‘Never Again’ is the inscription inscribed in five languages at the Dachau Concentration Camp memorial site a short distance outside Munich. A visit to such a place is not easy yet is entirely necessary. This is a place where man’s inhumanity and cruelty is laid bare. It is a place that is custodian to a story that is hard to comprehend. It is a place that serves as a grim reminder to just what we are capable of and a place where words are inadequate when it comes to describing the details of what happened.
‘How could we have got to such a place?’ was the question that reverberated around my head as we moved around the site. The perpetrators were intelligent, well educated people. They had wives and children, they were sons, brothers and fathers. They had faith and values. How could they have got to such a place?
It is described in Jack Sacco’s book as the place ‘Where the birds never sing’. It is a place that was in plain sight yet not seen. The US 92nd Signal Battalion were amongst the first troops to encounter and liberate Dachau. Unable to make sense of what they encountered the US military marched the entire adult population of Dachau town through the camp; townsfolk who had lived ‘normal’ lives in the shadow of such horror. Some wept, some covered their eyes, whilst others stared ahead showing neither emotion nor remorse. Some of the German SS soldiers captured at Dachau were summarily executed without a trial and with no mercy. One soldier was ‘given’ to the former prisoners who extracted their own horrible revenge as he was beaten to death. For a time it was a place where the rules continued to be suspended and the moral compass failed to provide direction. It was a place of fresh tears and one where tears had long since dried-up.
Nobel Laurette and Dachau survivor, Elie Wiesel, somehow finds words to describe the horror in his book, Night. In it he touches on the conspiracy of silence of the many that allowed the atrocity of Dachau (and other such places) to occur. Individuals and institutions that must have known yet did nothing. Churches that proclaimed to know the ‘Truth’ yet were too afraid or too blind to speak against the architects and authority underpinning the Dachau’s of Germany. Of course this wasn’t the first time, nor would it sadly be the last where the Church failed to take a stand, choosing rather to turn a deaf ear and blind eye to evil. The prolonged Apartheid policy that stained South Africa being one obvious such example.
So the question behind the echo, ‘Never again’ – a sentiment echoed by Nelson Mandela when his land emerged from its own dark night, is: how can we ensure that ‘never again’ is a reality rather than a mere mantra?
There are three things that will help ensure that such atrocities are prevented. They are three things that leaders in whatever domain, need to heed. In a world where difference and diversity collide at every turn, they are three things that need expression more than ever. Working at how these three things translate in your company as a leader is a fundamental leadership responsibility and it the leader’s task to ensure that they are practiced in acceptable ways throughout the organisation. The danger is that the leader (and sometimes those close to the leader) dislocate themselves from the practice of these three things and / or apply (and rationalise) a different standard as to how these three things are applied to their behaviour. When that happens moral decay is a certainty.
So, what are these ‘three things’?
Firstly there is accountability. Accountability is accepting the responsibility to be answerable for your actions and behaviour. In most corporate instances accountability is tightly bolted to performance related criteria and whilst these are obviously important, they don’t demonstrate the full range of things to be answerable for when it comes to leadership. Accountability goes deeper than performance related measures and when this is not understood, unacceptable practices are permitted to creep into the picture. Such practices often undermine credibility and the fall-out goes unnoticed or unattended to until it is simply too late.
Leaders need to interrogate the accountability structure they have in place and in several instances these are inadequate as several public exposures reveal. What it means to be accountable as a leadership team is a very worthwhile conversation to have and to ensure that it extends beyond the ‘what I need to deliver’ approach. Covey wrote that ‘accountability breads response-ability’ and he was right. As a leader it is your task to ensure that there is on-going accountability within your organisation and how you practice this at the very top, amongst your own team, will set the mould for what it looks like elsewhere throughout your company.
Secondly, there is transparency. Accountability and transparency go hand-in-hand. Transparency is a complex subject as there might well be an argument for ‘how much transparency should there be?’ Are there things that should be kept hidden from others? Take this out of the corporate setting for a moment to show just how complex a subject this is: imagine for a moment that you are diagnosed with a life-threatening illness, do you tell your children aged 5, 8 and 13? What do you tell them and how do you tell them. People would differ as to what exactly is the ‘right thing to do’ in this instance and it is a decision that would be influenced by parenting style, the family dynamic and personal perspective.
It is complex.
Transparency and leadership is similarly so and leaders and organisations need to work out what transparency means for them in their own specific and boarder industry context. However, the point of complexity acknowledged, the rules around transparency in today’s ‘all seeing, all knowing’ context through digital recorders and social media, have changed. People are more robust around their right to know and getting information has never been easier. Exercising greater transparency is a far better direction to be heading than going the other way – trying to protect, guard or hide information. At a personal level there are many leaders for whom ‘being transparent’ is not natural, is not what they have been taught ‘good leaders’ do and is something to be stoically avoided. There are others for whom being transparent is more natural and they are at ease with being open about their reservations, fears and doubts, incorporating these into their leadership practice.
All this said, the lack of transparency is far more likely to be the cause of problems than is being transparent. I believe this to be true at both a corporate and personal level.
Thirdly, there is the matter of respect. The lack of respect for life – a most fundamental trait, led to the atrocities of Dachau. The lack of respect for others underpins all such atrocities in whatever context and sphere.
Like transparency, respect is a nuanced subject, the subtleties of which can and are easily overlooked. For example, take the issue of respect across generations. For older generations respect was based on title – or what we may term ‘positional respect’. To show positional respect it wasn’t important that “I know who you are’ as your title denotes the level of respect to be shown. Of course over time this would adjust as relationship is developed but at the outset, title is an all- important factor in determining the level of respect due.
For younger people this is less so. Younger people generally don’t do ‘positional respect’ but rather ‘relational respect’. In other words the lead factor in the determination of respect is ‘who you are’ and I would need to get to know you before determining the level of respect shown. Respect is earned and it matters little whether or not you are the adult, the boss, the teacher or the parent…respect is earned. This is what we call a ‘generational paradox’ around respect and until I understand it as a paradox, the ensuing conversation is likely to be somewhat turbulent!
Almost every company has ‘respect’ included in their list of values. What does this really mean within your organisation? How is it practiced? Listing respect as a value is the easy part; working our exactly what is means in a multi-cultural, cross-generational organisational context is where the real work sits. When last did you revive the conversation around respect and check whether or not your staff really feel respected and to what extent respect is alive and well within your ranks?
Most assume it is; often it is not.
The thing is that if respect isn’t alive within your organisation, the chances are that it isn’t practiced outside your organisation – with your clients, customers and suppliers. I remember a story told by a friend of mine who was at a restaurant where he witnessed the manager berating one of the staff in full view of the public. Later, during the course of his meal the same manager came across and politely asked how my friend was enjoying his meal – as managers are expected to do. My friend, after commenting on the food (that he said was fine) simply asked the manager how he (the manager) felt that the earlier incident with the staff member – showing the staff person no respect, had impacted his enjoyment of the meal? The manager was taken back and to his credit asked what could be done to remedy the situation. My friend then came up with a bit of genius: he suggested that as the manager had disrespected the staff person publically, that he apologise publically. He did…but that is now another story that takes us away from the point being discussed!
Accountability, transparency and respect – three often spoken words but ones where the word counts for little as it is action that really matters. How these words are lived within your organisation will go a long, long way in determining what kind of organisational culture you have – or more plainly, what kind of organisation you are. Determining what these words mean is the leaders responsibility.
Dachau serves as tragic reminder as to what happens when these words get lost and ultimately distorted and corrupted. What happen in Dachau and elsewhere didn’t start there…these outcomes had roots in institutions, organisations and relationships where accountability, transparency and respect where first neglected, ignored and ultimately trampled.
Don’t let this happen on your watch!