Ethics in leadership seems to be a topic that comes up frequently. Unfortunately, the topic usually comes up when there has been a serious breach in ethics and a very senior individual has been removed from their position, or sometimes even ends up in jail. We often ask, “How did we get to the point where this happened?”

Like many of the things we have discussed, you can help yourself out by giving some thought ahead of time to the ethics you wish to promote. Ethics are something that should definitely be included in your personal leadership philosophy. This includes both the ethics you intend to hold yourself to as well as the ethics you will promote on your team. It certainly is easier when you can make these two things the same, but not always easy to achieve; especially if you lead a team that is part of a larger organization. In this case, a standard “code of ethics” is probably the foundation upon which you build your team’s ethics. Here are some questions you can ask yourself to help define ethics in the framework of your leadership philosophy before you find yourself in the middle of an ethical dilemma:

What are the ethical principles that you wish to promote on your team? Integrity, accountability, respect, and loyalty are the ethical principles that we hear about the most. This is not an all inclusive list and you should develop your own list of ethical principles you expect from yourself and your team as part of your leadership philosophy.

What do the ethical principles on your list mean to you? While there are commonly accepted definitions of integrity, accountability, respect, etc., if you ask 10 people what these ideas mean to them, you’ll probably get 10 slightly different answers. As a leader, it is important you are clear with your team about what they mean to you and that you will be holding them to that standard.

How do you promote these ethics by exemplifying them? It’s not enough to simply communicate the ethical standard. Saying one thing and doing another at best sends mixed messages to your team and can do much more damage than that. As a mentor of mine whom I highly respect says, “Ethics are not just a poster you hang on the wall.” It’s critical that you live every day to the ethical standard you hold your team to.

What are the formal means you use to promote/enforce these ethics? What actions will you take when someone falls short of the ethical standard? What actions will you take when they exemplify the ethics you seek to promote? This is one we often forget.  It’s often easy to react to a breach in ethical behavior, but we often forget to point out and reward behavior that holds those standards high.

What are the informal ways? While a budget meeting or presentation review seems pretty standard, there could be opportunities to discuss ethical considerations in the context of the task at hand. Topics could include presenting data objectively, recognizing the views of others who may disagree with the presented position, or clearly stating the disadvantages of the favored course of action. There are plenty of opportunities to promote ethics without having a formal training session.

Ethics can often be a thorny subject and my purpose here today is not to dictate to you what your ethical standard should be, but to encourage you to think about what ethical expectations you have for your team and then communicate to them and hold them to that standard. Working though this ahead of time can prevent the next ethical issue in the workplace from turning into a significant emotional event for you and your team.

What does your team discuss regarding the topic of ethics?

The Value of a Good Deputy

Every leader needs a good right hand man (or woman). I know we all think that we’ve got it under control and that we’ll do what we need to do to make the team succeed, but the truth is we simply cannot be there all the time and we can’t allow progress to grind to a halt if we have to travel for business, go on vacation, or get sick.

On the other side of the coin, if you are not the boss, but aspire to be someday, taking on the role of deputy could be a great step up to increased responsibility! Whether you’re looking to groom your next deputy, or become your team leader’s next one, here are some characteristics of great deputies:

Understand the leader’s intent – REALLY understand it. Understand the end states the boss wants to achieve, the strategies to get there and the compromises he’s willing to make (or not make) in pursuit of the goal. A good deputy ought to be able to give the 30 second elevator pitch to anyone about what the leader’s goals and vision are for the team and how best to achieve them.

Understand the leader’s tolerance for accepting risk – this is where I’ve seen a few deputies step out too far ahead of their boss. They know what the boss wants and how he wants to achieve it, but they misinterpret how much risk he’s willing to take on to achieve the goal. This conversation should occur frequently between leader and deputy as the effort progresses and conditions change.

Exemplify the culture and values of the team – This is more important than you might think. The deputy will be expected to promote the organizational culture while you’re not there. If the deputy sets a lower or higher standard for the team while in charge, it will lead to conflict down the road among your whole team. The deputy doesn’t personally need to agree 100% with the culture and values, but is expected to uphold them in your absence.

Honest with the boss – sometimes brutally so. A solid relationship between a boss and deputy will involve many frank and open discussions. Remember that there’s a time and a place for this. Unless the situation is literally life or death of an individual or complete mission failure, open disagreement between a boss and deputy is best done behind closed doors.  Have a grown-up discussion where all the issues are laid out, decide on the best course of action and agree on it before you open the door, and go out and tell the rest of the team the decision with one voice. Remember the boss gets the final say.

Empowered to act in place of the boss – and not afraid to! A good deputy should be able to take the leader’s intent for achieving the big picture and make all kinds of smaller decisions that further that end state. It is critical to understand the intent and tolerance for accepting risk when making these decisions, but with good communication between them a deputy can keep a lot moving forward when the boss’s attention is diverted by external issues.

Knows what issues he is NOT empowered to act for the boss – there are some things the leader is definitely going to want to handle himself. It can be anything, but often it’s committing the team to spending money, hiring/firing, entering the team into a formal agreement.  If you’re the boss, you should make the red lines clear to your deputy. If you’re the deputy and your boss hasn’t made this clear, see understanding the boss’ tolerance for risk above.

As I’ve mentioned, these are all topics that should be discussed between a boss and deputy early and often. Like many things in life and business, communication is the key. This becomes even more critical if either the boss or deputy travels extensively, or one has significant responsibilities dealing with other organizations. It’s important to check in with each other frequently as events unfold and the situation changes.

Finally, If you aren’t authorized a formal deputy by your organization, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have one. Give some of your team members an informal tryout to see if they have the characteristics described here, or if they can be grown. Even though you can’t give them a raise or new title, increased responsibility is a way of rewarding your top performers. You may just end up with an entire team of deputies who you are confident can get the job done while you focus on bigger goals!

Setting Smart Expectations for Your Team

This weekend I finished reading Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. Friends and colleagues had recommended the book to me for years, and I bought an e-book version of it about 2 years ago, but just started reading it recently. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it; and if you have read it, pick it up again. It will be worth it!

In the book Mr. Carnegie relates a story where he was about to criticize a young secretary and he pauses. In that brief second, he hits upon an astounding bit of self-reflection. He states to himself, “You have had ten thousand times as much business experience. How can you expect her to have your viewpoint, your judgment, your initiative…what were you doing at nineteen? Remember the asinine mistakes and blunders you made?” (Carnegie, 1981)

This really hit home for me because I have been guilty of expecting others to immediately come to the conclusions and take the actions I would take simply because we have been working together for a while. I must admit I made my share of mistakes (probably more than my share) when I was younger. This anecdote reinforced to me the idea that, as leaders, we must set reasonable expectations for those we lead based on their skills, abilities and experience as they currently exist, not based on our own.

Putting our younger selves in their shoes can be a great way to get an alternate perspective on the issue at hand and how we want our team to solve it. I know from my own experience that I have led young people who are far more talented and insightful than I ever was at their age! It’s important to consider how our younger selves would have dealt with the current situation as we provide guidance to them, especially if they are finding the task challenging, or we are struggling to understand why they aren’t succeeding to the degree we expect.

Additionally, our job as leaders is to assess where our team members need to be in the future and to develop their skills, abilities and experience to get them to the point where they can operate autonomously and independently based on our intent.  This can be a lengthy process, taking years to fully develop someone. Training, education, and mentoring are all among the methods we can use to develop someone’s potential, but we must exercise patience while they get there.

Regular self-reflection is key to a leader’s personal and professional success. Taking a short trip back in time to a day when we weren’t so experienced can give us some valuable insight into how we can help our team be successful!

Works Cited

Carnegie, D. (1981). How to Win Friends and Influence People. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.