Just Culture, a concept James Reason proffered decades ago is growing in popularity. At its essential core Just Culture is pretty simple: people make mistakes and punishing people for making honest mistakes is a basic form of injustice. Reason, and his successors, argue that organizations must foster blame-free environments where workers are encouraged to report mistakes and near miss if they hope to ever address the root causes of workplace injuries.
But implementing a just culture is far more difficult than merely deciding not to punish people for screwing up. Far too many business leaders are unable to see past their petty biases and the traditional legal department party line that a blame-free culture needlessly and recklessly exposes organizations from malpractice lawsuits or other liabilities. This is unfortunate. So many business leaders are afraid to do what is right in favor of what is safe.
For a just culture to take hold and blossom organizations need a different sort of leader. A Just culture needs to be led by what I describe as just leaders, and these executives are a rarity.
Traits of a Just Leader
Just leaders share characteristics that set them apart from the pack. These leaders see themselves as leaders first and foremost and they live there lives by a code of conduct that is set not be some artificial external criteria but by their personal values.
It takes a lot of moral fortitude to stand up to corporate attorneys who advise you on a course of action that pits you against your core values. If the corporate attorney insists that you hang someone out to dry, it’s tempting to throw someone under the bus and blame the oily skinned legal department (or corporate communication or IT). It takes real courage to stand up to the corporate pitch fork and torch toting mob screaming for the blood of some hapless bureaucrat who mad a bad decision in good faith, but that’s what a just leader does. A just leader recognizes that courage lies not fearlessness, but in recognizing one’s fear and forging forward despite them.
A just leader is able to clearly articulate his or her values and institutionalize those values into a work culture that is fair and just.
It’s scary what passes for vision these days. Corruption is rampant, which one could argue was always the case, but even when Chief Tammany bore witness through his lifeless wooden eyes, people recognized corruption, incompetence and dare I say it, corporate sin. Just leaders need vision and that vision must take them beyond what’s good for themselves and their stockholders. Just leaders know that they cast long shadows and that to create an organization that will endure it takes more than their own skills and includes the skills of most everyone in the organization.
Recent years have seen the growth of a sickening cottage industry—executives who take companies into bankruptcy. This is pointedly obvious in the auto industry. There are a handful of executives whose only value seems to be screwing people out of money to which they are legally entitled via bankruptcy. These slim-witted weasels are hired to bankrupt a company not as a last resort reset of the company’s debts but as a corporate strategy.
A just leader looks beyond the goals by which his or her compensation is based and instead focuses on how organizations can serve the needs of their stock holders, their environments, their employees, and their customers. A good leader knows the importance of being a good corporate citizen.
Rudyard Kipling once wrote “if you can trust yourself while all men doubt you while still allowing for the doubting too.” Just leaders do this by consistently holding the line as others in their industry are melting down in panic. Because these leaders have a clear cut vision you can always predict what they will do in a crisis, you can set your watch by them and trust they will do what is required even if it is painful
Consistency isn’t easy, especially when an industry is melting down. But no one will ever admit mistakes without knowing exactly what consequences are likely to befall them. So unless a leader can consistently react to unexpected circumstances a just culture can never emerge.
A just leader cannot expect others to be forth coming about their mistakes unless he or she clearly acknowledges his or her own mistakes. Everyone makes mistakes and for a leader to gloss over his or her business faux pas is the height of arrogance and hubris. Just leaders aren’t afraid to acknowledge their mistakes and the best of them learn from their mistakes and teach others the lessons they learned.
Honesty transcends being straight-forward with board members, the media, the workers, the unions, and the stockholders and reaches the depths of the just leader’s subconscious and lays bare the soul, in short the just leader is MOST honest with him- or herself.
Just leaders don’t just know the difference between right and wrong, they also know the difference between right and legal. In this day and age it’s easy to hide behind the law and commit corporate atrocities. For most leaders doing something heinous is softened a bit if you can get your corporate lobbyist to get it legalized first. Just leaders worry about what is right, not what is legal. And when they act with integrity and transparency they need not worry about investigations or accusations.
Just leaders hold themselves to a higher standard than the one to which they hold all others and the one against which society measures them. And when it comes to creating a just cultures having the right leaders is more important than having the right consultants, the right tag lines, or even the right policies.