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A Sense of Comity

Dr. Harry Hertz Photo and the Insights on the Road to Performance Excellence Logo

Dr. Harry Hertz, Director Emeritus
Baldrige Performance Excellence Program

February 2013

I am basing this leadership column on remarks delivered by Secretary of State John Kerry in his farewell address to his colleagues at the end of his 28 years in the Senate. I think Kerry's "15 Great Leadership Lessons" make a compelling case for study and emulation by all leaders. And I see clear parallels to characteristics of CEOs of Baldrige Award recipients (Baldrige CEOs) and to the concepts of visionary leadership (a Baldrige Criteria core value), servant leadership, and comity.

Let me start with a very old concept, comity. Comity means a state of civility or courtesy between people, organizations, and nations. It's a hoped-for attribute reflecting mutual respect. I would assert it is a critical characteristic for successful leaders in both political and "business" environments. It is a key characteristic expressed by Kerry and implicit in the beliefs of Baldrige CEOs. It is also a critical attribute if one believes, as Kerry does, in servant leadership, which is practiced by many Baldrige CEOs.

Servant leadership is based on the premise of being a servant first and then aspiring to leadership for the benefit of those served. The servant leader focuses on the needs of others and serves in an organization characterized by an inverted pyramid, with "customers" at the top, and with leaders at the bottom enabling organizational accomplishment.

The Baldrige core value of visionary leadership is practiced by senior leaders who set a vision for the organization, create a customer focus, demonstrate clear and visible organizational values and ethics, and set high expectations for their colleagues in the workforce. They foster innovation and intelligent risk taking, build organizational knowledge and capabilities, and ensure organizational sustainability.

A recent study by John Latham (PDF) of 14 Baldrige Award recipients identifies the following six individual leader characteristics possessed by the leaders of those Baldrige Award-winning organizations: having a sense of purpose and meaning, being both humble and confident, possessing integrity, having a systems perspective, and sharing particular attitudes and motivations. In the area of attitudes and motivations, Latham has identified these six patterns (PDF) that differentiate Baldrige CEOs:

  • They are more likely to want to evolve change and drive continuous improvement.
  • They are strongly motivated to work with systems and processes.
  • They are less likely to think sole responsibility is important.
  • They study the past and use their experience to make decisions.
  • They are strongly motivated to manage by fact.
  • They are not very motivated to deal with people who have rules different than their own.

Servant leaders, visionary leaders, Baldrige CEOs could not behave as described above without a sense of comity. I think the intersection of all these characteristics and a need for comity was wonderfully displayed in the 15 leadership lessons shared by John Kerry at his Senate farewell. Here I'll share those lessons with you, adding some commentary and encouragement for your own leadership style:

1. Failure is important—it teaches us humility. Think of the leaders you have respected over the years, and ask yourself if they were humble or arrogant. How did they react to failures along the way? Did they learn or did they burn?

2. Acknowledgement matters—give thanks to the big and little giants whose shoulders you stand on. Success is a team sport that involves everyone on the team. Credit should be shared.

3. Federal workers should be celebrated, not demonized. I won't comment on the specific reference to federal workers, but how often do we wince at CEOs who demonize their employees?

4. Respect America's institutions—they're bigger than any one person and unite us. Kerry said, "What's right about the Senate [is] the predominant and weighty notion that 100 American citizens, chosen by their neighbors to serve from states as different as Massachusetts and Montana, can always choose to put parochial or personal interests aside and find the national interest." We face many challenges as a country whose solutions evade us for a lack of comity. For all of us, the parallel question is, do we put parochial or personal interests aside to serve the larger interest of our organizations and communities?

5. Servant leadership is the truest kind of leadership—and it demands courage.

6. Divided we will certainly fail.
Lessons 5 and 6 are true for our national governance system, for our workplace governance systems, for our communities, and for our families.

7. We must lead for our times and for all times. Kerry talked about honoring history, but also acting for the legacy that we can and want to leave. As Latham's research shows, Baldrige CEOs learn from the past and build on that experience. All leaders should learn from the past and think of the total legacy they will leave.

8. Our choices, not processes and rules, define us. Problems arise when we can't live by the same rules; another Baldrige CEO characteristic relates to these rules. And to paraphrase Kerry's words, when an individual—or colluding caucus—determines that the comity essential to an institution's proper operation is a barrier to individual ambition or partisan ambition, the larger community suffers.

9. Our problems are manmade, so they can be solved by man. Kerry quoted President Kennedy, who said, "Reason and spirit have often solved the seemingly unsolvable, and we believe they can do it again."

10. The Senate faces three challenges: lack of respect, the corrupting influence of money, and the disregard for fact. Kerry spoke of the interest peddling by those with a lot of money, the access it affords, and the way it can silence the voices of the majority of Americans. I think this point applies to many institutions today. Lack of respect, the corrupting influence of money, and the disregard for fact are certainly contrary to Baldrige CEOs' style, visionary leadership, and servant leadership.

11. Leadership must be by example.

12. Relationships matter.
Lessons 11 and 12 are at the crux of servant leaders', Baldrige CEOs', and visionary leaders' characteristics.

13. Diversity strengthens us. While not explicitly included in the three leadership styles discussed above, the Baldrige Criteria emphasize diversity and that your workforce should represent the diverse ideas, cultures, and thinking of your hiring and customer communities.

14. Youth shouldn't stop you from sharing your voice – or listening to others.

15. Finally, listening, above all else, is what matters most. Servant leaders listen and communicate. Baldrige CEOs believe responsibility needs to be shared; therefore, Baldrige CEOs are effective two-way communicators.

What is required as an overarching belief and attribute of successful leaders? Comity, exemplified by civility and discourse. Kerry summed up his time in the Senate this way: "The privilege of being here is in being able to listen to your constituents. It is the people and their voices . . . that determine whether or not our democracy works." I would paraphrase his last comment as, "The privilege of being a leader is being able to listen to your customers (and employees) because they determine the organization's success."

I commend Kerry's 15 lessons to all leaders. If I had to summarize this Insights column in one lesson, it would be this: Serve with comity. That attribute of respect for all could take us a long way toward a better workplace and a more engaged customer community for all organizations. Leadership is a privilege, and those who are so privileged have a duty to exercise that privilege with a commitment to serve and serve with comity.


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Created March 29, 2013, Updated June 2, 2021