Posted On: Friday, August 2, 2019
What is the key to effective leadership? The answer is ethics.
However, if this doesn’t seem an easy sell…stay with it. Making ethics real makes leadership real.
We’ll look at four ways to bring this home. First, some context.
When ethics isn’t a key driver in an organization, the fallout from ethical lapses can have catastrophic financial impact. (The liability for Bankrupt Pacific Gas and Electric for the 2018 “deadly wildfires” can’t yet be determined; as of October 2018, Volkswagen’s diesel emission scandal hit $33 billion since 2015.)
Ethical failures often occur because what was known or should have been known were not addressed. When ethics isn’t considered a business fundamental (like finance, operations, strategy, planning, marketing) vulnerability increases.
In addition, smart, strategic, successful and numbers-focused leaders have harmed their companies by ethical misconduct. Some held dual roles of CEO and chairman including Les Moonves at CBS and John Stumpf at Wells Fargo. What they did or ignored put them counter to professed company values. This underscores the importance of board members integrating company values into board discussions and having a better understanding of — and acting on — how CEOs actually show up. This is even more critical when a CEO is also chairman. If information is siloed the board can’t verify reality beyond a chairman’s assurances.
A May 2019 study by Strategy& that includes 2018 CEO turnover analysis indicated: “For the first time in the study’s (19 year) history, more CEOs were dismissed for ethical lapses than for financial performance or board struggles.” This reinforces the need for a board to be engaged with company’s values and tone at the top.
Four Recommendations for Making Ethics Real
1/ Accept ethics as a business fundamental! Without its ongoing influence of “what we stand for” (that can inspire employee engagement and customer connection), the best strategy, marketing and financials are more vulnerable. Just as leaders invest time and increase knowledge in marketing and other fundamentals, investing time in ethics (for CEOs as well as board members) involves, among other things:
2/ Encourage in the culture Giving Voice to Values! An employee recently shared with me her discomfort when her boss told her to add a particular expense as part of his travel expenses. She’d expressed concern over its inappropriateness but he restated his reasoning. However, the next day, the leader told her he’d been thinking about her comments and saw her point. He told her not to include the expense. The experience telegraphed to her that the organization’s polices and values were real and applied to everyone.
3/ Share personal values as a leader! The 2019 Eldelman Trust Barometer report indicated 79% of respondents said “knowing the CEO’s personal values is important to building trust.” Many startup founders have incorporated their personal values into the companies they build. That’s been the focus for Yvon Chouinard founder of Patagonia in the company’s advocacy for the environment. However, it’s also what former U.S. Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill did in his focus on safety as CEO and Chairman of Alcoa. Values at Alcoa under O’Neill and later at Ford under Alan Mulally’s leadership connected employees to a vision that inspired successful financial turnarounds at both companies.
4/ See ethics as finance’s best ally!
Ethics is the key to effective leadership. Making ethics real does make leadership real.
The Oklahoma Business Ethics Consortium was privileged to host Gael O’Brien as our guest speaker in January 2014. Her program was insightful and resonated with our participants. Her leading-edge concepts were innovative and practical, providing tools to better equip our business leaders in continuing their endeavors to promote ethical standards in the workplace. We appreciated the depth of knowledge she brought to the table and inspiration she provided. It was truly an enriching experience; we would definitely welcome her back.