Tag Archives: Emotional Intelligence

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. 


The Week in Ethics: Abramson, Mayer and the Road Ahead for Women Leaders

Jill Abramson, the first female executive editor of the New York Times, whose tenure in her first 18-months has yielded four Pulitzer Prizes. is the subject of a hit-and-run POLITICO piece this week quoting anonymous journalists at the paper criticizing her brusque, dismissive, non-empathetic style, labeling her “very, very unpopular.”

It is difficult to imagine a reporter having access to or using such anecdotal anonymous information about male leaders in other industries.

Much has been said in recent weeks about a double standard in judging men and women leaders. For example, Best Buy CEO Hubert Joly was treated very differently in the media than Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer when both leaders ended their company’s telecommuting policies. Mayer’s decision, which came first, received national media coverage and criticism. However, inherent in the double standard is also an evolving expectation of what it expected of women leaders in turbulent times.

Over centuries, “leader” solidified  as a male noun. Labels of first female engineer at Google (Mayer), first female executive editor or just female CEO mean something in the lexicon of moving toward gender parity, but can rankle those who want to be judged by their results not gender.

Male leaders have had centuries to toughen to the inevitable criticism inherent in the accountability of leadership. Women leaders, in adjusting to the glare of attention now as part of a small group face the double-edged sword of presumed expectations about the kind of leaders they are or should be.

Research feeds the expectation that women are expected to have more developed emotional intelligence (EQ) than men. EQ’s self-awareness, self-regulation, empathy, motivation and social skills– the so-called softer skills — are counted as crucial leadership skills and ones where women are considered to have an edge.

However, Abramson and Mayer emerged from the cultures that raised them — news organizations and engineering/technology — where outperforming, excelling, and high reliance on IQ and Systems Intelligence have high priority. Both assumed leadership in troubled organizations where they are required to drive change as their companies deal with economic, relevance, and technology challenges.

There is an expectation that women won’t make the same EQ blunders many men have. Mayer, who juggled her new parent status by building an office nursery, didn’t factor into Yahoo’s strategy and communication what the impact might be for employees who were also parents when she ended telecommuting; media had a field day with anonymous employee reactions.

Given the last several years of ongoing cuts in newsrooms, journalists still standing — perhaps even more especially those at the venerable New York Times — may feel demoralized. Not to operate with a heightened awareness of one’s impact on others invites criticism. One of the anonymous New York Times’ employees complained about Abramson: “There are days when she acts like she just doesn’t care.”

Sandberg photo.pdf Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg reinforces in Lean In (her book about empowering the next generation of women leaders) that  “success and likeability are positively correlated for men and negatively for women.” She cites a Harvard Business School case study of an entrepreneur who got negative reactions when the name Howard was changed to Heidi. Qualities that weren’t an issue for Howard became “not the kind of person you would want to hire or work for” when the gender was Heidi.

Further proof of the challenges facing successful women is evident in the controversy over Sandberg’s book,  several women reviewers indicated her wealth and status made her out-of-touch with ordinary career women. Leadership books written by men of status and wealth haven’t received similar critiques.

We don’t have yet an objective way of appraising women leaders — both accomplishments and criticisms can lend themselves too quickly to hyperbole. As things sort themselves out, one of the safety nets is to pay attention to red flags and address them. Abramson has been tagged (fairly or unfairly) with having a style attributed to many male leaders who’ve not been called on it publicly.

Expecting more from women leaders is about our giving and asking for more from everyone involved in service of creating highly productive workplaces that build trust and engagement.

Leadership is an intentional act of development evolving imperfectly. The road ahead for women leaders is helping define what is possible for leadership to create, moving into a way of being that is every bit as important in our increasingly unpredictable world as the way of doing.

Gael O’Brien April 25, 2013

The Week in Ethics

Gael O’Brien is The Ethics Coach columnist for Entrepreneur Magazine and a columnist for Business Ethics Magazine — her April column is about the road to second chances.

Ethical Leadership and How it Mitigates Risk

Problems are inevitable. Crises aren’t.

The best way to prevent problems from escalating into a crisis?  Ethical Leadership; it is one of the most effective risk mitigation strategies.

Ethical leadership draws on a high level of emotional intelligence (EQ) and the capacity to own an organization’s values as well as one’s own, linking  the means and the end in business strategy.

On one hand, it involves listening to multiple points of view; on the other, it encourages receiving input and feedback.  Rather than “killing the messenger” bringing bad news, the leader, working with his or her team, sees how problems can be mitigated before they spiral into a crisis.

As I’ve indicated in other columns, it is critical for leaders to raise questions about the potential ethical implications of a decision, the same way they ask about potential legal implications. And in doing so, a fundamental question requiring an answer becomes “what if we are wrong… and the mine does explode, the well does erupt, human error isn’t causing these car crashes, and our customers are harmed by our offering a product that bets against what we just sold them.”

Ethical leadership isn’t a mystical mantra for do-gooders. It is an attitude, a set of beliefs and behaviors that guide how a leader leads. Companies are put at risk, according to an Ethics Resource Center report, when leaders fail to see that ethical leadership is a vital component of effective and responsible management.

I gave a talk yesterday to about 150 civic and community leaders on building trust and reputation and how it relates to practicing ethical leadership. When I said that most everyone believes they are ethical, heads around the room nodded in agreement. But, I added, the problem with that assumption is if we think it is a static assurance that we will continually make ethical decisions. We won’t. Not without the ongoing awareness of what we are doing and actions that match our intentions.

I quoted John Darley, a psychology professor at Princeton, who  said in an interview with Margaret Heffernan for her book Willful Blindness: “In very competitive environments, where you’re under a lot of stress…you won’t necessarily even see there is a moral consideration.”

I’ve written a lot lately in this column and for Business Ethics Magazine about the research done by Heffernan, Kathryn Schulz (on being wrong) and The Arbinger Institute’s work on self deception because these all-too-human challenges greatly undermine a leader’s ability to be effective.

These vulnerabilities are far less likely to derail a leader whose style is ethical leadership — who makes it safe to disagree with him or her; voices company values in making decisions; and has high EQ that is brought into how he or she resolves conflict, communicates transparently  does frequent reality checks with people of multiple points of view, leads in a culture of constructive accountability, and sees ethics as a business strategy where the impact on society is factored into how they do business.

A year ago I contributed to an anthology of strategies on mastering business, life and relationships, called Stepping Stones to Success.  My contribution was stories about leaders demonstrating ethical leadership (and those who haven’t) and recommendations for what leaders can do to minimize the potential for ethical lapses.

I end this column with a statement I made in the book:

“…striving to be an ethical leader is about fully coming into your own as a trustworthy person, connected to your core beliefs and acting out of them. You are in a rhythm that is congruent, not conflicted.

“The term ‘ethical leader’ sets you up for success because it is about deciding how you want to show up in the world and what you need to do to support yourself and gain support from others in achieving goals and making a difference.”

Gael O’Brien,    May 12, 2011

 The Week in Ethics

Gael O’Brien is also a columnist for Business Ethics Magazine