Is Leadership on Ethics Optional?

  • 15 December 2016

Is leadership on ethics optional? Could executives just get along without it? Well, executives can always try to get along without paying it attention, but the evidence points to it then being hard for their firm’s people to see them as someone worth following, which is what a leader needs to be. So leadership on ethics is part and parcel of what leaders do. It’s a differentiator from those who just know a lot.

A study earlier in the year underscored this.  Published in the Harvard Business Review, the study listened to what 195 leaders in 15 countries over 30 organisations had to say about leadership. They were asked to choose the 15 most important leadership competencies from an overall list of 74. Four competencies stood out, with a clear winner amongst them:

  • high ethical and moral standards, with 67%
  • provides goals and objectives with loose guidelines/direction, with 59%
  • clearly communicates expectations, with 56%
  • has the flexibility to change opinions, with 52%

So, what does this tell us? Two things. Firstly, that high ethical standards clearly lies at the heart of what leaders have to be good at, and secondly; there’s a lot of progress still to be made, for one third of respondents didn’t include high ethical standards even within their top 15 competencies. Think of that last point in this way: if you’re one of the two thirds who did rate ethical standards highly, it’s worth checking out the preferences of those you do business with (see this post about ethical due diligence), for they may fall into that fair number of people who hardly rated ethical standards at all. Do you really want to partner with them?

That said, having a competency and actually applying it to the decisions you make on a day to day basis are not necessarily one and the same thing, as we’ve explored in the last couple of blog posts. Yet for those unsure of how to bring their high ethical standards into play, the other three top competencies noted above point to a way forward, linking as they do with those ethical skills I outlined here. In fact, it would be fair to say that without those other three top competencies, those high ethical standards would gain little traction on decisions within a firm.

Leadership on ethics is a multi-layered thing and I’ll be exploring it in some depth in a course I’m preparing for 2017. In the meantime, I’ll be back in January with more posts.