In the aftermath of ethics scandals at Enron, WorldCom, Tyco, companies are increasingly emphasizing ethics as a critical leadership behavior and put a high premium on finding executives with high ethical standards. Values such as integrity and honesty must be supported by company leaders and reinforced through any organization’s reward systems. Companies must rely on the leadership and character of individual managers and business units to protect whistleblowers.
Suppose you are charged to find such a person. What would you look for? How do you discover a person who will act with integrity and character when put in a position of power?
People with records of accomplishment of honesty and integrity are catapulted into roles where they are in a position to use their power and influence to obtain enormous personal wealth. For many that temptation is simply overwhelming. Their position appears to cause them to believe that they are no longer governed by old rules.
Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman of Zenger/Folkman, a leadership development consultancy, analyzed the profiles of some 25,000 managers and leaders and compared the top 10 percent with the bottom 10 percent. As viewed by peers, subordinates and bosses, these top people were rarely evaluated as being unethical.
What could explain the sudden rash of senior executives who display such behavior? There are three distinctive possibilities:
- People who rise to the top are more greedy and dishonest, but manage to camouflage that until they get into senor roles,
- The opportunities for unethical behavior are not so tempting at lower levels,
- There is greater scrutiny of the behavior of middle and upper-middle managers.
Ethics and Integrity: what should you look for, or look out for?
Zengar and Folkman discovered that 16 behaviors and competencies that separate those who are perceived highly. One of those was “honesty and integrity,” a central characteristic of great leaders. Zengar and Folkman also discovered certain “companion behaviors.” One is “assertiveness.” People with high scores on honesty and integrity also have high scores on speaking up and letting their views be known. They are not passive. They take initiative.
As Zengar and Folkman studied the behavior of leaders embroiled in scandal, they saw two patterns.
- Ethical Leaders Have the Courage to Speak Up. The mind of a conspiring fool is very fertile. Honesty and integrity are often talked about, so the concepts are not foreign. In addition, many people inside are aware of unethical practices that become known. Having the courage to speak up predicts those who display high integrity through their careers. Companies cannot tolerate people who know of improper practices but who keep quiet about them. Such “wink-wink” behavior is not characteristic of those with high character.
- Ethical Leaders Display Genuine Consideration for Others. Unethical behavior invariably damages other people, whether they are customers, shareholders, or employees. Gains from greedy behavior come at somebody’s expense. A thick-skinned view of others—the opposite of compassion and consideration—makes such behavior possible. Ethics and integrity are ever so fragile.
Look for people who have a record of accomplishment of honesty in all their dealings who speak up, especially when it comes to matters of principle; who display genuine concern for others; and who treat other people of all ranks with dignity and respect.
You will usually find them approachable, humble, self-effacing, and willing to share the spotlight with others. Instead of seeking “quick fix” responses to costly ethics blunders, such leaders should be able to proactively instill ethics into the decision-making process and nurture ethical behavior among employees. Great leaders are in short supply.