As a leader, it is easy to act ethically in times that we are thriving physically, emotionally and financially. When things are going the way, we think and feel they “should” be going. This isn’t one of those times. A black swan event is one that is unforeseen, unpredictable and causes extreme consequences. COVID-19 has been just that. Historically, the challenge for leadership during black swan events is to manage the crisis, whilst simultaneously planning and building for the future.
In the past, a common analogy used to describe poor ethical behaviours has been “the fish rots from the head.” Perhaps it is time to literally flip that on its head and ask the question; can we lead from the roots up instead? This translates to a culture that inspires all employees and stakeholders to look at the organization as a system, as a whole, understanding that the value is built into the relations between different parts of the organization and to optimize it, we need to have a holistic view rather than optimizing just small pieces at a time or raining supreme as a leader. This is not your role.
Most leaders intuitively recognize the importance of the “tone at the top” for setting ethical standards in an organization. Easily overlooked is the tone of everybody else (note, not tone in the middle or at the bottom)! This may actually be a more significant driver of employees’ behaviour. Authentic leaders produce good followers; but if employees in a non-executive/directorship role within the organization are surrounded by co-workers who are lying, cheating, or stealing, they will most likely do the same, regardless of what their leaders say. Setting ethical, positive cultural norms from the roots up are an essential component to flourishing organisational cultures.
In the past, organisations most likely to emerge from a recession as “winners” were those that struck the right balance between a short- and long-term mindset. While the importance of this balance may appear obvious when the economy is strong, amid the pressures of a downturn, organisations are particularly susceptible to a short-term, potentially unethical mindset. The ability to remain agile and adapt to rapid changes in the next six-to-nine months is paramount to our future significance and success as individual organisations and allied health in its totality.
I invite you to consider several key pillars of ethical leadership. Creating an ethical culture requires thinking about ethics not simply as a belief problem but also as a design problem.
1. Have explicit values: Strategies and practices should be firmly secured, and all staff should be able to clearly articulate them.
2. Default mindset in challenging times: Most people have less difficulty knowing what’s right or wrong when they keep ethical considerations at the top of their mind when making decisions. Ethical lapses can therefore be reduced in a culture where ethics are at the core of your values.
3. Incentives: It is a cliché that people do what they’re incentivized to do, meaning that aligning rewards with ethical outcomes is a potential solution to many ethical problems. Just pay people to act ethically you ask? Maybe for some. But money only goes so far, and incentive programs must provide a variety of non-financial rewards to be effective.
In a crisis, don’t hide behind anything or anybody. They’re going to find you anyway. So, it is best to stand up, act ethically and intentionally contribute for large scale, positive change.