaps an unnatural quest for growth and expansion at all cost has seen systems arise that openly reward such behaviours, and enable those displaying them to jostle to the top? Lots of ‘warrior gene’ without balance and restraint of the ‘civic gene’.

Nothing wrong with profit and growth, but how is it being achieved and what is the human cost?

The impacts of the warrior gene looks great on paper initially, as the profits surge, but the price paid in the medium to long term can see the fall of empires and the eventual exposure of businesses hollow of integrity.

Leaders and teams who cultivate a better understanding of what is needed for true sustainability, and for balanced relationships is at the heart of redressing this imbalance. By all means seek success and growth, but not at the expense of important relationships and decency.

The ‘warrior gene’ has its place, but leaders and teams who also seek to cultivate and reward their ‘civic genes’ may be far better placed to build truly lasting enterprises and empires into the future.

As the wise Pliny the Elder of Roman times once said, “no mortal person is wise at all moments.”

The people around us intuitively know our weaknesses whether they are brave enough to articulate them or not.

Awareness of our own strengths and weaknesses, and seeking an honest ‘evidence based’ insight into how they manifest at work, is a powerful enabler for the getting it ‘just right’ bit. Nothing like evidence based feedback to help keep the ego within due bounds.

We find that an occasional Belbin behavioural profile (using the powerful Interplace software that enables Belbin’s research into behavior to be measured in individuals and teams) can help to keep a leader grounded by taking stock of not just what they see to be their behavioural strengths and weaknesses to be, but also what it is that their own people see.

This may take some courage for a leader, and may be confrontational at times when you might find yourself having an impact that you were not fully aware of, but if you can get to the root causes of where it’s coming from and better manage it, then more authentic leadership can follow.

Whilst leaders will aspire to be many things to many people, the reality in a complex world is that they simply cannot be. But they can surround themselves with and work with effective teams that can be all things.

Meredith Belbin himself put it so very well when he said that “nobody is perfect but a good team can be”.

An increasingly complex world where concurrent balanced teams are the norm (indeed the requirement for survival), the latter tends to be what’s needed.

Too little ego could see a leader back away from the required challenges, too much could see the obstacles smashed before them, but at what cost?

Cultivating that elusive ‘just right’ through enhanced self-awareness can help achieve objectives whilst bringing the team along for the ride with you.

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