Al Gini on Leadership — our CEE interview

[Here is a transcript of our eleven-minute video interview.]

Center for Ethics and Entrepreneurship Interview with Professor Al Gini on Leadership

Hicks: I’m Stephen Hicks of CEE. Today we have with us Professor Al Gini from Loyola University Chicago, where he is chair of the management department and where he teaches business ethics. He is also associate editor and founding editor of Business Ethics Quarterly. He was here today at Rockford to speak on leadership.

Professor Gini, your theme was organized around ten topics in leadership—ten critical tasks of leadership. I wanted to ask you to speak to three of them that I thought were particularly important. The first one, the number one, top on your list, was leadership and character.

What do you take the character of leaders to be?

Gini: Well, I think that, point of fact, it´s just at the top of the list, it´s that without the list doesn´t go forward, as far as I am concerned. For me, a leader, as every individual, is known by what they value and what they believe in. And so I think that what´s critical in a leader is that we want a person whose character has been attuned to other issues besides self. And when we talk about leaders of character, I think what we are talking about is: what do they value? What do they hold dear? What is important to them? Why do they want the job and what are they willing to do and not willing to do for a job, which is also an important consideration. So, for me, character is about the virtues that an individual possesses and how he or she applies those virtues in the task of leadership.

Hicks: If you were to identify three or four of the top virtues, what would you say those are?

Gini: Well, I think the first one would be to be ‘more selfless than selfish’. The recognition that this job is not about me, recognition that this job is about stewardship. Now, I am very uncomfortable about the word steward, stewardship or servant leadership, because it merely triggers of kind of theological base—shepherd, guardian—that kind of thing, and I don´t mean that. I think steward in the Greek means to be in charge of a household. To be an important agent who is in charge of a household. And so, when I say stewardship, I mean, you´ve been hired to manage this household. And so to me that leader has been hired. This is a job, as Harry Truman said, this is the best job I´ve ever had. But this is job, and my job is to be for others, not simply for myself.

Hicks: So a proper attitude toward self in relation to others, recognizing that there is more to that job, than just focusing. What else, what there will be key character traits of it?

Gini: Well, I think we are talking about certain essences of truth, commitment, work ethic, and how one sees the democratic process. And by democratic process I don´t mean just the American democratic processes. How one deals with followers, how one deals with collaborators, fellow stakeholders. I think that it´s critical.

In that list that I put up, I also talk about knowing oneself. I take that to be part of character. That one of the factors of a good character is they examine oneself. They know what is important to them. They are not easily blindsided by Oh, a new temptation, or a new issue they haven’t thought their way through.

You know, Hemingway once said, defining courage, that courage is a good men in a tough situation, a good person in a tough situation. And he meant by that, that person has already thought through Should I run into that building and save that child or, I guess, I should have a fireperson, but they have already thought that through, and then when the situation comes up, they do it.

So, I think that part of the requirement for leadership is to live the examined life, to be philosophical. Now, one no longer quote Socrates from The Republic, when he says in Book V that no state will be just until all philosophers are kings and all kings are philosophers. I am not sure I want to buy totally into that, but I do like that avenue of approach.

Hicks: So, actually at least to be philosophical, if not philosophers.

Gini: That´s okay, good.

Hicks: A second one that jumped out at me in your list was the importance of vision. That´s a big concept and we hear a lot about it. What is vision and what does it matter ?

Gini: You know, in the 1980s, in George Bush I, how I refer to it, it was the V-word , and he popped it off and became kind of this joke, all the vision of this, the vision of that, it was like the buzzword of the month. What I really think vision is strategic planning goal, and a guide to a company. What do we want to do here? How do we do it? What is our quality control factor? Why do we do it and why do we want to continue doing it, etc., etc.? So I think a vision to me includes strategic plans and tactical plans of getting something done. And I think an effective leader at the political level has to offer a strategic plan and a tactical plan that entices people to vote for them. And I think successful leaders in business need to also implement strategic and tactical plans that make that company successful and make them into successful leaders.

Hicks: What goes into making people able to do that? We talk about intelligence, abstract ability, knowledge?

Gini: Although this isn´t a popular thought, to me a leader has a certain skillset—like an athlete—that simply isn´t given to everyone and can´t totally be trained. You can be exposed to training, but you won´t necessarily get better. Michael Jordan had athletic skill, and then he added to that practice, development, and stretching himself to improve. I don´t have enough athletic skill. If I took the same kinds of lessons and coaching he did, I wouldn´t achieve that. It would be impossible for me to do so. But I´ve taken enough math courses to be acceptable in math, even though I don´t understand numbers as clearly as people who gravitate toward mathematics. So, I think that what we are talking about here is this inner talent that is also being trained.

Now, the whispered question is: are leaders born or made? I think there is a certain talent then is then developed and made better. Clearly, a Nelson Mandela is a perfect example of somebody that was well-trained, he was a lawyer after all, with great experience, and then time to reflect, time to develop, even in prison, it´s a strange thing to say, but really true. He tells us in his writings that it was in prison that I really went to the university of life, that I was able to reflect and talk about these things. So, I think no one is just born a great athlete. You have the skillset, but then has to be directed properly. But I do think there are people who are not leaders, and we´ve met them. That you wouldn´t them to take a group of seven-year olds to the ice-cream store.

Hicks: As you say, you´d never seen them again.

The third one on your list that jumped out at me was teaching. And, in many cases, we think of leaders as just telling people what to do and then they are hands-off. But your account was much more hands-on. So, say a little bit more if you can about the teaching role you think great leaders play.

Gini: Well, you are going to find the draconian leader, you know, you must do this and my will be done or it´s my way or the highway.

But I think the reality is: successful leaders empower their followers. And that word is more used than vision. To empower—that is, convince them that this is worth doing. Convince them that this is important. If you´ve never thought of this idea, let me bring it to your attention, and let me explain why this is important. I want to convert you.

So, I think teaching is a really important skill. To simply give orders, and even if you have an effective staff who obeys orders, is not really getting into the heart of the matter. Again, if leadership is about empowering people to be leaders of their own job, they´ve got to know why they are doing it. They can´t just know these are the four things that I have to do every day and repeat them again, again and again. So, I think they have to see that connection. So, I think good leaders have an obligation to teach people what to do.

When, as parents, when our 5-year olds wouldn´t put under galoshes and raincoats and go off to school, or when they were in the first or second grade, we force them to do it and made them walk out the door. And I am hoping that they recognize it that you can´t afford to get sick, you can´t miss school, you can´t miss a day´s work. But they´ve got make it at their own somewhere down the line, and so when it comes to their own, that is really lived out. And I think it´s the same thing at the workplace. You can only give orders so long. You can´t supervise everybody all the time. They either have to know what they are doing and why they are doing it, or it doesn´t get done.

Hicks: In closing, I want to ask you a historical question. You can do this is as a philosopher, someone who well-versed in literature. In your talk you mentioned this last generation there have been a number of failures of leadership, and then you mentioned a number of individuals in business who were in positions of leadership, people in politics in positions of leadership. And for good reasons, there are lots of widely discussed failures of leadership from both areas. So there is a temptation—it might be a real temptation for us to say—Well, we live in a particularly corrupt, or leadership vacuum, cultural time. But you also quoted Cicero, going back 2,000 years now, reflecting on his age and making the same criticisms about the failures of leadership in his time. Is our age particularly bad? Do you think we´ve made progress? Can we learn from history?

Gini: Well, I think our age is no different than any other age. I mean, the notion that everything happens comes around again. I think that Teapot Dome scandals of the 1920s were recapitulations of Grant’s whiskey scandals and a recapitulation of certain things that happened under Washington, just to use the American experience.

I think scandals come back again and again. We teach Socrates because every generation has to be tooled in literacy and ethics; it´s not inborn. But I don´t think it is any worse. And, in fact, I think the actions of the last number of years—that we got to this new electronic revolution, for all its downside, that we are tethered to our talking machines and our computers, and that we are changing the face of the universe.

What is happening in Egypt right now and in Northern Africa right now, is a demonstration that people want effective, democratic, transparent leadership. Leaders who are committed to the people that are in charge of and lead, and that just seem that they are there by virtue of office and by virtue of custom tradition.

And so, in a very real sense, I think we are moving into a much more democratic, critical awareness of leadership and that leaders will be held to a much higher account.

Hicks: So you are an optimist.

Gini: Yes, I am an optimist right now.

Hicks: Thanks for being with us.

Gini: A pleasure to be with you.

[end]

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