Fairness is something that people deem to be important. Overwhelming so in fact. It’s presence can contribute to ongoing engagement, and it’s fracture or absence may drive us away. In the Quiet Leadership work, we explore this notion through a series of questions: ‘how do we experience fairness’, ‘what fractures fairness’, and ‘with fairness, where does our responsibility lie?’
These questions may seem odd: or would do if ‘fairness’ were a simple thing, or a digital state. But the reality may be more nuanced: fairness is typically described more as a judgement than a ‘thing’, and is more contextual than absolute. So something that is ‘fair’ to me may be deeply ‘unfair’ to you, even though we are looking at exactly the same thing.
It’s often described as being ‘triangulated’ – me to you, to the other. So it’s experienced not simply in our relationship (me to you), but in our relationship in comparison to how ‘you treat the other’. Hence why this third dimension can cause us to reevaluate our perception of fairness: i may be totally happy until i ‘discover’ a reason that things are unfair.
In the research, people typically describe their judgement of fairness as intuitive. A gut feeling: nobody describes compiling a detailed spreadsheet and then analysing things before passing judgement. They are more likely to describe the fracturing of fairness as betrayal, and with a sense of loss.
One of the aspects i try to unpick in this work is the distinction between how Organisations often talk about fairness, as some kind of panacea of holistic state, and our experience of fairness (both in terms of how it acts upon us, and our role in triggering it in others).
Any notion that an Organisation can be systemically ‘fair’ is probably to misunderstand how the currency is spent. The very act of me being fair to you may cause or trigger a sense of unfairness elsewhere. Simply by using my time, resource, focus, or opportunity, with you may cast a shadow. Almost everything does: if we operate in the light, we will cast shadows.
In this sense, we can start to understand leadership not as being ‘fair’ or ‘unfair’ in total (although individual decisions may be judged as that, from a specific perspective). Rather it is inherently imperfect: there are many contexts in which we cannot win. We can only settle on one path by neglecting another.
Perhaps the experience of leadership is not some abstracted ideal of perfect action, but rather a deep and personal engagement in our own imperfection. To be willing to act, but to do so within a dialogue of context. And to recognise that our next action should be to look into the shadows. To see the hidden impacts.
Because one other things come out of the Quiet Leadership work: fairness is not equally available to all. Not simply the experience of fairness, but the availability of it, may be deeply uneven. Due to contexts of culture, location, role, or leadership, some people may simply lack the opportunity.
Overall, this speaks to me of the role of the Social Leader: to navigate with certainty, but humility. To take action and to consider our shadow. To represent a whole community, not simply the visible. To stand in the light and reach into the silence. And sometimes to be clear where the price is paid for each of our decisions and actions.