Strengthening Value-Centered Ethics (Part 2)

Managerial leadership action roles: what, why, and how?

2004 Volume 7 Issue 3

This article, the second in a series of three on “Strengthening Values-Centered Ethics,” focuses on executing values in leadership. The first article focused on identifying core values as a leader (See “Strengthening Values Centered Leadership,” GBR Volume 7, Issue 2). The third article will focus on setting behavior standards in connection with a set of virtuous values.

Effectively executing managerial leadership action roles that are aligned with a set of virtuous values can boost an organization’s economic and ethical bottom lines. This article offers four key managerial leadership action roles, some benefits to practicing them, and a practical approach to develop these roles in connection with a set of virtuous values. (For a more extensive discussion, see notes.)[1]

What Are Action Roles?

When managerial leader action roles are executed effectively and aligned with virtuous values, they contribute to creating and sustaining an ethical organizational culture. My consulting work and professional managerial leadership experience over the past 25 years indicate that as effective managerial leaders pursue the achievement of results, they perform four key action roles: Influencer, Director, Focuser and Linker. My applied work on the four key managerial leadership action roles answers the call from Edwin Locke and Cary Cooper in their book Industrial and Organizational Psychology: Linking Theory with Practice. These prolific researchers appeal to practitioners to bring forth their work to help practitioners drive applied research agendas. They believe it is time to reverse the typical pattern of theoretical research driving practice.[2] The four action roles are reviewed below:

  • The Influencer Action Role relates to the practice of interpersonal influence skills. These practices include such influencing skills as effectively communicating, motivating and managing conflict. Influencing skills impact the other three action roles. They are employed by managerial leaders when setting direction, focusing people on what is most important, and linking resources, especially people.
  • The Director Action Role involves the managerial leader setting a clear, meaningful and motivating direction. People in organizations want to know where things are headed and look to managerial leaders to effectively play this role. Practices associated with this role include such things as orienting people to your values, developing a mission and communicating the direction.
  • The Focuser Action Role finds managerial leaders helping people in their organization focus on what is most important and achievable. The practices within this action role guide behavior toward desirable results. Focuser role practices include such things as goal setting, selecting talent and giving performance feedback.
  • The Linker Action Role finds the effective managerial leader boosting productivity by coordinating and integrating organization resources to complete work assignments and obtain results. The linking and coordination of resources needs to occur across functional areas and at all levels in an organization. Linking practices include managing teamwork, representing the organization to stakeholders and allocating resources competently.

Managerial leaders who communicate and model a group of virtuous values as they effectively execute the four action roles will strengthen the practice of value-centered ethics in their organization. Having adapted the research of Seligman (2002)[3] and Peterson and Seligman (2004)[4] on virtues, character, and values to the field of ethical managerial leadership, my review of this literature and my secondary research have yielded the following six core virtuous values:[5]

  1. Wisdom and Knowledge
  2. Self-Control
  3. Justice and Fair Guidance
  4. Transcendence
  5. Love and Kindness
  6. Courage and Integrity

Note: For more on these values, please read “Creating and Sustaining an Ethical Workplace Culture,” GBR Volume 6, Issue 3.

Why Bother?

A variety of good reasons to effectively practice these managerial leadership action roles include the following:

  1. Enhances Managerial Leadership as a Profession. Managerial leaders have a major responsibility to manage their people professionally. Their actions have an enormous impact on stakeholders. This responsibility is advanced when managerial leaders use a systematic approach that includes action roles supported by a group of virtuous values.
  2. Positively Impacts the Traditional Bottom Line. Growing evidence suggests that strengthening ethical managerial leadership contributes to long-term economic success. Dave Ulrich and Norm Smallwood’s book, Why the Bottom Line Isn’t: How to Build Value Through People and Organizations, describes how many facets of the “softer” side of managerial leadership that relate to ethical management positively influence the traditional bottom line. Financial indices such as ROI, stock prices and earnings are linked to these “softer” practices. Research supports the proposition that ethical management can enhance the economic bottom line.
  3. Contributes to Ethical Behavior and Quality Results. Effective managerial leaders who embrace practices that create and sustain quality results give their organizations a competitive advantage. Results produced by unethical practices put an entire organization at risk, as we have seen by the debacles at Enron, Arthur Andersen and Adelphia. Long-term quality results are dependent upon managerial leaders who can influence themselves and their people to act ethically.
  4. Promotes Social Responsibility. Tracking socially responsible organizations is of increasing interest. In fact, Business Ethics published its list of the “100 Best Corporate Citizens,” which indexes America’s most profitable and socially responsible major public companies. Ethical managerial leadership is the socially responsible thing to do to forge strong productive and profitable links to key stakeholders.
  5. Provides for a Healthy Productive People-Oriented Workplace. Ethical managerial leaders promote practices which contribute to shaping and sustaining ethical behavior. These practices are in line with the research findings of the Gallup organization. After surveying over one million employees across the globe, Gallup pollsters discovered that employees want to be treated in ways that are reflective of effective ethical managerial leadership. Employee survey responses included a desire to be cared about as individuals, respected for their opinions, and recognized for the work they do at least once every seven days.

A strong connection exists between treating people right and creating a strong ethical work place culture. In both situations we find managerial leaders effectively practicing key action roles and embracing a group of virtuous values.

How to Develop Key Action Roles

The development of the four managerial leadership action roles in alignment with a set of virtuous core values strengthens ethical behavior in the workplace. A seven-step approach follows:

Step 1: Review and Clarify Your Virtuous Values. Managerial leaders need to be clear about which virtuous values they will espouse and affirm in their organization. These values will support the execution of each of the practices associated with the four managerial leadership action roles. A seven-step process for clarifying and developing a set of core virtuous values is offered elsewhere for those seeking additional resources in completing this step. (See C.D. Kerns, Strengthening Values-Centered Ethics with Virtuous Values: What, Why and How?) Armed with a core set of virtuous values, we can move to the next step.

Step 2: Specify and Assess Your Practice of the Influencer Action Role. During this step you need to determine what practices you will associate with this role and how you are doing in executing these practices. Ten practices that are integral to the influencer role are:

  • Self-Awareness and Control
  • High Impact Communicating
  • Understanding Different Work Styles
  • Building Trust
  • Persuading
  • Motivating
  • Managing Conflict and Negotiating
  • Managing Groups
  • Decisive Problem Solving
  • Managing Change

A straightforward approach to assessing yourself on these dimensions is to answer the following on a scale of 0 to 10, with 10 being the highest:

“How well do I do __________________________________________?”

You should follow this process by asking yourself:

“To what extent do I communicate and model my virtuous values as I execute these practices?”

Step 3: Specify and Assess Your Practice of the Director Action Role. As in Step 2, you will need to specify which practices you believe are associated with this role. Then you can use the simple rating scale of 0 to 10 to rate how you are doing in practicing each of the areas that you specified. You are also encouraged to assess the extent to which your actions are aligned with your virtuous values.

Ten practices that I have found useful in executing this role are:[6]

  • Orienting People to Your Values
  • Creating a Vision
  • Developing and Fine Tuning Your Overall Mission
  • Determining Key Results
  • Developing Strategies
  • Action Planning and Learning
  • Reviewing Systems and Processes
  • Designing the Structure
  • Aligning the Direction
  • Communicating the Direction

Step 4: Specify and Assess Your Practice of the Focuser Action Role. As in Steps 2 and 3, you will need to specify the practices that you consider important for this role. You can then assess how well you are performing each of these practices using the 0 to 10 rating scale. In addition, it is also helpful to determine to what extent your actions are aligned with your espoused virtuous values.

From my perspective, the focuser role involves the effective execution of the following 10 practices:

  • Profiling Performance
  • Pinpointing Performance and Goal Setting
  • Recruiting and Selecting Talent
  • Recording and Tracking Performance
  • Giving Performance Feedback
  • Developing Accountabilities
  • Evaluating People’s Performance
  • Delivering Recognition
  • Reviewing and Enhancing Performance
  • Documenting Bottom Line Impacts of Performance Efforts

Step 5: Specify and Assess Your Practice of the Linker Action Role. You are now encouraged to specify the practices that you believe are most critical for the execution of the linker role. Using the same methods noted for assessing the other three roles, proceed to assess your practice effectiveness for each area that you delineate as well as determine to what extent your actions are aligned with your expressed virtuous values.

Based on my experience and work in applied settings, the effective management of the linker action role involves the following ten practices:

  • Modeling Desired Performance
  • Strategic Touching
  • Managing Teamwork
  • Representing Externally
  • Managing Key Stakeholders
  • Coordinating Internally
  • Managing Strategic Projects
  • Allocating Resources Competently
  • Managing Technology
  • Reinforcing Alignment

Step 6: Aligning Action Roles and Assessing Alignment. To shape and sustain ethical functioning, the four action roles need to be aligned across organizational levels and with the espoused virtuous values. These alignments can be assessed by asking the following five questions:

  • To what extent do individuals, groups and the entire organization talk and act in ways that promote performance? (Influencer Role)
  • To what extent are individuals, groups and the overall organization clear about where things are headed? (Director Role)
  • To what extent are individuals, groups and the overall organization focused on the most important things? (Focuser Role)
  • To what extent are individuals, groups and the overall organization coordinated and linked to effectively utilize resources? (Linker Role)
  • To what extent are individuals, groups and the overall organization aligned with espoused core virtuous values? (Director Role)

Step 7: Applying the System of Action Roles and Continuously Seeking Improvement. The dynamic interplay among and between these four action roles along with the espoused set of core virtuous values represent key components in a system of value-centered ethics. The action roles of influencer, director, focuser and linker in connection with one’s core virtuous values need to be effectively applied and continuously reviewed to seek opportunities for improvement. Corrective actions may include the strengthening of alignments, improving action role practices and further clarifying one’s core virtuous values.

With the completion of the first six steps and the ongoing review of Step 7, your effective execution of the four action roles in alignment with your core virtuous values should be enhanced. This process strengthens the practice of value-centered ethics in the workplace.

In Closing

When effectively practiced along with a set of core virtuous values, managerial leadership action roles promote ethical organizational behavior and strengthen your value-centered ethical workplace culture. To assist you in your efforts with the development process, work through the following checklist: “The Managerial Leadership Action Roles Development Checklist.”

The Managerial Leadership Action Roles Development Checklist

(Short Form)

Instructions: Consider each task as you plan for and implement your managerial leadership action role development process. Check off each task as you complete it during the process. Also use this checklist as a springboard for further discussion about your process of developing and applying your managerial leadership action roles.

Task Done (P)
1. Review and clarify (or establish, refine and/or update) your virtuous values. ___________
2. Specify influencer action role practices. ___________
3. Assess your skills in executing the influencer action role. ___________
4. Specify director action role practices. ___________
5. Assess your skills in executing the director action role. ___________
6. Specify focuser action role practices. ___________
7. Assess your skills in executing the focuser action role. ___________
8. Specify linker action role practices. ___________
9. Assess your skills in executing the linker action role. ___________
10. Ensure that each action role is aligned across all levels of your organization. ___________
11. Ensure that action role practices are aligned with your virtuous values. ___________
12. Continuously review the effectiveness of action role execution and the alignment with your virtuous values. ___________

[1] Charles D. Kerns, Value-Centered Ethics: A Proactive System to Shape Ethical Behavior ( Amherst, Massachusetts: HRD Press, 2005).

[2] See E. Locke and Cary Cooper, Industrial and Organizational Psychology: Linking Theory with Practice (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2000).

[3] Martin Seligman, 2002. Authentic Happiness. Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment. (New York: NY: Free Press, 2000).

[4] C. Peterson and Martin Seligman, 2004. Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification, (New York, NY: Oxford University Press).


[6] C. D. Kerns, “An Entrepreneurial Approach to Strategic Direction Setting,” Business Horizons, 45 (2002): 2-6.

About the Author(s)

Charles D. Kerns, PhD, MBA, is a professor of applied behavioral science at the Graziadio School of Business and Management. He has more than 30 years of business, management, and consulting experience. Through his private consulting firm, Corperformance, he has implemented performance management programs and systems to help companies from many industries maximize their results. Since 1980, he has taught in almost every program in the Graziadio School, first as an adjunct faculty member, then, since 2000, as a member of the full-time faculty. He has also served as the associate dean for Academic Affairs. Dr. Kerns holds a Diplomate, ABPP, in both Industrial-Organizational Psychology and Organizational-Business Consulting Psychology.

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