How to Build Your Ethics (and Avoid Messes Down the Road)

There’s a link between leaders and the fallout from the student protests over the Gaza conflict. That link: ethics.

Ultimately, the lack of a clear ethical framework sparked the struggles and consequences for several university presidents. Forging those frameworks fed success for other collegiate leaders. That difference may make or break your own organization in times of crisis. In fact, clearly stated ethics can help you avoid crises in the first place!

Ethics are a weighty business, debated by philosophers for millennia. But our podcast guest, Greg Moran, has several steps to help today’s leaders develop their organizations’ ethical guidelines in substantially less time.

1) Define Your Ethical Framework.

No one-size-fits-all exists for this: ethics vary from leader to leader. The key here is to take the time for internal examination, both of yourself and of the board. What values and moral beliefs does the board hold dear and wants the organization to practice? How do those match with the ethics you see as necessary as the person directly leading your team? Hammer out any differences; it’s critical for your visions to match.

2) Compare the Ethical Ideal to Company Culture.

Even in the best-run organizations, there can be a major mismatch between a leader’s ideals and how the front line operates. Often, a new leader is brought in specifically to adjust the company culture. Either way, ethical inertia presents stiff resistance; it’s another aspect of the “We’ve always done it this way” habit. Ensure your board and full C-suite support you and the new framework. Plan carefully with ways to bridge the differences between old and new values.

3) Communicate Carefully and Clearly.

Even the most stellar ethics fall flat if no one knows them. As soon as your ethics are formally framed, follow up by forging an action plan to inform every single employee. Include timelines, expectations, and consequences. Greg observed that this missed step resulted in much of the campus chaos at colleges like Columbia in the last few weeks.

4) Walk the Talk.

How you behave tells your team how serious you are. Hypocrisy erodes initiatives faster than a morning meme on Slack. Make sure you personally follow every item in your organization’s official ethics statement. It both demonstrates that these are real values you expect everyone to follow, and provides living proof that they can be followed in practice.

5) Prepare for conflict and crisis.

This is the other step Greg says many campus leaders skipped. We all hope to avoid crises in the first place, but we can’t control every variable, so have a plan ready. Your ethical framework rests at the core of any crisis response. If the crisis takes you completely by surprise, let people know you need to step back to consider the situation. Communicate (see Step 3!) with a short timetable or deadline, and forthrightly explain that you’re assessing the situation through the lens of the organization’s formal ethical framework. Even if you needed to employ stopgap measures first, this honest communication goes far in defusing any escalation.

Some leaders see morality and ethics as nice-haves: extras that aren’t necessary for running an organization. Others view them as hindrances to winning against competitors. As Greg points out, though, they are absolutely vital for a well-run team, providing continual guidance and demonstrating what your organization is all about. And as we’ve seen from Enron in the past and Boeing today, those formal frameworks can keep you out of trouble!


This article was adapted by Dan Mushalko from our podcast episode How Missing Ethics Makes a Mess of Organizations.

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