Editor's Choice

Leading with Dignity: How to Create a Culture That Brings Out the Best in People

August 17, 2018


Donna Hicks explains the power of leading with dignity, and how to honor it in ourselves, others, and our organizations.

Leading with Dignity: How to Create a Culture That Brings Out the Best in People by Donna Hicks, Yale University Press, 232 pages, Hardcover, August 2018, ISBN 9780300229639

“Am I smart or am I learning?” In a book filled with as many informative questions as answers, this may be the most important.

Donna Hicks’ first book, Dignity, explored why honoring people’s dignity is so important, how and why it is so often violated, and introduced her Dignity Model to help resolve conflicts that arise from such violations. The spark for her new book, Leading with Dignity, occurred when a consultant called asking if she would be interested in discussing the longstanding conflicts that had plagued a major U.S. corporation he had been working with. Working with businesses and other organizations since then led to a deeper understanding of “the leadership challenges we are facing in our work, organizations, and the world—and how dignity can help to address those challenges.”

The quickest way to convey the concept of dignity may be in its relation to respect, with which she has found most people conflate it:


What people usually say is that dignity is respect. I get this response every time I ask an audience. But dignity is not the same as respect. Dignity, I argue, is an attribute we are born with—it is our inherent value and worth. We were all born worthy.


To put it another way, respect is something that must be earned. Dignity is the worth we’re imbued with simply by virtue of existing:


Dignity is something we all deserve, no matter what we do. It is the starting point for the way we treat one another. To clear up any confusion, I think it is imperative to respect each other’s dignity.


Hicks describes a conversation she had with Desmond Tutu while working in Northern Ireland. She told him how many people she had met while working in international conflict resolution who had told her they felt they had been stripped of their dignity. Tutu “tilted his head, scrunched up his face, and said, ‘What are you talking about? No one has the power to strip us of our dignity.'” For proof, he asked her to read Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom, where she found the following passage:


“Prison and authorities conspire to rob each man of his dignity. In and of itself, that assured that I would survive, for any man or institution that tries to rob me of my dignity will lose because I will not part with it at any price or under any pressure.”


Building this Mandela consciousness, as she calls it, is now a basic building block of the Dignity Model. The problem is that, while “[w]e are all born with dignity, we’re just not born knowing how to act like it.” It is a truth we need to learn, one that seems immediately self-evident when we do, and one that Donna Hicks teaches well in Leading with Dignity. The book is broken into three parts. Part One introduces the concept and lays the groundwork philosophically; Part Two focuses on personal development and “What You Need to Do to Lead with Dignity”; and Part Three explores how to instill dignity in organizational development, and create a “Culture of Dignity.” Parts Two and Three are the more actionable sections, with practices that will help improve how you ask for and receive feedback, build trust and empathy, and how to take a bird’s-eye view of your behavior and your responsibility for it as an individual, as well as a description for how to workshop dignity education in an organization. Part One feels more like blinders being taken off something you’ve always known, but never been able to articulate, highlighting the ten elements of dignity that emerged in the stories people have told Hicks, and educating us on ten temptations to violate dignity, which is what makes it so common.  

We’ve said it often. The right book at the right time can change someone’s life. I think Leading with Dignity by Donna Hicks is the right book at any time, for anyone, and could change all our lives. That is a bold claim, but consider how shareholder value theory, which originated in an obscure academic paper in 1976 by Michael Jensen and Dean William Meckling, has transformed American business and shaped today’s economy. Just forty years after the idea that the “ultimate measure of a company's success is the extent to which it enriches shareholders” was introduced, we’re seeing headlines about how the 3 richest Americans now hold more wealth than the bottom 50 percent of the country, and a report from the Economic Policy Institute that “the ratio of CEO-to-worker compensation rose to 312-to-1—far greater than the 20-to-1 ratio in 1965 and more than five times greater than the 58-to-1 ratio in 1989.” It wasn’t always this way, and Leading with Dignity doesn't address such issues directly, but I think this book can help the proverbial pendulum swing in the opposite direction by refocusing our organizations on human dignity rather than solely on shareholder profit.

Hicks is not alone in her quest. She cites many books throughout her exploration of the topic—from business leaders like Bob Chapman and Raj Sisodia’s Everybody Matters to academia's Michael Pirson’s Humanistic Management. There is even a Humanistic Management Network devoted to spreading the doctrine:


Challenging the traditional dominant narrative that focuses on self-interest, ruthless competition, and profit maximization, these scholars propose that concern for human dignity be the centerpiece of a new model that extends to the dignity of the environment, and so includes concern for its exploitation. The Humanistic Management Network is committed to the following principles: that unconditional respect for human dignity is the foundation for human interaction; that ethical reflection must form an integral part of all business decisions; and that seeking normative legitimacy for corporate activities allows for the aligning of good intentions with activities that have the potential to produce good outcomes.


We hope a paradigm shift is occurring from a focus on individual power and profit to connection with others and the common good, which just happens to be the best way to build real power and a healthy profit long-term. Achieving this is not necessarily easy. Due to the nature of hierarchical organizations, and because most people have never been educated in the fundamental truths Hicks unveils about dignity or discovered them within themselves as did Mandela, it is easy for good people, people who are otherwise good leaders, to inadvertently violate the dignity of others, often in attempts to motivate them. That is why it’s crucial to remember that:


One of the greatest temptations that leaders have to avoid is believing in their superiority. This is where dignity provides a perfect counterbalance, for we may differ in status, but we are all equal in dignity.


Discussing “Dignity’s Depth and Breadth” in Chapter 3, Hicks introduces the idea of the “three Cs,” which are ‘connection, connection, and connection—being connected to our own dignity, the dignity of others, and the dignity of something greater than ourselves.’ These three Cs “help to illuminate the crucial role that dignity plays in clarifying our responsibility for the well-being of the whole community, whether that community is our family, workplace, neighborhood, country, or world at large.” They also align perfectly with Hicks’ belief that “we derive and understand our dignity in three stages: dependence, independence, and interdependence,” though they don’t play out in that order. Our own dignity requires independence, but we are born dependent on others, who are often the first people to violate it. The fragility that comes with that interdependence may be behind some of our current leadership troubles. Hicks asks:


Is it possible that underlying the leadership crisis is arrested development? Is the fear of of losing dignity behind some of the many leadership failures we are seeing in the world?


Adapting ideas of William James’, she asks us to focus on the “I” instead of “me,” with the goal of self-expansion rather than self-preservation.


The “I” is not dependent on others for its sense of worth. The “I” knows that its worth is unconditional. It has Mandela consciousness. It does not need external validation of its dignity. It views feedback as a growth opportunity, not as criticism. It is open to learning especially about aspects of the self that cannot see but others can.


Hicks helps us see why insight, specifically about how to develop healthy relationships and foster a healthy social environment, is a far more helpful leadership quality than inspiration. Inspiration is ego-driven, insight is others-driven. A teacher at a school who has implemented dignity education in the curriculum told her, “The dignity work helps students see leadership not as an exercise in personal ego, but rather as an opportunity to contribute to the well-being of others and the world around them.”


Understanding that learning and development have no expiration dates could be one of the most important messages for promoting well-being and our ability to realize the potential for growth that resides within us all. Anyone who exercises leadership, from the very top of the organization or within it, will benefit from this insight.


So I guess the question is, “Are you smart or are you learning?”

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