We Need More Stories About Values Based Leadership

06/10/2015 02:55 pm ET | Updated Jun 10, 2016

The current scandal now facing FIFA is yet another example of high profile organizations tainted by leadership whose integrity is in question.

These stories are sadly all too familiar and are reminiscent of the old adage that "Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely." More than ever we need stories about leadership that exemplifies moral courage and how such leadership can influence an ethical culture. Values-based leadership (ethical leadership) plays a critical role in preserving organizational integrity and promoting transparency and fairness in the workplace. Values-based leadership ensures that the values and ethical principles that organizations claim to stand behind actually inform decisions made and actions taken.

Although the topic of values-based leadership continues to be a significant interest of mine in my current role as a bioethics consultant and speaker, it was in my first career as a therapist that I was introduced to the concept. I recall helping a client* who had been a senior manager in a successful Canadian company that he had helped to build. The company's success attracted the interests of a large multi-national firm and later the company was acquired. It was within the first year after this acquisition that my client was jobless and unable to make much sense of what had preceded his dismissal. Overcome by feelings of anxiety, sadness and grief over the loss of his job he knew he was in trouble and decided to seek therapy.

In recounting his story, describing his experiences, he began to acknowledge how much corporate life had suited him. He had been steadily employed since graduating from university and the company he helped to build over a 20 year period supported his continued education as an accountant and later through his MBA program. Corporate life was home to him. He thrived in an environment where as a part of a leadership team he enjoyed collaborating on projects with his staff, he promoted a respectful workplace as well as a shared value system that championed success. Staff retention was excellent and resumes came in regularly from young talented professionals seeking employment. His working life was so consuming and so gratifying that he regretted the choices he has made about family and friends which ultimately resulted in his divorce.

Shortly after his company had been bought, the new CEO introduced strategies for cost containment and greater productivity. This change in direction also included work place performance measures that were diametrically opposed to the values and principles of leadership that had been seen as important. In his mind such measures were not conducive to maintaining a positive, respectful and engaging workplace. Senior management team meetings became tense and despite his efforts to share his concerns and to find alternative ways to address organizational change, the message was the same -- "Toe the line." Pushed to implement these changes by the new CEO he asked for more time to address concerns collectively as a senior leadership team. His colleagues although sympathetic, feared for their jobs and withdrew from the debate. He was isolated. The senior team became splintered. Morale quickly deteriorated.

The client found himself at an ethically challenging tipping point -- compromise his principles in order to "toe the line" and stay, or remain committed to what he truly believed was important and face the consequences. Elizabeth Doty alerts us to the risks of "The Compromise Trap," which includes "The gradual erosion of vitality, passion, and confidence that occurs when you deal with unhealthy pressure by playing along with the game and compromising in unhealthy ways." This phenomenon is also referred to in the ethics literature as moral compromise. Levels of moral compromise can be experienced by organizational leaders as they attempt to reach consensus on important organizational decisions. It is the commonly understood "give and take" of negotiation that is inherent in more democratic approaches to decision making. The extent to which you experience moral compromise is determined by how much you allow yourself to compromise on key ethical principles, professional ideals or personal values in order to reach a consensus. For my client, the moral compromise he would have to make in order to "toe the line" was too great. The culture of this new leadership team did not fit with his ethics, moral code or sense of fairness as an organizational leader.

Within a few months he was subject to what is now considered constructive dismissal. After 20 years of steadily rising into the ranks of senior leader, stellar performance reviews and accolades from colleagues as well as the previous CEO, he found himself severely criticized by the new CEO and ostracized from the leadership team. It was through unpacking this story in therapy that he effectively grieved for his job and the relationships he had enjoyed. At this point he was able to bear witness to the injustice he'd faced. What followed was a soulful and moral journey through which he concluded that by not abandoning his values as a leader he had championed an essential part of himself. He modeled for others what it takes to maintain your integrity in the face of adversity. His story became one of moral courage not failure. He acknowledged how close he'd come to abandoning key values and to losing his integrity. Within a few months following our work in therapy, my client found other employment. In his job interviews he was very deliberate in describing his approach to values based leadership and found a company eager to benefit from his skills and experience.

I share this story in contrast to the many "isn't it awful?" stories of organizational leaders who fail to uphold organizational values and professional integrity. My client's story illustrates just how difficult it can be for leaders to stand by their principles and values in the face of enormous pressure as well as likely and serious consequences. Some leaders are forced to leave organizations to which they have made a substantial contribution which is most unfortunate. Other values based leaders are able to stay the course and positively influence the values as well as the culture of the organization.

Our society's future is dependent on inspiring and sustaining values- based leaders in our work places as well as within the structures of power that govern our country and the rest of the world. We need to hear more of these stories of ethical leadership instead of the ones that repeatedly and regrettably make our news headlines.

*Please note that details, identifiable characteristics etc. have been altered or changed to protect the identity and privacy of individuals described.

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