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.

The HR Puzzle

One challenge many ethics and compliance officers face is working with HR. The puzzle is that it is not always easy to get along with HR. In fact, in some organizations the HR function is derisively described as “Fortress HR.” I take a look at why this relationship is troubled from the perspective of HR in the most recent issue of Workforce magazine. You can read the article at http://www.workforce-digital.com/read-wf/december_2015?pg=44#pg44.

Leaders and Bystanders

Presidential candidate Ben Carson was recently widely ridiculed for saying that when a gunman sets out to shoot a bunch of unarmed people, someone should rush the gunman. This idea was ridiculed because it seemed to put the burden on the victims of mass shootings. But, whether or not Carson knew it, he was a discussing a well-known phenomenon called “the bystander effect.” And, given what we know about the bystander effect, he may have a point even it if it was inopportunely raised. Read more at Did Ben Carson have a point?.

A Final Lie: Seek the Advice of Counsel

When confronted with an ethical issue, many people and companies will turn to their legal counsel. This is a mistake. A good lawyer is someone who will judge your actions according to a set of black and white rules and try to find the path most advantageous to you – which has nothing to do with ethics. When you are looking for ethical advice, it is typically because there are no black and white rules for the situation or the black and white rules seem to be giving you the wrong answer. Of course, many things that are unethical are also illegal. So if you are planning on doing something unethical, it is not a bad idea to have counsel at hand.

Ethics Is Not about Feelings

It is sometimes said that ethical conversation is pointless because it all comes down to how people feel about things. This is clearly nonsense. When I want to know about your ethics, I want to know if you will pay me back the money you owe me. I want to know if I can count on you to tell me the truth even if it is unpleasant to do so. I want to know what you will do, not how you will feel when you’re doing it. Your feelings may be an indicator of what you will do but it is what you will do that is really at issue.

Another Lie: There Is No Progress In Ethics

It does often seem that progress in ethics is hard to come by. But can anyone doubt that it is more ethical to live in a society in which slavery is not tolerated than to live in one in which slavery is tolerated? Is it not clearly more ethical to live in a society that allows participation by women than in one that prohibits it? What is true is that ethical progress is not easy or equal. But did anyone expect ethical progress to be easy, automatic or universally acknowledged? Ethical progress may come slowly and at great cost – but it does come.

How Could Volkswagen Do Anything So Stupid?

Volkswagen is a company known for technological prowess and market innovation. This raises the question of how the company could engage in a plot as plain stupid as trying to trick emissions tests. I share my thoughts on this apparent puzzle in a recent piece that appeared in the business section of the Huffington Post. You can read it at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/mark-pastin/volkswagens-dumb-culture_b_8270264.html.