Traits of Ethical Leaders

In many years as an ethics consultant, I have seen my share of ethically challenged leaders in both business and government. Most do not sustain success, but some do. But I have also worked for highly ethical individuals who have risen to the top of their organizations. There is much to learn from those who match ethics and success. Here are some lessons based on observations of ethical business leaders.

Say less but say the truth.

When you are a CEO, every word you say is measured by your employees, doubted by journalists, parsed by analysts and weighed against laws and regulations by a hungry plaintiff’s bar. You are not entitled to many opinions as any expressed opinion will be mined for potential insight into what your company will do next. This is why CEOs are often quiet on issues of the day. When they speak, they are speaking for their companies and not themselves no matter how hard they try to separate the two. Ethical leaders avoid half-truths and lies by saying less. They limit what they say to what they know – or think they know – to be true.

Four additional lessons from ethical leaders will be shared in future posts.

Trademark Your Ethics

This post is part of a series of posts on ethics and success.

If you want ethics to fuel your success, make ethics part of how you work. For example, if you are in a sales position, get to be known for providing customers with honest information. Make honesty a part of your sales edge. If you work on a technical team, be generous in giving others credit for what they accomplish. Just as we have confidence in companies with a reputation for honesty, people will have confidence in you if ethics is your work trademark. Will others try to take advantage of your ethics? Certainly. But your ethical trademark will help you push them back over time as others see their conduct for what it is.

Ethical Allies

Here is a second tip on making ethics a part of your success:

Find ethical allies. Even if you are in general ethical agreement with your employer, you will have varying degrees of ethical agreement with individual employees. Identify those with whom you have a high level of ethical agreement and make them your allies. If possible, include them among the individuals with whom you work closely. While there are many areas in which individuals may disagree, shared ethics makes agreement on other matters easier. The better you get to know your ethics cohorts, the better the chances that they will support your advancement. Your advancement is not at the expense of their ethics.

Ethics and Success

There is no guarantee that doing the right thing will lead to personal success. In thirty plus years as an ethics consultant, I have seen ethics undo more than a few brilliant careers. But I have also seen leaders whose ethics helped make them successful. You may think that rising to the top with your ethics intact is a matter of luck. But my observation is that ethical leaders follow a conscious strategy for building success upon their ethics. Here are a few steps to help you align your ethics with your career goals.

Choose who you work for. If your ethics and the ethics of your employer are in significant disagreement, your career success is certain to be limited. Organizations seldom promote individuals who are outside of their cultural boundaries, which include the organization’s ethics. It is not reasonable to expect perfect agreement between your ethics and the ethics of an employer. But a vegan who works for a meat packing company can expect problems. While most of us cannot change jobs at will, you increase your chances of advancement when you are employed by an organization with which you are in ethical agreement.

There are more steps that will be covered in future posts.

The 4th Biggest Ethical Mistake

The fourth biggest ethical mistake made by leaders is confusing legal advice with ethical advice. The job of legal counsel is to tell you the legal consequences of various courses of action – and not whether you should take those actions. Many of the investment activities that led to the 2008 recession were perfectly legal and also perfectly unethical. The training that makes a good lawyer does not make the lawyer an ethics expert.

The 3rd Big Ethical Mistake

The third big ethical mistake that leaders make is allowing managers in an area suspected of wrong-doing to investigate the matter. Leaders believe they should show trust in the their managers and allow them to investigate accusations. But the chances that the manager is conflicted are too great to take this path. By the way, I discuss ways of avoiding these mistakes in my book Make an Ethical Difference.

2nd Ethical Mistake

In my pursuit of the biggest mistakes leaders make, the second biggest mistake is fixing a problem going forward without owning the problem’s history. This would be like GM fixing its ignition problem going forward without owning the problem in cars currently on the road. This never works but it is very tempting to leaders who don’t want a past problem dragging their organization down. But you have to own the organization’s history to be able to move on.