Even as the UK economy strengthens and improves, we continue to read about the assault on ethics and morality in many aspects of work life in this country, something hinted at in our research at Roffey Park on what causes people to move jobs. And despite protestations to the contrary, our banks are still struggling to prove to the general public that the promised reforms to behaviour are actually underway.

In May 2014, at a conference on Inclusive Capitalism, the IMF chief Christine Lagarde said: “The industry still prizes short-term profit over long-term prudence, today’s bonus over tomorrow’s relationship”. The Bank of England’s Mark Carney was equally blunt in his assessment of an ethics-free zone in financial services: “Just as any revolution eats its children, unchecked market fundamentalism can devour the social capital essential for the long-term dynamism of capitalism itself”.

Our response to most ethics-related issues – and the predictable response of government and regulators in general – is to apply more regulation, more rules and more constraints in a well-intentioned attempt to police human behaviour. But this is to look in the wrong place as far as long-term solutions are concerned.

While regulation has its place, studies of ethics in organisations and global surveys (of financial services sector organisations in particular, such as the Edelman Trust Barometer) show consistently that corporate wrongdoing and immoral behaviour is more or less the result of a dysfunctional organisational culture created, modelled and perpetuated by the people at the top. And unethical behaviour, as we know, is by no means limited to the financial sector.

In the last three years alone, stories of mismanagement, awful leadership, cover-ups of various kinds, cruelty in care, corporate psychopathy and narcissism, sexual abuse and invasions of privacy across the board – have left us feeling battered and disillusioned. 

So while there is no silver bullet when it comes to righting these wrongs, there are certainly things we can do to try to actively change “the way things are done round here”. And that means attending to the fundamentals. It means asking the question: What kind of leaders do we really want?

Caring charisma is an attempt to pull together a number of elements that can – cumulatively – help to provide a focus for what we mean when we talk about “the kind of leaders we want”. 

The “kind-hearted” and “sensitive-perceptive” elements of being altruistic, humble, compassionate and collegiate are intended to fit with the practical needs of organisations for their leaders to be “work-like” and “results-oriented” (which is where we find being strategic and engaging as well as focused and pragmatic). The former set of qualities or attributes are clearly connected with emotional intelligence and how people “show up”: the latter set attempt to get at what else is needed for leaders and leadership to be effective. In our current world, the concept of the caring leader is beginning to take hold: studies suggest that the younger generation of workers will be increasingly looking for this in their leaders. 

Additionally, the younger generation use the word “charismatic” to describe the kind of bosses they want to work with (not “for”): but with a strong caveat. Charisma is being redefined for our times to be something less about having “the X Factor” and more about having the ability to draw people to you – to take them with you on a journey to achieve a given vision or goal. The authors of a new book Compelling People (John Neffinger and Matthew Kohut, 2014) have usefully characterised the concept of charisma as being “the perfect blend of strength and warmth”. This is what people are looking for. 

But that is not all. The notion of the “caring leader” is beginning to gain traction for many. Disillusioned by largely US-inspired stereotypes of the loud, aggressive corporate warrior whose images are mirrored and strengthened by shows in the UK such as The Apprentice, working people are expectant of a different kind of leader. A new approach or focus is required: we need more caring leaders. That said, another health warning is in order. Caring does not mean being soft and ethereal – it is about creating an environment around you, as a leader, that encourages trust and stimulates innovation in service of better engagement and ultimately greater productivity.

It is something that can be developed – as can charisma – so that leaders learn to provide what post-war researchers and behavioural psychologists John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth called a “secure base”.The work of these scholars found that babies who were cared for in sterile environments without an identified and regular “carer” had higher mortality rates than those who were brought up in less sterile environments but who had a clearly identified and regular carer. Transpose this into the work environment and we can quickly see that those leaders who are caring – but tough too when they need to be – are the ones that engender trust, followership and calculated risk-taking. As the writers Kohlreiser, Goldsworthy and Coombe state in their book Care to Dare, a leader must care for (“support”) and dare (“challenge”) people in equal measure; too much care and people become too comfortable: too much dare and they become too anxious (to act). 

One of the biggest barriers to the advancement of the caring, charismatic leader is undoubtedly the societal challenge we face in terms of repackaging, re-interpreting and re-positioning compassion (as a critical attribute of leaders). Too often we equate the word “compassion” with “weakness” or “softness” – resulting in many front-line and senior managers asking: “How can I be compassionate and yet still manage to hold someone accountable?” The answer is that you can – you just need to learn how. As a member of the audience at a roundtable breakfast in Singapore remarked recently: “Aren’t we looking for the impossible? The leader as Superhero?”

I think not. What we are looking for is a leader who is caring, compassionate, humble and collegiate – and critically, a person able to combine this with a strong, laser-like focus on results. 

As a HR leader, why not challenge yourself with the following questions: 

  • What was the last courageous thing you did for a colleague?
  • How often do you talk about “I/me” at the expense of “we/us”?
  • Are you able to admit when you’re wrong and apologise?
  • Are you a “secure base” for your colleagues?

Michael Jenkins, Chief Executive, Roffey Park