All Articles Leadership Inspiration Where you place the "a" matters: Are you just a leader or a just leader?

Where you place the “a” matters: Are you just a leader or a just leader?

4 min read


It’s just a trivial part of speech, just an “a,” no big deal. But it is! How often do we combine the words “justice” and “leadership”, especially in the for-profit sector? Obviously, it’s a big deal in social enterprises, which focus on social justice, but justice has an impact on any organization’s ethos and culture.

Justice comes from the Old French justitia, meaning righteousness and equity as well as the Latin justus, meaning upright. So how can we apply this virtue in a practical, applicable way as leaders? There are three ways I can think of, and I bet if you try, you can think of more. I’ll address two: fair versus equal and I versus you. The third, the triple bottom line/corporate social responsibility, is better known and discussed, so we will leave that for later.

Fair versus equal

Many of us have just been through end of the fiscal year or are preparing for midyear performance management. This is usually not a fun time to be a leader:  not all the news is good, which creates a need for honest, forthright discussions that unfortunately rarely happen. For many of our people, it’s all about the raise or bonus, not ways to professionally grow.

That’s why many companies treat their people equally — it’s easier. We don’t need those hard, open, straightforward discussions about real performance and contribution. We just pay everyone at this level this much and move on. It’s more objective and clear — just like everyone getting a medal for showing up.

Being a leader requires taking the right road, not the easy road. Treating our people fairly requires judgment, subjectivity, and clear communication of expectations and goals on an ongoing basis since the world around us changes all the time. When we treat our people equally but not fairly, we tell people it’s OK to underperform and under-contribute, undermining the morale of our dedicated and passionate people. Then we are surprised when we get mediocre output and outcomes.

What if we modify the culture to recognize people fairly, based on their work, effort, passion and results, as individuals and teams? We will be surprised to see the positive difference it will make.

I versus you

The economic crisis may have exacerbated the extant behavior of climbing the corporate ladder and competing for promotions. But what have we really accomplished? We may have the wonderful corner office, but at whose expense and with what impact on results? I often ask my corporate colleagues if focusing on “I,” on themselves, has really gotten them the career satisfaction they sought.

As leaders, we need to help our people focus on the “you” — the customer, recipient of our services and products, and you, the employee. If we honestly ask ourselves who matters more, “I” or “you,” what is our answer?

A true leader is a servant who leads so is the business about our needs or the needs of others? Are we really focused on delighting our customers (to paraphrase my friend Steve Denning), which means we will delight our people because they are working on meaningful, purposeful solutions to real needs (outcomes) that result in revenue and profit (outputs) that can be reinvested? Or are we doing this for the next perk, the accolades from our peers, the prestige from our position?

I’m not suggesting altruism (though that’s not a bad idea!), but I am suggesting we ponder why we’re leading and whom we’re leading —  is it about “I” or about “you”? Can we really lead if it’s about us? Would we want to be led by someone who was all about himself? Does our leadership truly reflect our why and who? If someone asked the people who matter to us, “I” or “you,” what would they answer?

As we approach the middle of 2013, ask yourself two questions: Do you treat people equally or fairly (or both)? Does your leadership, hence your culture, value “you” over “I”? 

Deb Mills-Scofield has a consultancy helping organizations create actionable, adaptable and measurable innovation-based strategic plans. She is also a partner in an early-stage venture capital firm and a visiting scholar at Brown University. Her patent from AT&T Bell Labs was one of the highest revenue-generating patents for AT&T and Lucent. Connect with her on Twitter @dscofield or her website