How to Empower Ethical Leaders in Your Organization

October 7, 2022 | New Workplace Leadership | 7 min read

No one teaches you how to be an ethical leader! Heck, most people aren’t even taught how to manage people. So where does one learn those required, necessary skills of being an effective leader, a listener, a connector, and perhaps most importantly, a role model?

How does one communicate an organization’s ethical beliefs and values to all team members so everyone is aligned on the behaviors expected of them within their organization? How do they promote employee safety and well-being across the company? How do they make hard choices to do the right thing every day?

These guidelines are often communicated via the organization’s Global Code of Conduct, which is a necessary first step for every manager and leader, but not sufficient to fully encompass the behaviors an ethical leader must exhibit.

I was honored to participate in a discussion about these topics with two incredibly smart humans with unique perspectives:

  • Beth Egan, PCC, MBA, The Growth Mindset Coach for Leaders, Coaching Energy, Inc.
  • Catherine Razzano, Head of Global Legal Compliance at TikTok

Beth is an executive coach who helps leaders at all levels to adapt their leadership styles to better align with their organizations. Catherine has been working in compliance for more than 20 years, encouraging organizations to define – and live out – their ethical beliefs and values.

Empathy and Empowering the Ethical Leader

We can all agree that managers must lead with an understanding of their organization’s ethical principles and values. And while you must train your team to avoid specific risk areas, like anti-bribery and avoiding conflicts of interest, determining if your managers are exhibiting the behaviors of ethical leaders so you can be a truly ethical organization is something that is a bit harder to pinpoint without the right, or enough, training and oversight.

So, Beth, Catherine, and I first wanted to understand how to best prepare managers to become role models. Specifically, what makes an ethical leader?

Beth shared an insightful quote from Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella: “Without empathy it is not possible to get the best from your team, so for this reason it is the key to everything.” She believes that leaders must put in the work to become aware of how their behavior impacts their team. Only in understanding their impact on others can they effectively regulate their behaviors to empower the organization as a whole.

Coaching, said Beth, is all about the “who.” Who is the person you are working with? Who does that person need to become to step into their greater potential?

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“Awareness and self-regulation are key,” agreed Catherine. She mentioned that TikTok is currently in the process of completing 360-degree reviews, where managers are reviewed by both their direct reports and their own leaders. In this way, they can better understand their impact on others and more fully examine how they achieve output through the lens of TikTok’s values.

Compliance, said Catherine, is all about the “how.” How do you do what you’re supposed to do? How do you do it consistently? How does it show alignment with your organization’s values?

The Heart of Ethical Leadership

Uniting the “who” and the “how” seems to be at the crux of ethical leadership.

According to Beth, real growth and development happens when people feel safe bringing their vulnerabilities to the forefront. To do that, we need to create a safe space for those vulnerabilities – personally and professionally.

“Ethical leadership is a long-term win,” noted Catherine. “There is an enormous amount of pressure in our global environment to make fast decisions.” She recounted watching the Hulu series, The Dropout, about Elizabeth Holmes and her company, Theranos.

The evening before Theranos’ meeting with pharmaceutical giant Novartis, Holmes made a decision to falsify an important blood test – likely thinking that the poor test results would ultimately be resolved, and the short-term ethical breach would justify the long-term gains. However, this decision soon ballooned out of her control.

No decision is ever black and white. Catherine said, “Macro- and micro-environments in the world impact our ability to make the right decisions and show vulnerability. To compensate for that, we need to be more deliberate about the decisions we make.”

She suggests taking three actions before making any important decisions:

  1. THINK. Think about what you’re being asked to do. How do you feel about it? Does it match with your values or the values of your organization?
  2. PAUSE. Take a breath and allow yourself to reflect. It is especially important for leaders to create space for this across their teams.
  3. ACT. Move forward with your decision, confidently!

“Sometimes our environment forces an unnatural amount of pressure on us,” said Catherine. “We need to develop the tools to resist this so that we can create a safe space to make ethical decisions.”

It’s Not Always Easy to do the Right Thing

Skillsoft CEO Jeff Tarr said at our recent Perspectives event in New York: “Everyone leads!”

While it is important for managers to assume the role of leaders across their teams, it is equally important that we not underestimate the role of individual contributors in creating an ethical organization

Individual contributors often follow the lead of managers when making important decisions because managers are positioned as role models. However, if a manager is not doing “the right thing,” it can be difficult to for individual contributors to say something. That’s why it is so important to empower everyone in your organization to lead and to speak up.

Catherine mentioned the effectiveness of arranging roundtable talks about ethical decision-making across your organization – encouraging teams at all levels to discuss how they might approach critical decisions. “Not only does this help the team to practice thinking through hard topics to develop key muscle-memory in that area,” she said. “But it gives employees more people to bounce ideas off of when they are faced with a critical decision.”

Beth approached empowerment from a different perspective. She said, “Our thoughts impact our feelings, which impact our actions. When we shift from negative self-talk to empowerment, we create a space for ourselves to become more productive and inclusive.”

Our behavior, she noted, is a choice. So, whether we inhabit the C-suite of a Fortune 500 organization, or we’re an individual contributor at a startup – we can take it upon ourselves to change our behavior to elicit ethical outcomes. Ethics can be a grassroots effort.

Where do we Start?

There’s no time like the present to embrace ethical leadership and training ethical leaders Beth shared some best practices that she utilizes in her work as an executive coach:

  • Be a role model. Show your team what good behavior looks like. Often, people won’t recognize it until they see it firsthand. Good role models live at all levels of an organization.
  • Encourage learning and transparency. Don’t hide your mistakes. Learn from them and share them so others so they don’t have to learn the hard way. Create a culture where people are comfortable sharing their missteps.
  • Provide opportunities and feedback. Challenge your team with respect to ethical leadership. Give them opportunities to be role models, themselves. What is working well, what can they do better?
  • Reward progress over perfection. Establish a growth mindset. Ensure that your team understands that we are all a work in progress, and we can only do the best we can do on the journey we are on.
  • Create a safe space. Managers must provide employees with the time to process and ask questions. They need to create a safe space so that the team can – as Catherine put it – THINK, PAUSE, and ACT.

What’s the bottom line? Toxic workplace cultures share some common traits. They are typically observed in organizations with a lack of role models, where there is no safe space, and it is not okay to be vulnerable or ask questions. A toxic workplace culture is likely to lead to a compliance failure.

So, let’s THINK, PAUSE, and then do the work to empower ourselves and our teams to be the role models and ethical leaders we want to see in the world.