More Leadership Lessons from Open-Ocean Navigation

28 03 2011

As quality of leadership, aloha is an attitude and a value system that helps create thriving relationships that endure. If you are in the type of business that can benefit from repeat customers and long-term partners (and who isn’t?), you may want to read the last post. But there is more to aloha than good manners. It is part of a larger value system.

Native Hawaiians will be the first to tell you that aloha is much misunderstood and certainly doesn’t stand alone. Aloha is one of many values and guiding principles passed on as part of cultural knowledge taught by Hawaiian Kumus, cultural practitioners and teachers. Hawai‘i residents will tell you that the traditional Hawaiian values play a large role in the thriving multiculturalism of modern society and business in the 50th State.

I’ve studied the value system by reading books, attending conferences, consulting with Kumus and kūpuna (elders) whenever I get the opportunity, and participating in the local economy as a business owner.

Obviously, there are greater authorities on the Hawaiian style leadership than I: those of native Hawaiian descent and kama‘aina, or longtime Hawai‘i residents, who grew up in the multicultural social and business environment of the Hawaiian Islands. And, as would be true anywhere else in the world, the right list of values for leadership is open to discussion. People in Hawai‘i love to discuss what is truly the right thing to do, what is pono, under any circumstance. For example, Hawai‘i is the only state in the Union with its own Wikipedia page on etiquette!

For those interested in more reading about on the values of Hawai‘i as applied to the business and financial world, I recommend:

I offer my own explanation of the leadership style of the Polynesian navigator because I believe it is a message that the world outside Hawai‘i needs to hear, and to hear very strongly.

I explain leadership as I see it with only the greatest respect to Hawaiian leaders and navigators. I have the indigenous sensibility to see to the heart of the matter and the Western education and conditioning to “net it out” for the malihini. So, friends, permit me, and help me with your feedback to rectify any misapprehension.

Aloha is necessary; Kuleana is sufficient

The Polynesian navigator was essential to the life and health of his ‘ohana, or extended family group. From the fishing and trading to long-distance voyages of exploration, the navigator had the lives of his community in his hands. A leader could not gain and retain followers without demonstrating tremendous wisdom, personal integrity and responsibility for the long-term welfare of the community.

It is the personal responsibility, or kuleana, of the leader to take right actions in the long-run best interest of the community. So, in my opinion, there is one critical Hawaiian value to understand along with aloha. And that critical value is kuleana.

Kuleana is what activates and links the other values, such as pono, (doing the right thing), kākou (we are all in this together), ho‘ohiki, keeping promises, ‘imi ‘ike (seeking knowledge), mālama ‘āina (stewardship of the earth, or sustainability) and all the rest you could read about in Ku Kanaka, Stand Tall: A Search for Hawaiian Values, by George Hu‘eu Sanford Kanahele.

Just as yin and yang balance each other in Eastern philosophy, I have observed that aloha and kuleana balance each other in Hawai‘i.

Put another way, aloha for the ‘ohana is table stakes for a navigator’s leadership. The leader is, literally, finding the way into the future for everybody. A leader’s kuleana, responsibility for the welfare of the ‘ohana is how that leader is judged.

So what’s the point for global business leadership?

In Western business, we have financial incentives that complicate leadership in a way that Polynesian navigators never had to contend with.

Corporate CEOs who want to be judged successful by Wall Street must keep an eye on quarterly results and stock price appreciation. If a CEO doesn’t handle this well in the short term, that CEO won’t be around to provide wayfinding and stewardship for the long-term interdependent relationship with customers, suppliers and channel partners. So it’s a difficult balancing act.

That said, some Western business leaders have lost the plot.

In business today, leadership is both a financial and a moral responsibility.

Business leaders need aloha and kuleana for the long term AND financial success in the short term.

In the quest for financial results, some leaders have forgotten their moral responsibility to customers and partners.

Oracle Corporation’s actions last week with respect to its Itanium customers are a particularly egregious example of this. As are Larry Ellison’s and Ernesto Bertarelli’s conduct during to the 33rd America’s Cup Race.

What happens when leaders fail to live up to their kuleana?

You won’t really understand how aloha works unless you appreciate that it has a “tough love” side as well.

Questioning somebody’s kuleana is strong stuff in Hawai‘i. It is not the same thing as stink-eye. It is not what Westerners would describe as calling somebody on his or her shit.

Questioning a leader’s kuleana is questioning a leader’s moral force.

Because Hawaiian traditions are passed orally, the Hawaiian culture is very sophisticated verbally. There are multiple levels of meaning in all the poetry and chants, and this gift for kaona, or hidden meaning, comes out in debate, criticism and verbal fisticuffs.

An often over-looked genre of Hawaiian poetry, hakukole explores issues of infidelity, inadequacy and revenge through chants, songs, proverbs and gestures that publicly ridicule and deface their chosen victims. Hakukole is derived from the Hawaiian words, haku (to weave, compose, create) and kole (raw, red, irritated).

(Incidentally, I have a category in this blog called Haku Kole, where I question the moral force of some of the leaders in my industry. It is intended for haole eyes, and spelled incorrectly so it will not be confused with the Hawaiian real thing.)

Kumu Keali‘i Reichel leads the Halau Kealaokamaile on Maui, is the recipient of multiple Nā Hōkū Hanohano Hawaiian Music Awards and has been a Grammy nominee. In addition to his work as a cultural practitioner, Kumu is a patient advocate against outworn stereotypes of indigenous people.

Weary of the tourist fiction that aloha is the alpha and omega of Hawaiian culture, Keali‘i Reichel has long made it a point to research, teach and lecture on the tough side of the Hawaiian culture. The rapier-witted verbal take-down, “hakukole, is an overlooked piece of who we are,” he says.

Short on aloha, kuleana, pono, lōkahi, mālama ‘āina ? Yes, there are consequences

Keali‘i Reichel opened his remarks at the Nā Hōkū Hanohano Music Festival 2010 with the question, “What happens when you need to get tough?”

The answer: elegantly phrased verbal confrontation. And not in private.

Hakukole must be must chanted in a public forum, so there is an emotionally charged shaming- and-blaming, bad-PR aspect to the ridiculing, manhood-questioning or sanity-questioning nature of the particular hakukole.

Moral responsibility in a material world

In a world where business leadership was judged solely by moral standards, moral outrage, bad press and the consequent ridicule would be sufficient to bring corporate miscreants to heel.

But that is not the world we live in. In this material world, financial shunning is required as well. With a threat of regulation thrown on top.

If somebody in Hawai‘i calls you a kōlea, it is not a compliment. They’re calling you a taker. As in, grow rich and fat from a relationship, then fly away.

Bad press, rants and flames can sound an alarm and perhaps raise some questions in the Boardroom. But withdrawal of business by customers and partners must be the first line of defense against egregious supplier behavior in the Western business world.

Some kinds of business relationships can be ended more quickly and easily than others.

Customers of products and services such as the information systems that support business, governments and institutions are particularly entangled with their suppliers. It is particularly important for large enterprises to look far enough beyond their software and hardware vendors’ financial performance to gain the distance required to evaluate their suppliers’ kuleana.

Customers, your relationship with your strategic suppliers cannot be summed up by a great stock price in the rear view mirror or a really great number this quarter. What is rewarded by Wall Street does not necessarily signify a good, responsible steward of your best interests for the next ten years. It may well be that a smaller-share, more humble player may be a much better long-term partner for your company than its current stock price would indicate.

Customers, it is your kuleana to make a wise long-term choice.




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