How to teach leadership on ethics in a way that actually works

If ethical leadership is on your learning and development agenda for 2018, you need to stop and read this post. How you structure that training says something about the type of firm you are. So, what sort of signal do you want to be sending out?

The base line signal that firms could now choose to send out is the one that confirms that they’ve done enough to be compliant with the regulations. They’ve done what is required of them: in other words, job done, box ticked. Yet it’s a signal that hardly builds confidence in your firm. The impression is of a firm that may not be sure of what leadership involves, not quite sure of what ethics means.

Then there’s the signal conveyed by firms who lean more to the heroic, ‘follow my example’ approach to learning about leadership on ethics. This emphasises the ‘personal example’, twice over. It encourages learners to follow the example of the trainer and to then base their leadership on encouraging their team to do likewise in respect of themselves. Unfortunately, it has little lasting impact beyond the warm feelings left after the training itself, for reasons explained in this earlier post. The signal is of a wave of enthusiasm and trough of inaction.

And then there’s the signal conveyed by firms who take more of a risk based approach. This orientates the training around the challenges that people in the firm are facing. This works on two levels. At the individual level, learning something that helps you deliver on your day to day responsibilities makes the training feel relevant, practical and rewarding. And at the corporate level, your firm has people learning something that helps it address risks to its business strategy.

Now, you can probably guess which approach I think works. A risk based approach may start with some challenging reflections about how your firm goes about its business and the behaviours and mindsets this produces (and some firms prefer to avoid that), but it ends with more sustained benefits than either of the other two approaches.

Now, a risk based approach gives you the ‘how’ for your training, but this leaves open the question of ‘what’ style of leadership works best when it comes to ethics. The consensus amongst leading academics in this field is that of the professional coach, marshalling the team’s players in the best way to deliver on its game plan. Again, this requires a game plan orientated around the firm’s needs, rather than what the trainer or those being trained, prefer. And it places the leadership not so much at the top or out in front, but in a central position showing people how to fulfil their part of the game plan. There is certainly an element of ‘leading by example’ in terms of personal behaviour, but there is also a larger element of just good leadership. In other words, setting a vision and building the means to achieve it.

There’s one last thing to bear in mind. If you’re going to train your people in leadership on ethics, what are you actually building this upon? They will of course have their personal ethical values, and their experience in using them, but going from there to leadership level training is quite a step. The danger is that the step gives them some knowledge and skills, but not the confidence to do anything with them. This often results in them dropping back to a reliance on that ‘follow my example’ approach: nice but not enough on its own.

Leadership on ethics is the culmination of a progressive development of knowledge and skills around ethics. It needs to be build upon a foundational knowledge of what ethics means in the context of business and insurance. Upon those foundations is built a framework of skills on how to bring ethics into everyday business decisions, including tough ones like ethical dilemmas. These together create the confidence upon which to take on board the five components of effective leadership on ethics.

This may seem like a lot of bother. It’s actually relatively straightforward. And it could turn out to be less bother than dealing with the consequences of just showing people what leadership looks like, but then failing to show them how to apply it to the challenges their work presents them with. Remember that what you’re building with such training is not the next great leader, but the capacity for a broad swath of competent leaders to become naturals at good ethical decisions.

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