Every organization claims high ethical aspirations. Unfortunately, the least character-driven team members often tend to be the most “ethical” because they know EXACTLY where the line is and make sure they never cross it. Meanwhile, the most character-driven members of the team get caught in “gotcha” ethics violations because they were not worrying about where the line was since they knew their motives were pure.
It is time to quit trying to be “ethical” and instead create a character-driven culture. A formal ethics policy is still necessary, but we need to transition beyond a policy as the standard to aspire to, and make it the lowest common denominator foundation, upon which is constructed a more noble cultural value system.
When it comes to behavioral standards, there are four progressive levels. Organizations who create cultures of sustained excellence tend to operate at the fourth level.
The first level is simply compliance with the law.
Most teams do a pretty good job of complying with legal standards, but team members unduly focused on the legal standard are often searching for loopholes and opportunities to work in the dark. The legal benchmark is avoiding criminal prosecution.
The second level is compliance with ethical standards.
Ethics can generally be described as a formally adopted set of behavioral standards. While an ethics policy sets a higher standard than mere legal compliance, it still creates a “compliance-based value system” instead of a “character-driven value system”. The ethics benchmark is avoiding the embarrassment and humiliation of violating the ethics policy.
The third level is integrity-driven.
While ethics tend to focus on public compliance with formal behavioral standards, integrity has been described as what you do when no one is watching. Integrity comes from deep within. It is who you are more than what you do. To be integrity-driven is a far higher standard than mere compliance with a formal ethics policy. The benchmark here is not what is allowable, but what is RIGHT.
But being character-driven (the fourth level) is the test of real leadership.
While integrity suggests doing the right thing when no one is watching, character-driven decision making is doing the right thing when you are under immense pressure to do the wrong thing. It is infinitely easier to be integrity-driven than character-driven. The benchmark here is whether you have the courage to pay the price to do what is right in spite of the pressures.
In today’s brutal political environment, where it is popular to demonize those with whom we disagree, character-driven decision making is more important than ever. Unfortunately, the short supply of character-driven leaders is enabling and empowering the cavemen and the articulate incompetents in too many of our communities.
John Rockefeller said, “Live your life in a way that you can look any man in the eye and tell him to go to hell.” There is no more desperately needed advice for today’s leaders.
Go for it. Be willing to do what is right regardless of the pressure, the name calling, the threats. Be willing to lose your job over it. Your legacy will be a better community as a result of your sacrifice, and you will look back and know it was your greatest moment.