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Andrew Leigh

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Is ethical leadership on the line?


Since leadership behaviour fundamentally influences the development of ethical conduct, two important questions arise: ‘Will I be a champion, an exemplar or both?’ and ‘How do I perform either role?’

If you are a senior leader, such as head of a business division, in the top management team or even the CEO, others will normally expect you to be both champion and exemplar. As a middle or first-line manager, or a supervisor, employees will look most directly to you for help on ethical matters, rather than seniors far away in a corporate office.

While you can task others with the role of champion, you cannot escape the responsibility of the exemplar role. Unless people see you modelling the right behaviour, you will be undermining the ethical programme, even if that is not your intention.

To be an exemplar, there are five main practical tasks to focus on: demonstrate that ethics are a priority, communicate clear expectations for ethical practice, promote ethical decision making, support your local ethics programme, and take vigorous action against unethical practices. Each has detailed implications for daily activity.

To model that ethics is a priority

Start by paying regular attention to ethics. Let people see you taking the issue seriously. When this happens frequently, the result will tend to show up as less unethical behaviour, fewer situations inviting ethical misconduct, and higher levels of overall employee satisfaction with the organization.

Second, if you want others to do the right ethical thing – you need to offer practical ways to do this. This means both speaking the ethics message and avoiding inappropriate behaviours, and regularly highlighting and rewarding ethical performance. For example, when you encounter someone dealing successfully with a significant ethical dilemma, consider how to publicize and celebrate this, so that others in the organization get to hear about it. 

Third, what a leader does not do also sends a powerful message. For example, you are saying loud and clear that ethics are not a high priority if you skip ethics-related items on meeting agendas, decline requests for resources to support ethics activities or are conspicuously absent from events in the local ethics programme. 

There are numerous other ways for leaders to be a champion or an exemplar. For example, in your normal role you probably attend performance reviews or expect to see the results of those held by direct reports. Show that ethics matter by your insistence that all reviews include specific expectations for ethical practice in staff performance plans. The review documentation should confirm that the topic was discussed and the person’s performance assessed for their commitment to ethical behaviour and the company’s core values.

Another way to be a champion or exemplar is to use your authority to free up staff to support the ethics programme. This could involve making it clear that you sanction their attendance at relevant meetings about ethical matters. You can also encourage your people to come forward as ethics champions, confirming that their time spent doing this will not be seen as detracting from their daily work.

Rewarding staff for contributing to ethical practice is further evidence of your credentials as champion or exemplar. The issue of rewards has long been a contentious one for companies. While some people argue that it is wrong to reward people for simply ‘doing the right thing’, the more compelling evidence from psychological research shows that rewarding behaviour encourages more of it.

Consequently, you can build ethics and other values into non-cash reward programmes. An outstanding and courageous demonstration of ethics, such as blowing the whistle on a suspicious accounting practice or suggesting a novel approach to safeguarding confidential data, can be award-worthy in a recognition programme with significant non-cash rewards.

Sometimes being a champion or exemplar comes down to readily responding when people raise ethical issues during their daily work. People expect to see their leaders exercise moral courage, facing up to ethical dilemmas without flinching or retreating. Failure to deal with unethical practices, to champion the ethical culture, is a sure way to undermine it.

This extract from Ethical Leadership by Andrew Leigh is ©2013 and reproduced with permission from Kogan Page Ltd.


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