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Why ethics are the beating heart of leadership

Leaders are more and more being defined not only by what they do, but the way they do it. How a leader guides, influences, manages and moulds their organisation or team towards achieving a goal is now just as important – if not more important – than the goal itself. The days of “profit at any cost” are coming to an end.

Of course, being an ethical leader and making ethical decisions isn’t always easy. The economic and social pressures we face are as strong today as they have always been. So what has changed? Why has ethical leadership become the hot topic?

Culture crisis and Snapchat syndrome

There are two explanations. The first might be referred to as a crisis of culture. Since the global financial crisis, corporate culture has found itself increasingly in the spotlight. The revelations of the unethical behaviour that caused the US sub-prime loans scandal and subsequent crisis have made the public in general – and the media specifically – much less forgiving than perhaps they once were.

The second reason is something I call the Snapchat syndrome. When Snapchat was first launched it was hailed as being unique because users could share things (photographs initially) privately. After a few seconds these photos would disappear and your secrets – or photos of last night’s dinner – would remain secret. The reality turned out to be a little different. And so it is with organisations; secrets are almost impossible to keep.

Volkswagen: a case study in poor ethics

In short, there are fewer hiding places. There are too many outlets for information and too many interconnected parts. Those individuals at Volkswagen who rigged the vehicle emissions software obviously thought their actions would stay secret. They didn’t anticipate curious experts in emissions testing taking a closer look at their dodgy data.

These days, companies and leaders must ensure they look in all the corporate nooks and crannies before somebody else does. Turning a blind eye, hoping the issue goes away, gets buried or magically disappears after a few seconds isn’t good enough.

If ethical decision-making is the beating heart of leadership, we must recognise that personal responsibility is at the heart of every decision we make at work.

As leaders, we have a responsibility to maintain trust. Something to note from the Volkswagen scandal was the level of trust consumers had placed in the organisation to do the right thing.

A common failing of organisations and leaders is to consider profit to be the number one priority when it should be longevity of brand and reputation; it is this that ensures an organisation’s survival. And in today’s increasingly connected world, unethical business practice is a sure-fire way of ensuring a company’s – and a leader’s – demise. One wonders how long it will take organisations such as Volkswagen or FIFA to recover.

While it’s true that the ethical compass of an organisation is set from the top, ethics is not simply a leadership issue; it’s a personal one.

Leading by example

As leaders we must set the example by leading with integrity. If ethical decision-making is the beating heart of leadership, we must recognise that personal responsibility is at the heart of every decision we make at work. It isn’t good enough to blame the culture of an organisation, the targets we have to achieve or the limited time we have to achieve them. None of these causes us to act unethically; we choose to act in that way. We should choose not to.

As leaders we need to foster an environment where personal responsibility is encouraged. An environment where people feel safe to say they aren’t comfortable with something they see and are empowered to raise ethical issues and to call out unethical behaviours.

As leaders we need to walk the talk when it comes to ethics.

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