Ethical leadership – there’s more to it than just ‘setting a personal example’

  • 30 November 2016

There’s a tendency amongst business leaders to put ‘setting a personal example’ at the heart of their approach to ethical leadership. And it is certainly important, but on its own, it is not enough. So in this post, I’m going to explore four qualities that leaders need to demonstrate alongside that ‘setting of a personal example’.

The problem with putting ‘setting a personal example’ at the heart of an executive push on ethical leadership is that it invariably ends up being unsustained (as other commitments get in the way) and diluted by other decisions that can raise ethical questions. And it just seems too centred around the ‘me’ of leadership, rather than the ‘you’ of leadership. The personal example is not enough because most decisions in organisations are made well out of sight of most executives.

Ethical leadership gains traction and momentum when the emphasis moves (strange as it may seem) from ‘ethical’ to ‘leadership’. It succeeds when executives shows leadership on delivering ethical decision making within their organisation. Leadership is, after all, what leaders are paid to do. And ethics is just another dimension of what they have to lead on.

The starting point for leadership on ethics is language. Senior executives need to be able to speak the language of ethics, especially around the key ethical risks that their firm is exposed to. And they need to practice using that language – not just at soap box or town hall occasions, but in everyday meetings and around the coffee machine.

One game I encourage people to play is a version of the long running radio show ‘Just a Minute’ – could for example a director of an insurance broking firm talk about conflicts of interest for a full minute without hesitation, deviation or repetition? Could a claims director do the same with ‘fairness’?

Following on from language is crafting a clear ethical vision. This takes that language of ethics and projects it forward within the context of their firm’s strategic objectives. And this is central to what leaders should be doing on all fronts: deciding on the big important things their people should aim for and communicating the ‘what and why’ of that to them.

Then comes the nitty-gritty stage, which is showing people how the decisions they’re making should take account of that ethical vision. It’s about showing people what needs changing, how they should make that change and the compelling arguments for doing so. It’s hard work, sometimes frustrating, sometimes revealing, but it’s what leadership is about.

One of the things it can reveal is just how many obstacles an organisation can inadvertently throw up in the path of ethical decision making. And this is the fourth stage, being to work with people to remove those hurdles to ethical decision making. I’ve sometimes found that this is the most difficult stage for firms, as it can involve changing systems and processes to allow more ethical decisions to be made. Yet it’s vital: there’s no point in launching a push forward, if you don’t then remove the obstacles in its way. Indeed, with ethics, it can have fatal consequences, as employees, seeing one ethics initiative fail to make a difference, switch off to any further initiatives that follow on later.

The fifth and final stag is of course, to set a personal example. And on the face of it, that might seem a pretty straightforward thing to do, but it isn’t. It involves a lot more from people than they might initially expect. And that’s what I’ll look at in the next post.