Very early in my career, a senior leader said, “Larry, as you progress through your career, you’ll bring with you your experience and your lessons learned. But the most important thing you’ll bring is your reputation for honesty and integrity.” Those words have served me well.
Your reputation is built by your decisions and actions as you move through life. Doing the right thing is easy when it’s convenient and painless. What do you do when “the right thing” is not at all clear? What do you do when it’s inconvenient and likely to cause you some pain? What do you do when you’ve done something wrong?
In this post my goal is to stimulate your thinking about this supremely important topic.
Walk your talk.
Who you are speaks more loudly than what you say. Failure to walk your talk will earn you a well-deserved reputation for hypocrisy. Think about politicians who forcefully espouse family values while committing adultery. Disgusting. Who wants to follow a hypocrite?
Avoid even the appearance of impropriety.
A senior partner taught me this when I was practicing law. It’s not enough to know you’re doing the right thing. You must be aware of how others might see it. The appearance of impropriety often causes huge damage even if one’s innocence is later established. At the very least it tarnishes your reputation. If something will look wrong even though it’s not, don’t do it. If you’re called upon to explain why you’ve done something, you’ve already made a mistake.
Operate with transparency
As my friend and colleague Bill Kerrey says, “Sunshine disinfects.” People don’t trust mysteries. Transparency is the best way to avoid the appearance of impropriety.
Don’t do something just because you can get away with it.
Temptation is all around us. In many cases, a leader can do things that are not right because nobody has the power to hold him accountable. I knew a company president who forbade HR to record her vacation time. Here’s the thing. Once you see that you should ask, “What else is she getting away with?” It’s a 100% certainty this is not the only case of this sort. She’s doing it elsewhere.
And as a practical matter, others will emulate that behavior. You’ll have a culture where everyone will see what they can get away with. No ethics, no integrity, no honor, no trust. Don’t do this and don’t condone it.
Encourage your employees to discuss the question, “What’s the right thing to do in this situation?”
It’s not always clear what the right thing is. The world does not fit neatly into the categories we’ve created. Vigorous, candid discussion is healthy. And well-meaning, intelligent people can disagree. Ultimately, however, we must act. Not everyone will agree with the leader’s point of view. When you have to make these types of decisions ask yourself, “Am I comfortable explaining this decision in a public forum?” If not, find a different course of action.
Admit your mistakes, apologize and do your best to make things right.
Too many leaders think it’s a sign of weakness to admit a mistake. On the contrary, it’s a sign of strength. Who in their right mind believes their leader is incapable of error? Leaders who don’t admit mistakes undermine their credibility.
Adhere to your principles even when it’s difficult, costly and painful.
We have shining examples of this. To name just a few: Mohandas Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, Socrates, Nelson Mandela, the demonstrators in Tienanmen Square, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the protesters who crossed the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma, and Rosa Parks. I’m sure you can add to this list. These are the kinds of leaders who inspire people to action. When it comes to ethics and integrity, we’d all do well to emulate their example.
Thanks to my friend and colleague Kelly Moguel for suggesting this topic.
And thanks for reading. As always, I’m interested in your thoughts.