There’s been a lot of discussion in recent days about leadership – more specifically, about how leadership has failed. Not for a minute do I believe that all leaders have ethical shortcomings. (Ok, no one is perfect.) In fact, most leaders are very ethical, both in the personal sense and in their corporate dealings. I just don’t like constantly hearing about cover-ups, affairs, insider trading, corruption and immorality among those charged with protecting us and our children, and on and on.
On his FCPAmericas blog, FCPA attorney Matt Ellis talks about the challenges faced by general counsels and compliance officers when they don’t have a true top-down commitment to a culture of ethics and compliance. Their jobs are hard enough but get even harder when there is a lack of “tone from the top” support from senior management. In these situations, what is an officer to do? How can they be effective without unwavering ethical leadership?
Ellis relates this story from Noah Bopp, with whom he co-founded The School for Ethics and Global Leadership (SEGL) in Washington, DC. Bopp gave this analogy regarding leaderless ethics:
Suppose too many drivers are running red lights at a particular intersection. This causes several accidents a week and a few deaths every year. Most drivers never see these accidents, and if they do, they think they are caused by drivers with less skill. The accidents themselves are not enough to deter bad behavior. If we station an extra police car at that intersection, we will probably reduce the number of accidents at that particular location, but other intersections will likely retain or develop problems. Accidents and deaths will continue. Why? Because we haven’t taught the drivers anything. They don’t really understand that running red lights is bad for them and for the city. They just understand that getting caught by the police is a hassle. Compliance rules are like extra police cars at dangerous intersections. At these intersections, self-interested companies led by self-interested management are constantly running red lights. And too often, compliance officers function as back-seat drivers who yell, ‘There’s a cop–watch out!’ Compliance officers and general counsel should not simply look for cops. They should educate so that the company car understands why stopping for red lights is always right. In short, they should work to uncover and sharpen the company’s ethical compass. And this means starting at the top, with management.
That’s powerful stuff. As leaders, we all have to remember to stop for the red lights, and to understand the reasons why we do.