Winning the High Way — Organizational Success by the Golden Rule
By Thomas E. Ambler
We've all heard the ultimatum "my way or the highway." That's known as the Golden Rule—"he who has the gold, rules." Does it work? Like autocratic management it can work in the short run. But over the long pull it works very poorly for lots of rather obvious reasons and is doomed to failure.
Is it possible that there could be another, more effective Golden Rule? Of course. You know it; it's the one we all learned in kindergarten along with the other keys to successful living. The Golden Rule is, "So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets." (quoted from Jesus' "Sermon on the Mount," Matthew 7:12, The Bible, NIV).
This statement is generally considered to be the pinnacle of social ethics. Virtually all religions and serious philosophies have similar "Golden Rules." For example, Jewish rabbi Hillel states "What is hateful to you, do to no other." Confucius' version is, "What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others." The Buddhist puts it "Doing as one would be done by, kill not nor cause to kill." Early Greek Stoics used the maxim, "What you do not wish to be done to you, do not do to anyone else." Note that all of these other "Golden Rules" are stated in the negative. Only Jesus' Golden Rule is framed in the positive. Is that significant? Absolutely! It's the difference between proactive goodness and reactive avoidance of badness. You can satisfy the negative form by doing nothing. The negative form is the basis of a society ruled by law, wherein everyone gives up some freedom in order to promote the common good. The positive version requires sensitivity to the needs of others, putting yourself in their shoes and then doing for them what you would want them to do for you. There is a world of difference between saying "I must do no harm to people" and "I must do my best to help people."
Now, what happens when an organization actually puts into practice "So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you"? Does it produce a more successful organization? What impact does it have on how people treat other employees, customers, suppliers, shareholders and other stakeholders? Does it influence how employees view their roles and the commitments they have made? What happens to productivity? What does it do to encourage prudent risk-taking? What effect does it have on the sense and depth of community and teamwork? Does it impact unity of mission and organizational focus?
Your answer to all of these questions is probably, "yes, if my organization actually put the Golden Rule into practice, it would have a positive impact." But, the fundamental question has to be "is it possible to actually put the Golden Rule into practice in any organization, let alone mine?" J. C. Penney did it—his first store was called The Golden Rule Store. He later wrote a book entitled 50 Years of the Golden Rule.1
To practice the Golden Rule requires that an organization treat it as one of its few Core Values. As described in my earlier Compass Points article, "The Strategic Value of Values,"2 a company can transform its culture and align values among its people. That article, and, more importantly, its sources such as Built to Last3 and Principle-Centered Leadership,4 also clearly established that having and living Core Values contributes significantly to strategic success. So, the question narrows to "what benefits would compel practice of the Golden Rule as a Core Value?" We can address this question by exploring the impact that a Golden Rule Culture can have on key success factors like leadership, teamwork, innovation, selling and employee relations.
Jim Collins' recent book, Good to Great,5 presents the findings of an extensive study to identify the chief contributors of the transformation from being a "good" company into one that is sustainably "great." One such contributor is a leadership competency/style termed "Level 5 Leadership." Level 5 CEO's exhibited personal humility coupled with an unselfish, almost obsessive commitment to the welfare of the organization as a whole. I would submit to you that passionate commitment to the practice of the Golden Rule is totally consistent with and can lead a CEO to Level 5 Leadership.
In his book entitled Good Business,6 professor of management at the Drucker School of Management, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi presents the findings of an intensive, interview-based study of 39 "visionary" business leaders chosen by their peers as exemplifying high achievement with strong moral commitment. The three main types of calling that motivate these leaders are (1) to do one's best (personal excellence), (2) to help people (aiding employees, customers, suppliers, and community in general lead a better life) and (3) to build a better world. The five traits shared by all visionary leaders in this study are (1) optimism (about their ability to solve problems and the fundamental trustworthiness and decency of the people they deal with), (2) integrity (personal trustworthiness and authenticity in presenting themselves to others), (3) ambition coupled with perseverance (high goals—"a man's reach should exceed his grasp"), (4) curiosity (lifelong learning—their curiosity keeps them wanting to know more to improve themselves) and (5) empathy (sensitivity to other people's needs; the key manifestation of empathy is respect). One of the conclusions in the words of this author is "It is clear that what makes it possible for such leaders to be so focused on their work and so effective in advocating their vision is their genuine conviction that their efforts are helping to create a better world. It is because their message appeals to the soul, to the need we all have to connect with a greater purpose, that others are willing to follow their lead and find "flow" in their work." These findings have Golden Rule written all over them.
No organization can operate without teams. After all, an organization is fundamentally a team of teams—some short-term, some long-term. Organizational success depends on how well these teams work. Organizational alignment with strategy and strategic management are key ingredients of winning. These are impossible without effective teamwork. Formulation and implementation of strategy are themselves team efforts, as evidenced by the Simplified Strategic Process. Even the success of the day-to-day conduct of the business rises and falls on team effectiveness.
Every time a new team is established or a new person joins an existing team, a team development process begins. This process has four phases described as Forming, Norming (establishing the boundaries of acceptable behavior), Storming (encountering and working through differences) and Performing. The process is not very tidy in that the phases do not necessarily follow each other sequentially or only occur once. Given that most people prefer to avoid conflict, often teams will either get hung up in the storming phase and never perform or will perform poorly because they haven't developed the teamwork relationships that can only result from working through all four phases. Consider this process under two scenarios. First, consider a group of self-centered and/or apathetic people thrown together with no desire to extend themselves proactively in their concern for the others. What kind of a team will they become? Contrast that with the process involving a group of people who not only have a desire for the team to be effective, but have the desire to relate to the others in the same manner that they want from the others. Everything else being equal, the Golden Rule team will be the clear winner, won't it?
Even teams that have developed successfully can lapse into dysfunction, in which they do not fulfill their potential. Patrick Lencioni's highly popular book, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team,7 identifies 5 dysfunctions and arranges them as vertical layers of a triangle with each successively higher layer being caused, at least in part, by the dysfunctions below. The dysfunctions are from bottom (most fundamental cause) to top (the dysfunction resulting from all of the others):
- Absence of trust—undermines vulnerability and willingness to take risk
- Fear of conflict—impedes honest debate
- Lack of commitment to the decisions of the team
- Avoidance of accountability to one another
- Inattention to team results
Every one of these dysfunctions improves when all team members are practitioners of the Golden Rule. However, the trust dysfunction is most significantly affected. If you know my motivation focuses on your well-being, won't you be willing to risk trusting me and being open with me? Understanding others' motivation is essential to improving teamwork.
Another major factor that undermines the effectiveness of teams results from differences in personality types. Misunderstanding and devaluing of other team members arise due to simple ignorance that can be overcome through personality tests such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. Once the differences are aired and understood they can become a source of team strength rather than weakness. Cutting others the kind of slack we would like goes a long way toward making a team effective.
Wherever the Golden Rule prospers, so does teamwork.
In a world of increasing commoditization and shorter life cycles continued success begs for innovation. It must pervade every aspect of your business—your business model, product development, operations, sales and support. Innovation is key to gaining competitive advantage and increasing the value of your company.
Innovation is a mindset—it's a culture. It is a pervasive spirit that stimulates individuals and teams to endorse a belief in creating newness across all dimensions of the company from products to markets to manufacturing approaches to training programs to selling methods to management systems.
Innovation can best flourish in a culture where the CEO is committed to and instills in others a passion for innovation and where there is acceptance of failure by others, willingness to risk personal failure for the greater good, proactivity, a sense of urgency and teamwork. What kind of culture does that sound like? You guessed it—an Innovation Culture that practices the Golden Rule.
People, in general, want to be known, valued and respected. Customers are not nebulous corporate entities; they are individual people who want to be known, valued and respected. The Golden Rule would then dictate that we should expend the time and effort to get to know the people who are our customers and show them genuine value and respect. Customers will reciprocate and relationships can develop far beyond just a Purchase Order. Customers who share our values make the best partners. Exercising the Golden Rule in the marketplace means we work with customers to determine and provide what they really want. This encourages Specialty buying behavior that provides us higher margins and volumes long term. You may say this approach sounds like just a form of enlightened self-interest and a restatement of "customer intimacy." It is not. Golden Rule selling goes well beyond that, because it carries with it an authenticity and sincerity of motivation people easily recognize and appreciate.
Practicing the Golden Rule in an organization has the greatest and most obvious impact on employee relations. By employee relations I mean the way fellow employees view one another—peers, bosses, subordinates—and how they treat one another. We have already discussed the impact of Golden Rule on two key elements of employee relations, leadership and teamwork. The Golden Rule causes us to view fellow workers as a family of whole people with lives that extend beyond the workplace and with potential waiting to be tapped. That recognition has all kinds of desirable ramifications that lead to greater employee happiness and productivity—things controlled by owners and managers. Such ramifications include flexible schedules, job design and task assignment that maximizes enjoyment ("flow"), reasonable expectations, "tough love" accountability, sharing of company strategy, acceptance of failure as a learning experience, mentoring, cross-training, cafeteria of benefits, job security during temporary downturns, promotion from within wherever possible, recruitment of new employees with character and shared values. These include some of the elements that, according to Business Week, appear to make family-owned or controlled companies dramatically more successful than their counterparts.8
What positive employee behaviors result from a Golden Rule Culture? Trust, selflessness, sense of family, loyalty, civility, helpfulness, can-do attitude, sense of urgency, proactivity, personal discipline and concern for one another, to name just a few. What is their worth? Inestimable! Tremendous!
What about the negative impacts on employee relations or, for that matter, on any of the other success factors resulting from practicing the Golden Rule? Can you think of any that are inherent in the principle? I can't. The only downside I can see is in an unbalanced application of the principle. Assuring that the Golden Rule is applied in a balanced manner to all stakeholders is never easy. It is, nevertheless, a very normal function within the domain of management responsibility.
We have examined the impact of a Golden Rule Culture on key success factors of virtually all organizations. For every factor we considered and, I daresay, every factor we conceivably could have considered, the Golden Rule has tremendous upside potential and negligible downside risk. What can we find more compelling and attractive than participating in a culture where everyone is proactively concerned with doing their best to help others, individually and collectively? Is it the "silver bullet " or panacea for organizational success? No, but in its broadest, balanced application, including the long-term welfare of the shareholders and other stakeholders, it comes mighty close. Even a failed attempt at building a Golden Rule Culture has to leave you better off than you were before.
So, do you want a Golden Rule Culture for your organization? If you do, don't expect it to be a "quick fix." Like any Core Value worth growing, it will require constant preparation of the soil, planting, fertilizing, cultivating and harvesting.2 It all starts with you and your personal decision to, "in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you.". Then you can say, "It's my way—the high way.".
- J. F. Beehner, True Wealth�By the Book: How 100 Inspirational Americans Learned Character, Moral and Spiritual Truths (Jacksonville, By the Book Publishing, 1999).
- T. E. Ambler, "The Strategic Value of Values," Compass Points (April 2002) (available free from the Article Archives of www.cssp.com).
- J. C. Collins and J. I. Porras, Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1994).
- S. R. Covey, Principle-Centered Leadership (New York: Fireside, 1990).
- J. C. Collins, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap�and Other Don't (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2001).
- M. Csikszentmihalyi, Good Business: Leadership, Flow and the Making of Meaning (New York: Viking Penguin, 2003).
- P. Lencioni, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2002).
- J. Weber et al, "Family Inc": special report of the 177 family-run companies in the S&P 500 Companies, Business Week (November 10, 2003), pp 100-114.
Tom Ambler is a Senior Consultant with Center for Simplified Strategic Planning, Inc. He can be reached via e-mail at