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Fellow view: Seeking enlightenment

Penny Sophocleous

Author, thought leader, and Fellow of the Institute Penny Sophocleous argues why, like Martin Luther King, leaders have a duty of compassion

In 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote an open letter from his jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama, where he’d been imprisoned for non-violently demonstrating against segregation. The letter defends the strategy of non-violent resistance to racism. In it, he says that people have a moral responsibility to break unjust laws and to take direct action rather than waiting potentially forever for justice to come through the courts. 

Luther King wrote: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial 'outside agitator' idea.” 

His writings and work in the 1950s and 1960s have left a rich legacy for anyone interested to explore what enlightened leadership might be. He has provided insights and alignments that can assist us today, experiencing not dissimilar circumstances. Though instead of black people and white people being the point of conflict, our differences and injustices toda, are much more economic and social.

A widening divide between the highest paid and the lowest paid in our society, led by multinational corporate organisations has the makings of social strife and conflict yet to come. Unjust laws even in our own country (UK) as has been evidenced by BHS and other companies who have been brought down by unethical leaders who’ve raided the company while loading debt onto its balance sheet, damaging people’s opportunity to work and their pension rights.

Such instances highlight how injustice thrives when people are relegated below the value of money. 

Luther King wrote: “All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority. To use the words of Martin Buber, the great Jewish philosopher, segregation substitutes an 'I – it' relationship for the'“I – tho'” relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things.” 

 “Over 50 years have passed and now we are in the midst of another crisis, a crisis based on spiritual illiteracy. In today’s worldview there is an impression the universe is not an interconnected, living system, and that life can be exploited. We’ve lost our sense of service to life itself.”    

The latter two sentences certainly resonated with some of the key findings in my research concerning business and work environments as they have evolved in the past thirty years. People expressing the sense of separation, exploitation, dehumanisation and disregard that makes work hateful. In such environments, not only are people not engaged, there is active dislike of the very things that leaders do to grow their business and the benefits they give themselves, but deny the majority of people.

Such injustices are our current environment’s build-up to a crisis.  There is an opportunity today for enlightened leaders to take a more humane view of our business world and adopt not only the authentic leadership role that has been aptly defined by many other writers, but perhaps to look at the opportunity that their position gives them and adopt a more spiritual or evolved principled view of what they can achieve at work. This is applicable if you run a very small business, employing a few people, or are a partner or leader in a multi-national organisation. 

Every leader can, for example, bring people together regularly, making sure that their people are not separated from the communication flow up and down their organisation, ensure that their people can openly question and get answers for their concerns and issues, and invite participation in the decision making of minor and major matters. Leaders must distribute their power to enable many more people to make significant choices of action relating to matters affecting them, their teams and their customers. And they need to provide fair recognition and reward for people doing their work fairly. 

Such behaviours demonstrate a fair and just approach to employees who give their service to the company that employees them. The inter-relationships that form when all employees are treated fairly build an emotional infrastructure that supports the growth and development of a business in healthy ways. It builds a culture that is open, honest and clean. It provides environments where communications are supportive and constructive; that more importantly, do not breed mental ill-health. Senior leaders need to recognise their responsibility for the health and well-being of their employees.  They can make sure that no contract and no unspoken expectation by managers’ exploits their people by having them work more than what they are paid for. They can opt not to pay some people minimum wages while those at the top take home millions.

Principled leaders won’t allow the dehumanisation of people, making them work like machines, and ignoring the human needs for validation, recognition and acknowledgement.  There is so much that they can do to create a culture that is life-enhancing and meaningful, for themselves and those who work for them. 

Penny is also the CEO of Corporate Alchemy. Her latest book, Enlightened Leaders: Reintroducing Principles Into Business, is out now.

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