Why Ethics Matter in Leadership

Often as leaders, our moral and ethical decisions are not a common part of discussion and reading. There are plenty of books on communication, change management, and building teams. I often find that, in this postmodern world, many people dance around the morality issue. I’ll hear a lot of “whom am I to judge” or maybe “as long as they are producing results”. I believe many of us say this out loud, but we don’t really buy it. I think we need to own up to the fact  that the moral and ethical decisions of leaders matter. It matters to those you work for, those you work with, and those who follow you. We have seen examples all over history where the moral and ethical failure of leaders have ruined a company. Classic example like Enron, WorlCom, Tyco, and Bernie Madoff  are often referenced. Of course it’s even easier to point to the moral failure of leaders who make a living as moral and spiritual guides like many of the recent spiritual leaders of the Catholic church. Yet what we often miss is the story that doesn’t run headlines. The story of the small business leader, the mid level manager, or unsung business executive that changes lives and hinders business. The fact is, it is our responsibility as leaders at any and every level to lead with moral and ethical integrity. Though we live in a postmodern world that pledges acceptance, when we take on leadership roles we make ourselves accountable to those we lead. It’s just part of the gig, and you can’t have the benefits of leadership without the accountability. Moral and ethical integrity matters to organizational performance because it gains trust, creates the right culture, and ultimately serves to promote the organization and attract the right talent.

1. Trust matters in leadership

Though we all may have varying levels of moral and ethical standards, we also know that trust is a central component to our ability to lead those around us. If you exhibit behavior that lacks moral character, you will loose that trust and respect of those you lead. The concept is really quite simple in that, you will not lead effectively those who question your behavior because it hinders their ability to trust your decisions. Whether or not your opinion of morality and what qualifies as ethical differs from theirs is somewhat irrelevant. As a leader, you must be in tune with the standards of those you are accountable to and hold yourself to that level. For some, you may feel that the standards your followers have are higher than your own. It doesn’t matter, and it’s not a question of right or wrong in this instance. It is simply a matter of gaining and keeping trust for effective leadership.

2. Create the right culture now

Often there are moral or ethical failures within organizations and we wonder how they happen. We might ask ourselves, “how could the situation get to that point”? As leaders at any level, we must set the standard high and help develop a culture that values ethical behavior in every level. In this 24 hour news and social media driven world, we are always connected. Our integrity as leaders to hold a high moral and ethical standard inside and outside the organization will help create the right culture. Sometimes there is just a bad egg in the mix – someone that simply makes poor decisions in light of working in a great organization. Often though, employees may make poor decisions because the culture of an organization is not one that values a high moral and ethical character. Be sure you are setting that example, and expecting that of those around you.

3. Leaders are the lens through which we view a company

Often the world views your company through the lens of those they interact with, and many times this is its leadership. Think Steve Jobs and Apple, Bill Gates and Microsoft, Jack Welch and General Electric, or Warren Buffet and Berkshire. We view these companies through the lens of these leaders, and this is no different from the company, department, or small business that you yourself lead. The opinion that people hold of you will most likely directly effect the opinion they hold of those you lead. As leaders, we must have a high moral and ethical standard so we do not hinder the ability of our teams and organizations to perform at a high level. Furthermore, we most not hinder the ability of these teams and organizations to attract the best talent. Your potential hires will also view their opportunities through the lens of you, the leader.

Overall, we must openly admit that our ability to make good decisions can’t be turned on and off. Those that make poor decisions in one arena of life will most likely make poor decisions in all of them. As leaders we are held to a higher moral and ethical standard, and rightfully so. If that’s not something that jives well with you, maybe leadership isn’t the right avenue for you to pursue. For your organization, consider having your employees sign an ethical code of conduct to be sure that they understand what is important to the organization. The benefits of leadership are great, but we are also held to a standard that we must acknowledge and adhere to if we are to be effective.

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