Stay Or Leave? The Moral Paralysis Of Leadership In Financial Services

A healthy financial service sector is the cardiovascular system of our nation’s economy. It is part of a bigger global system. Working in and being a part of this is intrinsically a noble vocation.

Without a robust services system, Australia would not afford the high standard of living it does. Financial and banking services are foundational to support a thriving and sustainable economy and it is expected they provide stability, effectiveness, and a strong ethical code of conduct.

A Conundrum

Many high achieving leaders in financial services are beyond exhausted in having to defend the indefensible. Akin to an abusive relationship, leaders can feel downtrodden from vacuous promises of change and wafer thin excuses which deny accountability and responsibility.

When wrongdoing occurs, those proximate to the transgressor can experience the impact of the misconduct with a common overlay of vicarious shame.
For example, when a person is found guilty of serious fraud or deception, spouses and immediate family may be viewed as culpable by their very association. Neighbours will gossip, work associates keep their distance and friends divide. Guilt by association is a precarious place to be. So imagine the same association applied to managers or organisations who are in the spotlight for grave serious misdeeds. And if this is your workplace, each day you must turn up and carry on working and supporting the leaders diligently and your own teams.

Being required to stand before staff to promote the organisational visions handed down from leaders guilty of self-interest and misconduct puts many in the financial services sector in a place of ethical discomfort and compromise. This is a psychologically and exceptionally painful place to reside for any amount of time.

A healthy financial service sector is the cardiovascular system of our nation’s economy. It is part of a bigger global system. Working in and being a part of this is intrinsically a noble vocation.

Without a robust financial services system, Australia would not afford the high standard of living it does. Financial and banking services are foundations that support a thriving and sustainable economy, and it is expected they provide stability, effectiveness, and a strong ethical code of conduct.

Confidence Fades

Post the ‘Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation
& Financial Services Industry’ there was much hope the sector would be reformed. But hope faded quickly in many (but not all) organisations and institutions.

Further, large-scale money laundering and ongoing allegations of sexual misconduct left some executive teams with reputations that no amount of PR spin could repair. And as a result, many honest and capable leaders were saddled with an employer they do don’t feel proud of any longer.

This systemic issue is not only specific to financial services. The reverence of leadership models that create and worship hero leaders has created the conditions that attract self-interested individuals and create organisational cultures where they are revered, rewarded, and flourish.

Impact Of Erosion Of Trust

Key to feeling confident and engaged in the workplace is the belief that our work has real meaning that makes a positive impact on others and in our own lives. If you are unable to respect your organisation and its leaders, the way to survive is to rely solely on yourself. This can become untenable and is extremely hard going in the long term. It is the road to discontent, disconnection and burn out.

Hence many highly skilled and capable leaders are growing tired and depleted of energy as they front up to discordant workplaces feigning allegiance to executive teams, they have lost all reverence for. The gritted teeth “I believe in the cause’ rhetoric over time is extremely harmful to mental health, productivity and overall well being.

Touted pretences of ‘all is rosy, nothing to see here” is not believed by staff. Teams and direct reports will sense the disconnect as they are not blind to what is going on; after all they watch the news too! Everyone suffers here and trust is further eroded broadly.

The Internal Tug Of War

Many leaders have ongoing internal chatter causing ongoing stress. Questions and thoughts playing tug of war in their heads include:

1. I work for self-interested greedy people.
2. I should leave.
3. I love and respect the people that report to me so how can I abandon them.
4. You are weak, and you look the other way because you are well paid.
5. It is easy to walk away, I’m not a quitter
6. I need to be part of bringing about the change that is necessary.
7. If I left here, what would l do? This is all I know.
8. I should work somewhere where I can have a greater influence.
9. Things might yet improve; I need to have hope they will
10. What if left, it will get worse?
11. How can I support greed?
12. Am I virtue signalling, isn’t it like this everywhere?
13. I have a family to support and cannot let them down.

Unravelling The Situation

The first point is to unravel the spaghetti-like mess of thoughts racing inside your head. Acknowledging that your situation is very real and not a mere delusion or conspiracy you have imagined is crucial.

Secondly, talk about what is going on with a trusted friend or mentor, either inside or external to the workplace. Sharing how you feel is important to start to understand your responses.

Reflecting on how issues are impacting you will, by virtue reduce feelings of isolation and hopelessness.
Thirdly, part of unravelling that cognitive spaghetti inside your head means getting off the floor and seeing the situation from the balcony above. Perspective of distance is critical and from several balconies to observe different angles. Viewing different vantage points provides additional data to paint a bigger picture of what will be deeply complex issues. We need to be aware that each element and vantage point are mere pixels of the bigger picture to take into consideration.

The Importance Of Perspective Taking Capacity

Learning how to hold multiple and competing perspectives is a capability which is foundational for effective leadership. The capacity of perspective of different lenses supports leaders to navigate the complexity of organisational life.

Many high performing leaders work within complex organisations whose rhetoric contradicts reality. Attempting to make sense and mitigate is an unenviable position for leaders.

Eliminating Rumination

Once greater perspective has provided a more informed picture this leads to greater clarity, now it is time to act. And essential to this is to move away from all the tail-chasing and procrastination to make clear distinctions between our actions and beliefs.

Moving forward is the goal but at this point many leaders are stuck in the spider web of rumination. Different action is critical to break the malaise. And here is the problem the way rumination sees it.

Being tangled in a web of rumination feels hopeless that you are powerless to change anything let alone your future. Rumination is pernicious in keeping leaders stuck and not evolving. Each time a solution seems imminent, rumination bites again.

Science states that rumination is just that, the same thinking that goes around and around in circles. We know we are ruminating because the voice inside our head is always negative; it repeats the same facts again and again like a broken record leading to nowhere or any outcome.
Further, rumination is clearly correlated to depression and keeps the cycle of depression full bore. In the end, rumination becomes a habit that becomes an ingrained way of thinking.

Eliminating rumination is crucial for effective leadership, mental health, wellbeing and decision making.

Active Reflection For Change

Albert Einstein famously quoted “we cannot solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”

The first step to moving forward is to reflect actively. Active reflection means asking yourself the hard questions and then seeking and examining evidence for beliefs from those answers such as:

1. Am I stuck where I am out of fear or a sense of obligation?
2. How do I move forwards?
3. Am I leading with integrity?
4. Do I work in the best interests of my people and our customers?
5. Is my leadership a benefit to others and add to the positive capital of the organisation?
6. If I interviewed myself, would I hire me?
7. Does my working here in this organisation provide a sense of hope to others who might be struggling?
8. Can I be part of the change that is needed?
9. Is the problem insurmountable?
10. When we reflect, we stand apart from the problem and develop some distance from it that allows us to ask tough questions.
11. How do I feel about this situation?
12. What is my role and obligations here?
13. Can I find a way forward that does not conflict with my values and ethics?

From a psychological standpoint reflecting brings us back to a mid-point. But we need much more. Reflection is not enough to move us forward to a place of psychological thriving and wellbeing.

We need to be bolder; reflection and mindfulness have their place; they are tools to aid the journey; however, they are not the destination.
It is only through action that we can truly change how we feel about a situation and change the problem itself. Goal setting and action has the effect on rumination that sunlight has on vampires; it kills it dead.

Options – Stay Or Leave?

Reflection provides us with clarity of what lies within our control and where we can influence effectively. Raging against the issues and lies out of our control fuels incredible existential angst and feelings of despondency. It might be an interesting place to visit for a few minutes but don’t book a two-week holiday there, not unless you packed the Prozac.

After weighing up all that is occurring, you may decide leaving the organisation or sector broadly is the right thing for your career and wellbeing. If that decision is a positive one, be proud of owning and acting on it. The pride comes not from leaving but from having the courage to make a decision that moves your career and your life forwards.

Deep clarity, expertise in complex financial systems and difficult regulatory environments and ethical leadership values will be high regarded in market as you move to the next chapter of your career.

Whatever decision you make the key act is to commit and stick to it without waver. If you do not do this, you just end up boarding the express train to destination rumination. And your hotel, yes you guessed it a deep dark hole.

One way forward may be to put a caveat on your choice. I commit to leading for a further 18 months in financial services. At that point to be able to commit to staying I want to see three specific things happen.

Should you leave now or later is a pointless question. It is flawed as the same issues of rumination that have had you trapped continue to dig a hole. The best advice I can give anyone who finds themselves in such a hole is this. Stop digging!

The Final Question

At the end of the day the most important question for leaders to ask themselves is:
“Where can I serve that makes a meaningful contribution? ”

If having to wrestle with the moral dilemmas you face daily means you are unable to show up in a way that allows you to be your best, then then decision just became clear.

In the end where you serve as a leader is unimportant. What matters is how you lead wherever you decide to be.



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