I was coaching the CFO of a financial services firm recently. He’s part of a leadership team that’s really struggling. There’s significant conflict within the team and the company is in a challenging marketplace and trying to adapt to it. Most of the senior leaders would like to see the conflict diminish and the creative energy released to make the company more successful. So I’ve been working with them to help redirect that energy.

We had a productive coaching session and the CFO was thanking me for what he was learning in the conversation. I don’t know what motivated me to respond the way I did, but without hesitation I answered, “I’m not doing this for you. Frankly, I don’t care how this feels to you.” He had the appropriate reaction, a shocked, slack-jawed silence. “I’m doing it for the people out there, in the cubicles and down the hall.” I was referring to the 350 people without fancy titles who worked all around him. “That’s the reason you and the other members of the senior team need to get this right. There are hundreds of people who depend on you behaving like real leaders.”

For me this is the fundamental ethical imperative and it is one of the things missing in the stories of scandal that have characterized business news in this generation. In fact, in my more cynical moments I think it is one of the things missing in our current culture of self-promotion and winking endorsement of selfishness.

How many leaders understand the most basic obligation of leadership is the stewardship of the organization for the benefit of its people: workers, customers, partners? We talk about the “Mission of the organization” and its goals and objectives. We speak about success in terms of ROI or market share or other abstractions that are means to this end. Ultimately, it’s about whether we can create something of value that provides meaningful work, a reasonable livelihood and valuable products and services for people.

Leadership is stewardship, a sacred trust. The lives of many are in our hands. In every meeting we hold as leaders, we are obligated to remember the invisible network of ties that bind us to hundreds or thousands of others who are not in the room. The leadership task involves remembering them and bringing them metaphorically into the room. A den of thieves doesn’t need to think of anyone else. Leaders belong to their people.

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