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Leading in matters of principle

Rowena (Ro) Crosbie is the president of Tero International Inc.

What qualities do employees look for in their leaders? 

Tero graduates say they look for honesty and integrity. Doing what you say you will do.  Standing up for what is right—not for what is popular. Recognizing the achievements of others. Modeling ethical behavior. 

Ethics_wood

How do these qualities translate into actions we observe? When and how do leaders learn these behaviors? Great leaders learn them long before they are leaders. They practice them in situations, all day every day, not merely when called upon to lead. While these leaders realize that they may need to adjust their approach based on a unique situation—what some experts call situational leadership—they also realize that there is no place in leadership for situational ethics.  

Like Thomas Jefferson who cautioned “In matters of principle, stand like a rock; in matters of taste, swim with the current”, these leaders know that the only thing not subject to change is one’s principles.

Consider the following three examples:

1. The media is full of stories of business leaders who have left us all shaking our heads at their careless disregard of ethics and principles. The consequences of their actions have had a major negative impact for both their businesses and the people employed by them.  The names WorldCom, Enron, Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers are just a sampling of companies whose leaders were involved in corporate collapses and major scandals. Even those organizations that survive the scandal struggle to emerge from the shadow of the leader’s missteps – consider Tyco, BP and AIG. Today, the General Motors’ story continues to unfold as we examine the GM leaders’ handling of major safety issues that are viewed by many as unethical.

2. I do not object to hunting. Like 75 percent of adults in this country, I support legal, responsible hunting. What I object to is the disregard some hunters have for personal property. When my husband or I come across a hunter trespassing on our farm (with a gun; near our horses) we marvel at how the hunter’s story changes to fit the new situation. First the hunter claims to have permission to hunt. Then, the story changes to a claim of following a blood trail (to the uninitiated, a blood trail means that the hunter is tracking a wounded deer). Then, when help is offered to track the wounded deer, the story changes once again with a confession that the (alleged) trail is now lost.

Is the misuse of property by hunters any different than the misuse of resources by corporate leaders? While the consequences are certainly different, it could be argued that the (un)ethical behavior of the parties is the same.

3. I met two friends for a glass of wine after work. Charges for only two of the three glasses of wine were reflected on the bill.  My friend, who wasn’t charged for her glass, could have easily considered the oversight her good fortune. She didn’t. She pointed out the error. A $5 glass of wine—was it a big deal?  Absolutely!

What qualities do leaders look for in their employees

Tero graduates say they look for honesty and integrity.  Doing what you say you will do.  Standing up for what is right—not for what is popular. Recognizing the achievements of others. Modeling ethical behavior. 

In other words, the qualities that employees look for in their leaders are the same qualities that leaders look for in their employees. 

Shouldn’t they also be the same qualities we look for in our mirrors every day? Every day we all make ethical choices. Can I get away with misusing company assets? Can I trespass without being caught? Should I point out an error on a bill I received? 

Perhaps Shakespeare, as is so often the case, said it best. “To thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man”.  

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