The Week in Ethics: Is Ethical Leadership Contagious?

If you were trying to foster ethical leadership in your organization, could anything make it “contagious?”

For starters, labeling it as “ethical leadership” might not take you as far as you’d like. How often do people say they are on board, “get it” and don’t need more?  While they might be willing to read about or take courses in strategic or global leadership, for example, many equate ethical leadership with what they learned growing up; if they need to spend more time talking about it, it might look like they are deficient in Golden Rule 101.

That’s the problem with blinders leaders, high potentials and any of us can have about our own ethical development — why it can suddenly be hard to give voice to values (because we’ve never thought about a potential conflict that suddenly surfaces) or why decisions are made weighing only legal and financial consequences (without noticing the potential for unintended ethical consequences) or why we need to be right.

When we talk about ethics and leadership in organizations, we need to translate it into values and behaviors we want visible in the culture that in turn build off a company’s values. While we say that ethical leadership encompasses the highest personal and organizational standards that vagueness creates an abstraction where everyone “gets it”  in theory, and can overlook it in practice.

Our language sets up creating the norm of what the organization stands for — and the behaviors supporting that — which then demystifies and brings the type of leadership we want to see and cultivate into day-to-day reality. If those qualities are talked about in examples and stories when the CEO meets with the board, direct reports and others; if they are linked to business success, reinforced in informal and formal mentoring programs, meaningfully incorporated into performance reviews, and play a role in why people get recognized, promoted or let go: the norm can be imitated and then owned.

Emotional Intelligence (EQ) is increasingly being reinforced in organizations as a way to develop leaders and help them succeed. (See Daniel Goleman’s What Makes a Leader.) Reinforcing EQ reinforces attributes important in ethical leadership so it is a win-win.

Some resources for thinking about how ideas can take hold in a culture include Contagious: Why Things Catch On by  Jonah Berger (video above) and the books that fueled his thinking: Gladwell’s The Tipping Point and the Heath brothersMade to Stick.

Applying that to what could make ethical leadership contagious involves first looking at what  natural advantages exist in your culture to tap into to help ideas take hold. Then, what ideas might offer perceived value. For example, creating a special leadership forum site with links to good articles, blogs, book reviews and news stories fosters leadership development that reinforces the norm you want, with triggers to keep the subject top of mind, while saving leaders’/potential leaders’ time in finding useful information they can apply and share with others. Launch it with a sense of exclusivity: perhaps needing a password. Enlist the support of admired leaders in the organization to make reference in meetings to an article on the site they liked, and find other ways to have the site talked about and positioned as a place high potentials go for useful leadership tips. Who wouldn’t want to be considered “high potential”?

How do the values and attributes of ethical leadership become contagious in organizations?

They are modeled by the board, CEO and other leaders. They are talked about and interrelated with business and personal success. They are mentored and cultivated, enmeshed in the culture’s stories and allied with how people feel/see they can make a difference. They are linked to reducing stress. They are connected to what stakeholders’ value, attached to what it takes to belong and reinforced throughout the organization.

Gael O’Brien July 24, 2013

The Week in Ethics

Gael O’Brien is The Ethics Coach columnist for Entrepreneur Magazine. Gael is also a columnist for Business Ethics Magazine; her November 6, 2013 column looks at whether loyalty is owed when a boss acts as a good leader. 

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Explore posts in the same categories: Code of Conduct, Culture, Ethical Behavior, Ethical Leadership, Influence, Integrity, Leadership, Tone at the Top, Trust

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3 Comments on “The Week in Ethics: Is Ethical Leadership Contagious?”

  1. Mick Ukleja Says:

    Thanks, Gael. Your writing is not only insightful, but practical. I like your integrative style with other disciplines. After all, ethics hits them all.

  2. Gael O'Brien Says:

    How nice of you to write, MIck, thanks for your comment. You are so right, ethics connects with every discipline.


  3. […] If you were trying to foster ethical leadership in your organization, could anything make it "contagious?" For starters, labeling it as "ethical leadership" might not take you as far as you'd like….  […]


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