just leader

Are You Just a Leader or a Just Leader?

There are so many important traits in making a great leader – character, integrity, honesty, authenticity, vulnerability, trustworthiness, conviction, vision, communication and others I’m sure you can name.  Let’s talk about communication.  It’s not just the right words in the right tone; grammar plays a role.  Where you place certain words has a big implication on what is important, which impacts the culture. So let me ask you – are you Just a Leader or a Just Leader?

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; they focus on ‘social justice’. But justice has a huge 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, 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 year or are preparing for mid-year performance management.  This is usually not a fun time to be a leader – not all the news is good, requiring honest, forthright discussions that 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 and are then 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 a just leader will make.

I versus You

The current economic crisis may have exacerbated an extant corporate behavior, 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, the recipient of our services and products and you the employee.  If we honestly ask ourselves who matters more, ‘I’, ourselves or ‘You’ our customers and people, what is our answer?

A just 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 quote 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 revenues and profit (outputs) that can be reinvested in the delighting our customers? Or, are we doing this for the next perk, the accolades from our peers, the prestige from our position?

I’m not suggesting total 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 be a just leader 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 one of our people who mattered to us, ‘I’ or ‘You’, what would they answer?

As we approach the middle of year, ask yourself two questions: do you treat people equally or fairly  (or both) and does your leadership, hence your culture, value ‘You’ over ‘I’?



Deborah Mills-Scofield is a partner at Glengary LLC, an early stage venture capital firm in Cleveland, OH, and an innovation and strategy consultant. Her patent from AT&T Bell Labs was one of the highest-revenue generating patents ever for AT&T & Lucent.

  • Jon M

    Well said, Deborah! And, great questions to think through in how we work with others and serve as leaders. The servant leadership way is a key one and it is one that I am excited to see really take hold in Millennial leaders. Thanks for your great insights and challenge! Jon

  • Pingback: The Friday Five, Blogs That Matter - March 21, 2014 | The Transformational Leadership Strategist()

  • Derek Harris

    Great article, but you have mixed a couple of different concepts that really need to be addressed separately. Fairness among employees has nothing to do with providing good customer service. At a previous employer, management focused on treating everyone equally, which meant that it really wasn’t fair. The medical assistants in patient care areas couldn’t have snacks at their desks, so people working in the back office weren’t allowed to either. But providing the most value possible to the customer is the way for a business to thrive. If providing the customer with the most value is not the goal of every employee, the business will struggle.

  • ed fletcher-Wells

    Thank you for sharing this Deborah. As I start the climb into senior management, articles like yours are really inspiring and reinforce my own belief in style and approach. The obstructions I face do involve the fairness/equality debate. I have experienced a decade long, frustrating journey in middle management where everybody receives the same incentives regardless of contribution. This has lead to insubordination and unfortunate contract terminations of key hard working individuals over the years. They felt neglected as their value was ignored as their lesser deserving colleagues received the same perks and bonuses. To the company’s defense the incentives were good and frequent, but this miss-management and lack of effort of proper processing makes it extremely hard to motivate people. Rather than raising an employee production standard, it demoralized the good worker to reduce their output. This in turn, has led to underperformance investigations, and more feelings of unfairness. I still haven’t achieved the step up into senior managment to correct these blind decisions, but the company has supplied management training for me to proceed to the next level. However, do you have any tips or suggestions on how to manage up as well as down when it comes to changes of the way we think towards staff. I feel my next step maybe a hard one when it comes to attempting to install new ways of thinking to the board rather than implementing to the workforce. Once again, Thank you for sharing. Ed

  • Pingback: Are You Just a Teacher or a Just Teacher? | Another Way()

  • Ben Simonton

    Great article Deborah, great!

    Fair v equal is all about values. Fairness is a value we all value and the higher the standard the better we like it because we all believe in the same good values and that their opposites are bad.

    Equal is not a value. Anything that turns out equal as concerns people is most likely quite unfair and leads to bad outcomes.

    Leadership is simply the transmission of value standards to employees who then use those standards as how to do their work and treat their customers, each other, and their bosses. Treating people equally implies that they are all equal and everyone knows that is not true. It may be great for lawyers, but it will most certainly lead people to be demotivated, demoralized, and disengaged.

    Great article.

  • Pingback: Leadership News You Can Use 04/11/2014 | Mom and Pop Today()

  • Pingback: Just Leader | xiaobreynold()

  • Shannon Steene

    This sends my mind whirling. I work in the nonprofit sector with a wide array of leaders. CEOs really wrestle with the Fair Vs Equal you reference. I like your framing on it.

  • There’s a more human way to do business.

    In the Social Age, it’s how we engage with customers, collaborators and strategic partners that matters; it’s how we create workplace optimism that sets us apart; it’s how we recruit, retain (and repel) employees that becomes our differentiator. This isn’t a “people first, profits second” movement, but a “profits as a direct result of putting people first” movement.

  • Connect

    Newsletter Subscription

    Do you like our posts? If so, you’ll love our frequent newsletter! Sign up HERE and receiveThe ExchangeGain Change Playbook, by Shawn Murphy, as our thanks to you!
  • Contact Us

    Time limit is exhausted. Please reload the CAPTCHA.