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Leadership Ultimately Determines The Ethos Of An Organization

A set of rules will not make certain that bad behavior doesn’t occur. Rules aren’t that powerful. What is? Leadership.
Harvey Weinstein, former CEO of The Weinstein Co., was fired in October in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations.

Weinstein, Spacey, Lauer, Rose and now James Levine, conductor at The Metropolitan Opera, actor Danny Masterson and Rep. John Conyers. Each day brings new revelations and accusations.

My clients, successful companies and executives, are talking about these issues. They are wondering what bombshells await them. How do they know that those they have trusted are worthy? What revelations lie beneath the surface? What behaviors have, in the past, been regarded as minor but are now seen for what they are–egregious acts, perhaps criminal.

The leaders I speak with know that just because no bombshells have exploded in their business, it doesn’t mean they aren’t there. They are rapidly becoming far less tolerant of those who, under the guise of ‘risk management’, advise measures that protect the company at the expense of those who have been harmed.

“A leader without a conscience, hiding the bad acts of others, is a recipe for disaster.”

They are right to make the shift to intolerance, to rapid responses that fit the circumstance. They are right to listen when people bring allegations forward and to look for the truth without blaming the accuser.

Who Can We Trust? When we think about specific instances of bad behavior, we focus on the bad acts, bad actors and those affected by specific actions. Leaders are often aghast. Public announcements often make reference to the company values and ethics. Guess what? Those value statements and codes of conduct, ethics, etc. do not determine how people act.

Most people don’t need to be told not to demean others, use their power as a license for deviant behavior or threaten others. Most don’t need a code to tell them how to act. For those that do, a code isn’t going to influence them. They don’t need a copy of the rules. They need a consequence for their behavior and they need it before it gets to the point that someone is harmed.

A small pile of dirt swept under the rug is just the beginning. Once a leader sweeps something under the rug, they have to guard against the dirt being discovered as well as be on alert for the next bad act. A leader with a conscience will be distracted by worry about hiding something they know shouldn’t have been hidden in the first place. A leader without a conscience, hiding the bad acts of others, is a recipe for disaster. Just ask Miramax.

Still, we need to codify our values and ethics. It’s a good idea to formalize our commitments to act in ways that are pro-social and to also agree not to behave in ways that are antithetical to a fair and civilized workplace. Codes of conduct and ethics give us something to refer to if we think something is “in a gray area” and they serve as reminders.

What a set or rules don’t do is make certain that bad behavior doesn’t occur. Rules aren’t that powerful. What is? Leadership.

The behavior of leaders and the decisions they make determine the ethos of an organization, the culture. You can’t expect people six layers down from the CEO to change the culture. Training? You can’t train people to be ethical. You can teach them to be aware of the rules and codes but that’s it. How about consultants?

Consultants don’t change company culture either, though many have tried and failed. A consultant can advise and support leaders to change an organizational culture. I had a client that completely changed the culture of his organization by making some very, very tough calls. He needed my advice but it was his actions that made the change happen and stick.

Leaders need to exhibit two behaviors:

  1. Be a living example of ethical behavior.
  2. Apply swift and certain consequences when people behave badly, no matter who they are.

Absolutely nothing is more effective than these actions.

Looking Ahead. The current discussions, as robust as they are, miss a major piece of the picture. What is that?  Lost talent, the very thing most businesses crave.

Those who can, often leave organizations where the culture tolerates bad behavior and leaders live in denial. Even if they stay, just imagine the energy and brain power that is spent protecting oneself, avoiding situations that might be harmful and calming down from events that couldn’t be avoided. Distracting doesn’t begin to describe it. No leader worth their salt wants people using their intelligence in this way.

Great leaders want a lot more for their companies than just staying out of trouble. They want the business and the people within it to thrive. A key driver of success is how the leaders act themselves as well as what behaviors they reward and don’t reward.

Your values aren’t powerful – the behavioral manifestation of values is powerful.


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