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How to Be a Leader Who Stays True to Their Ethics

Honest conversations are a crucial tool in helping leaders and their organizations successfully act on their ethical ambitions. If you aspire to lead ethically and with high purpose, first turn inwards. Take the time to have an honest conversation with yourself to help figure out what matters to you, and where your ethics lie. Next,…

Honest conversations are a crucial tool in helping leaders and their organizations successfully act on their ethical ambitions. If you aspire to lead ethically and with high purpose, first turn inwards. Take the time to have an honest conversation with yourself to help figure out what matters to you, and where your ethics lie. Next, align your senior team. Third, be prepared to be derailed. Unfortunately, at some point, pressure to meet shareholder expectations will derail your aspiration to lead with a higher purpose and values. And finally, don’t wait for the whistle to blow.

In September 2016, Wells Fargo announced that it would pay $185 million to settle a lawsuit filed by federal regulators and the city and county of Los Angeles, admitting that employees had opened as many as 1.5 million accounts without customer authorization over a five-year period. These unethical practices resulted in an immediate drop the company’s stock prices and it continued to underperform by a significant margin.

Wells Fargo’s CEO attributed the banking scandal to bad apples at the company who were fired (some 5,000). But former workers spoke out, saying that they were fired despite being “good apples” who had contacted the company’s ethics hotline with concerns about fraud and an unhealthy sales culture. Several employees said they were fired after blowing the whistle.

This massive breach in ethics, one of the largest in recent years, stands in contrast to the company’s then-publicly stated mission to “satisfy our customers’ financial needs and help them succeed financially.” Sadly, even authentic, high-purpose CEOs and their companies can succumb to short-term pressures for profits.

Throughout my consulting work, I’ve discovered that honest conversations are a crucial tool in helping leaders and their organizations successfully act on their ethical ambitions. If you’re a CEO who aspires to lead ethically and with high purpose, consider the following strategies.

Start within.

The road to your higher ethical ambition starts with personal reflection about your values and purpose in life. Take the time to have an honest conversation with yourself to help figure out what matters to you, and where your ethics lie.

To start, write down key decisions you made in your life (for example, choice of job, spouse, and friends) and then ask yourself what motivated these decisions and what they say about you. For example, a newly appointed division manager, trained in accounting, reflected on why he chose to work for his company despite better offers and realized that it was the friendly, collaborative, and ethical culture. He then used this information to help define who he wanted to be as a leader.

Align your senior team.

Start a conversation with your senior team members. What are their aspirations for the kind of company they want to create? This type of discussion will allow you, the leader, to test your own advocacy, and then lead your team to a consensus statement. Here’s how one CEO went about developing his company’s statement of purpose:

In one of my first meetings with the senior team, we talked about what kind of legacy we wanted to leave. The team had a lot of energy for this. Everyone had something to say about it, and we put all the ideas up on the wall. We then looked for commonalities around what kind of difference we wanted to make. All of the ideas had to do with people, touching people in a positive way, and giving people a chance to grow. Today, we don’t talk about vision, but about the legacy we are trying to build.

Be prepared to be derailed.

Unfortunately, at some point, pressure to meet shareholder expectations will derail your aspiration to lead with a higher purpose and values. Research shows that there is an inevitable gap between what we hum

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