In These Times, You Need to Be an Ethical Leader

By Dr. Mickey Parsons, MCC

Earlier this year, a global survey called the 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer found disturbingly low levels of trust in business (as well as in government NGOs and the media). If you’re a business leader, this is really bad news. Trust – both internally with employees and externally with customers and partners along with ethical leadership– is essential to sustained business success.

Fortunately, as a leader you can repair trust.

How do you do this? Businesses earn trust when their leaders behave ethically and guide their organizations in principled conduct. Qualities like integrity, dependability and purpose have been found to be key drivers of trust in business, according to Edelman.

Of course, most of us consider ourselves to be ethical. Yet research has found that business executives tend to ignore or overlook ethical lapses, both their own and those of their colleagues, when their transgressions are likely to be beneficial to them or to their business.

Where to begin

At The Workplace Coach, we find that a good way to begin sharpening your focus on ethics is to look at your own values. In our leadership development work, we give our executive coaching clients values clarification exercises that help them understand and clarify their core values.

This is in line with the approach espoused by The Center for Ethical Leadership, which describes ethical leadership as “knowing your core values and having the courage to live them in all parts of your life in service of the common good.” Embracing your core values will give you the clarity to make choices that create the greatest good and to articulate those choices in a way that empowers those you lead to do the same.

3 ways to put ethics into action

In our executive coaching and leadership training programs, we also work with our leadership development clients to help them apply ethics in very tangible ways.

One key aspect of this is creating a culture in your organization that puts ethics front and center. Here are three steps to take:

  1. Include ethical behavior in employee appraisals.
  2. Hire for ethics and values as well as capabilities and competence.
  3. Dismiss employees who fall short of ethical standards.

Handling tough choices

Business leaders today face tougher decisions than ever. Writing about this in the recent article “A New Model for Ethical Leadership,” Harvard Business School professor Max H. Bazerman urges leaders to make the goal of “creating the most value for society” the foundation of their decision-making.

This requires a very deliberative approach to decision making, rather than the speedy, gut instinct approach leaders often take, according to the Harvard Business Review article.

One challenge is overcoming unconscious bias and blind spots. Bazerman offers a number of suggestions, including:

  • When making decisions, compare options, rather than weighing each option individually;
  • In initial hiring reviews, obscure names and pictures.

Using your influence

Bazerman also urges leaders to become aware of how the decision-making environment they create impacts the ethical choices of colleagues and team members. “By establishing norms for ethical behavior – and clearly empowering employees to help enforce it – leaders can affect hundreds or even thousands of other people, motivating and enabling them to act more ethically themselves,” he writes.

Transformational leadership

Today, businesses in the vanguard are rethinking how they evaluate success, moving from a strictly profit-driven measure to one that factors in the social and environmental impacts of their business operations and choices.

In fact, just a year ago 181 CEOs of the Business Roundtable made headlines when they signed a statement affirming their commitment to leading their companies for the benefit of all stakeholders – including customers, employees, suppliers and communities – not merely for their shareholders.

I firmly believe that it is incumbent upon leaders to put ethics at the center of their leadership. In our complex world, leaders must look beyond a mere bottom-line focus and consider their impact on people and the planet. When we do so, we have the power to transform organizations, lives and the world.

The Workplace Coach can help

At The Workplace Coach, our leadership development experts and executive coaching team can provide you and your management team with the tools, insights and resources you need to develop solid ethical leadership practices and build the kind of internal and external trust that leads to sustained business success.

Ready to get started? Contact us today to learn more.