Virtues of Government Service: Number 11 – Ethics

Ethical Leadership:  Fundamentally Pragmatic

Why should people in organizations concern themselves with ethics? And, why should leaders espouse and inspire and insist upon ethical behavior for all members of the organization – including themselves? Here’s why.

First, let’s dismiss all the feel-good hype about higher consciousness, moral imperatives and the like. What’s left?  The cold, hard facts. So, what are those facts? Well, as existential as this may sound, “what goes around, comes around.”  Simply put, if an organization is led by a leader who demonstrates poor ethical practices, other members of that organization will eventually exhibit similar behaviors.  Lie to the employees, the employees lie to the customers.  Cheat the employees, the employees will cheat the customers.

Sooner or later they will cheat the leader and the organization itself. This is true even when the leader is a ruthless tyrant who leads by fear. Eventually, the leader, who puts himself or herself above all others, will discover that he/she has been served a hefty dose of their own medicine. Oh, the outrage!

“Even the King who mocks the pauper fears the Court Jester  who can land

 the last laugh.”

Leading with Ethical Core Values

Values — like truth, integrity, and respect for others, to name just a few — serve as external reference points for ethical leaders to make decisions. These decisions and choices will be willingly (rather than begrudgingly) accepted, acted upon and then mirrored and mimicked by other members of the organizations. Why? I think James Comey, former FBI Director and author of “A Higher Loyalty” says:

“Ethical leaders choose a higher loyalty to those core values over their own personal gain.”

What if you’re not presently a leader? Your job title or position is irrelevant when it comes to your values. First, lead yourself. If your values are not consistent with those of the organization you’re in, then you must speak out for ethical change or leave.  If you’re in government, you’re a leader by default. You carry the mantle of “the Government” even if today is your first day on the job. So, whether you’ve been on board for 30 days or 30 years, examine and then work to establish your personal core value and ethics.

Core Ethical Values – Three Building Blocks

Establishing strong core values will help you and your organization perform better – not to mention avoid an ethics violation, public embarrassment or worse! Here are some ideas of possible core values to help you get started. (Serving the purpose of full disclosure; the essence of these came from a lawyer, Bernard Knight, writing in the IP Watchdog).

  1. Honesty – be courageous and tell the truth. Do not try to cover up mistakes or color the truth. This is tough for many of us who strive for high achievement or perfect work. For example, a salesperson may “fudge the numbers” for various reasons. The CEO may speak to “the Street” in very positive terms to keep the stock price inflated. For others, it may be difficult in many organizations to admit a mistake.
  2. Integrity – Whether it’s your personal integrity or the integrity of the office you serve, integrity is key. Personal integrity is ultimately reflected in product integrity.  It is difficult to make everyone happy all the time and still maintain your integrity. I’ll never forget the story about Steve Jobs, who insisted upon high quality in “his” products.  An employee suggested using some inferior packing material to save money. And, besides, “no one would ever know.”  Steve replied, “I would.”
  3. Genuine and Authentic Caring – be compassionate with yourself and those around you. Care about other people and be empathetic about their situation and position. Try to look at the situation from the other person’s perspective. Think about others and the effect that your actions will have on them. But, don’t be untrue. If you feel awkward about doing something, the odds are that you shouldn’t do it. Learn to trust your gut instincts and ask yourself if others could question your behavior.  This is difficult to do under stress.

Put Ethics into Action

“Be quick, but never hurry.”

John Wooden (Basketball’s Greatest Coach and Leadership Guru)

If you’re a leader, don’t stress people out unnecessarily.  Be action-oriented but save your urgency for what’s important.  This reduces the urge for others to take short-cuts, color the truth and do less-than-quality work. Why? Shorter timelines increase stress resulting in lapses in ethical behaviors. When people “push the envelope” they are more likely to “skirt the edges” of regulations and even laws to meet aggressive goals.

If You Mean It, Say It

Most of us have seen seemingly sanctimonious posters on office walls proclaiming high ethical standards. Can there ever be a situation where sincerity is paramount? When the leadership of an organization is “solid” in its ethical standards, that’s the time to promulgate them to all employees. Also, have periodic training sessions on your core values and related ethical standards, norms and behaviors to remind employees of the importance of these to your organization.

Putting Service to the Public above Service to Self

The American Society for Public Administration (ASPA) advances the science, art, and practice of public administration. The Society helps to develop the spirit of responsible professionalism and to increase awareness and commitment to ethical principles and standards among all those who work in public service in all sectors. The members of the Society commit themselves to uphold ethical principles which provides some good advice and, conveniently, make a good bottom line for the blog!

Advance the Public Interest. Promote the interests of the public and put service to the public above service to oneself.

 Rick Pfautz is part of the GovLoop Featured Contributor program, where we feature articles by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Contributor posts, click here.

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Kaitlin Moller

I love this “Virtues of Government” series and I especially liked reading about the three building blocks for core ethical values. Definitely very important for anybody working in government to understand.