Enron, Worldcom, Countryside, Ponzi scandals. The list goes on. Even before the Great Recession of 2008, we were confronted with multiple stories of business greed and corporate failures, where values and ethical conduct took a back seat to the bottom line. And we all know the devastating outcome of these ill-fated decisions and cover ups.
In response to the financial crisis, many leaders have been rethinking competitive advantage and the costs of trying to achieve it. They have positioned beliefs and relationships at the center of their organizations, placing increased emphasis on how we behave rather than on what we earn.
These efforts speak to an increased need for ethical leadership. Ethical leadership is a form of administrative practice and thinking that places core values, trust, respect, and personal satisfaction at the heart of its operations.
As with other forms of leadership, ethical leadership begins at the top. You cannot expect your team to perform with character and integrity without first setting the example. As leader, your team looks to you for guidance and direction. You must know your own tenets and have the capacity to articulate them. And then you must live by them. What you do, not what you say, demonstrates most what you value and what drives you.
Leaders must also work to ensure that those around them embrace, or at least respect them as well. Conversation and healthy debate amongst team members help develop personal ownership and agreement, which internalizes the message and fosters buy-in.
Not that long ago, I met with my faculty to discuss the establishment of a values-based positive behavior program for our school. We had been discussing this idea for a while, and had agreed, as a staff, that such a program was necessary. We had even formed a committee comprised of administration and staff to roll up our sleeves and bring the program to fruition. One teacher was still not at peace with the concept, and adamantly insisted that no such program was needed. A co-teacher turned to him and said matter-of-factly, “we already decided on this. Let’s move on.”
Had I jumped in to defend the need, I may have succeeded in advancing the agenda, but only because I could force it through as Head of School. Since this value had been embraced and owned by the overwhelming majority of our faculty, such intervention was no longer needed. It happened, so to speak, on its own.
Ethical living – and leading – takes courage and conviction. It means doing the right thing, even when the right thing is neither popular nor easy. It may even be temporarily unprofitable. Nevertheless, when you make decisions based on your core values, then you send an important message that you will not be bought, while also protecting yourself from accusations of personal interests or ulterior motives.