9 ways to set a better ‘personal example’

How you handle the responsibilities you have marks out the type of leader you will become. And having high ethical standards is crucial, for business leaders rank it as their number 1 competency.

Practising those high ethical standards is often referred to as ‘setting a personal example’. Think about it – there’s no point expecting high ethical standards from your firm if you yourself are not prepared to lead on them by example. If you don’t, then others will take your cue and not bother either. Cue end of ethical vision.

Now you may think that setting a personal example involves little more than being the good person that you know you are. Unfortunately, much more is needed. Consider this finding from research in 2013: 80% of UK workers didn’t think that their manager set a ‘good moral standard’.

What this tells us is that executives and managers are either not setting a personal example, or as is more likely, they’re not setting it in a way that is strong enough, clear enough or consistent enough to be picked up by the people who work with them.

In this post, I’m going to set out a series of steps that everyone can take in order to deliver, in ethical terms, a better personal example. And I’ve organised them under those three headings of ‘strong enough, clear enough and consistent enough’.

To deliver a stronger personal example

  • Only ask others to do what you would be prepared to do yourself, and prepared to be seen to do so yourself.
  • Position your personal example within the context of the business. Two elements of that context would be the firm’s strategy and its values. This means that following your example is more about what the company needs, and less about what you personally need.
  • Be honest with people about the challenges being faced. Don’t just point to the positive stuff. Being honest and open about the ethical challenges your firm is facing is one reason why followers stick with leaders.

To deliver a clearer personal example

  • Know how to speak the language of ethics, otherwise you risk having the right intention but delivering it in an unclear or muddled way.
  • Talk with people about the personal example you’re setting, in terms of personal events in your life that shaped how you think about ethics. Yes, that personal example should be positioned within the context of the business, but use stories from your own career to explain why setting a personal example on ethics is important to you.
  • Shift the tone and focus of your personal example from time to time. So for example, every so often, demonstrate it in specific terms that are relevant to a key audience. Don’t keep drumming out the same message.

To deliver a more consistent personal example

  • If you’ve signed off rules for your firm, make sure you follow them yourself. This should be particularly the case with business gifts and hospitality. The more senior you are, the more you’re likely to be offered them and the more your personal example will be in the spotlight.
  • Set aside some time to revisit your personal example from time to time, and identify opportunities to retune it and keep it relevant to evolving circumstances;
  • Don’t ever use rationalisation such as ‘no one will be worse off’ and ‘everyone else is doing it’. And if you hear them yourself, openly challenge them.

There is of course more to leadership on ethics than setting a personal example, yet a lot of leadership on ethics comes unstuck because of a disconnect between what the leader says and what the leader does. Delivering a good personal example is not hard, but does require effort, to make sure it is clear, strong and consistent

I’ve produced this ‘Roadmap to Ethical Leadership’, which is free to download from this blog’s website – here’s the link.

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