Getting real about ethical leadership
In the 1990s, then-President Bill Clinton was the center of many ethics-based discussions after lying to the American people in a televised statement about his relationship with White House staffer Monica Lewinsky, which later lead to impeachment trials. Notwithstanding former President Clinton’s uptick in approval ratings following the Lewinsky scandal (economic improvements trumping morality failings), ethics still matter. It”s the kind of ethics, the emphasis, that is changing, as we move more and more to a society of relative, not absolute, values.
Leaders who cheat in their personal or professional lives are still usually frowned upon… and often much worse. The popular “Mad Men” series may have provided the most current lessons in getting away with unethical behavior in the business world, but also in the price ultimately paid.
“Yes, people still care about ethics and morality.”
Yes, people still care about ethics and morality. It”s just that defining these is more challenging in an age when our religious base, common heritage and ability to assimilate cultures into a unified citizenry are disintegrating. Today, relativism, or “practical ethics,” carries the momentum in defining both our national persona and collective personal mores.
Millennials living together and raising a dog replaces the traditional marriage and children paradigm, and the recent SCOTUS decision is tangible proof that we are redefining the married family unit to match the reality of our times. A large swath of our population hardly bats an eye over erased server emails by a Presidential Cabinet member or our soap opera-worthy series of bumbling political embarrassments. We seem to have exhausted our sense of outrage over all the fill-in-the-blank “gates” that unendingly capture the news ink.
If that”s just life and politics in this era, what does this mean for corporate ethics commitments today? How should your company best formulate its values such that they are relevant, relatable… yet based on universal principles of right and wrong? Or do classical objective values matter anymore?
“First, do no harm”
Global social responsibility is what”s trending as a widely agreed-upon value. Undeniably, companies that demonstrate their ethical values through responsible sourcing are onto a winning strategy. Earlier this year, many Chipotle locations stopped serving pork after a supplier failed its “responsibly raised” animal welfare standards. Starbucks announced in April that it now sells 99 percent ethically sourced coffee. In both cases, the public response was positive. A 2014 Nielsen study found 55 percent of global consumers are willing to pay more for products and services from socially responsible companies.
On the other hand, consider the experience of Kathy Lee Gifford, who came under fire for obtaining her line of apparel from offshore manufacturers paying sub-living wages. Her loss of goodwill with the American public and the resulting actions she had to take to remedy the problem cost much more than the company would have paid to police contractors to ensure it wasn”t exploiting its workforce.
One caveat: “good global citizenship,” “responsible sourcing,” “sustainability” and “green initiatives” are the ethical buzzwords du jour, and while they can be strategically effective, companies that incorporate these policies primarily as marketing ploys soon pay the price within their own ranks. Once unveiled, ethical hypocrisy or lip service to a cause or philosophy becomes a special object of scorn. Employees and business partners will ultimately measure such initiatives against how they reflect the deeper culture.
The C-suite as ground zero
Despite a significant philosophical divide, adherents to both practical and universal ethics agree that an ethical leader possesses personal integrity and transparency. But how do these leadership qualities translate into policy and a company-wide buy-in?
“Ethics can never be the stepchild to expediency.”
Clear and consistent actions, pervasiveness of communications, good ears and a well-positioned radar are hallmarks of effective leadership of any initiative, and your company”s ethical pledge underlies all others. It can never be the stepchild to expediency. How you respond to challenges, item by item, and how you treat employees who take the ethics pledge seriously can make all the difference. You only grow an ethical organization by seriously addressing each threat and each opportunity as it presents itself.
This may be the hardest thing a leader does. Amid the temptations to cut corners or let something slip just this once, conflicted leaders, as they have for 75 years, might take inspiration from Churchill”s words. In his post-World War II address to the House of Commons and the British people, he foresaw the continuing ethical dilemmas posed by the proliferation of the hydrogen bomb. His admonition to “Never flinch, never weary, never despair” may resonate with business leaders today.
Doing the right thing in the face of challenges, be they opportunities or threats, is not for sissies.
“Might for right”
King Arthur”s epiphany may not have made the historical impact he had hoped, but “might for right” is a powerful watchword for 21st century executives” bottom line. What does ethical leadership impact?
The extent to which you are perceived as a consistently trustworthy leader affects:
- Brand image
- Quality of relationships with suppliers, investors and creditors
- Ability to retain and attract talented employees
- Capacity to garner trust and respect from all business partners, professional associations, government groups and consumer advocate groups
In short, your ethical leadership is the rising tide that lifts all boats, both within and surrounding your organization.
In part two, we will look at the key dimensions of a company-wide ethics commitment and the role that candidate sourcing and vetting plays in buttressing that commitment.
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