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Courage is the key to creating an ideal world

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As managers and leaders in our organisations, we are often most focused on delivering our projects on time, on budget, and within the scope.

While these goals are always going to drive our job performance, the actions we take in pursuit of these goals drive our decision-making more and more, moving ethical leadership from an ideal to the forefront of our leadership style.

The challenge for most managers and leaders arises from translating this ideal into practice, while meeting the objectives of a project. In talking
with organisations around the UK, I have identified three key factors that determine whether ethical leadership will help to achieve project success.

Meeting Point
 First, and most importantly, as the leader of your team, you must lead with honesty. One of the challenges team managers face is that, if we are doing our jobs correctly, we are the 'meeting point' of information from various project stakeholders. This means that we often end up sitting on lots of sensitive knowledge that has the potential to harm or help our projects.

We can be put in positions in which the information we have is competing, and we may want to provide feedback in a manner that doesn’t upset any one constituency. But, in the long run, that will only cause us more trouble.

For example, if your sponsor gives you a timeline that is unrealistic based on the information your team has provided, it may be easier in the short term to agree to it. But the ethical leader will have a frank discussion with the sponsor, laying out the challenges of meeting that timeline and what concessions are necessary to achieve it. As Douglas Johnson-Poensgen, a managing director at Barclays, recently told me, when he is managing projects “it’s often the lack of courage to express an opinion that they know is correct” that hampers honest conversations between managers, teams and stakeholders.

Second, communicate constantly and openly. I’m one of those people who believes a great manager and leader spends the majority of their time communicating with teams, clients and stakeholders to find out what the real issues and challenges are in their projects, in their businesses and in their lives.

And, as Nicole Yershon, director of innovative solutions at Ogilvy & Mather, told me: “If you tell the truth, nothing can change.” While this advice seems simple, it is honest communication that drives ethical leadership.

In working with clients all over the world, I tell them that effective communication has three key ingredients: it must be clear, concise and easily understood. As ethical leaders, we take these ingredients one step further and add honesty. So, if you know something is going to change or isn’t true, you owe it to your team, your stakeholders and yourself to tell the truth to the extent that you can.

In practice, this can mean that, if you are privy to information that is going to have a negative impact on your team and company over the following weeks or months, you can phrase your communications in a manner that is respectful and deals with a situation honestly. You might say: “We are facing some challenges right now and I don’t have a complete grasp on what corrective actions will be necessary. I will keep you informed when I have better information that I can give you.” That’s fair and honest, and doesn’t blow smoke on a challenging situation.

Mission critical
Third, you need to tie the ethical decisions you are making into your organisation’s mission. This is becoming a common challenge as our companies see the power that social media and the internet have in highlighting and spreading information on unethical corporate behaviour.

Take, for example, the British banking system, which has faced numerous scandals over the past several years and has been pushed by the Bank of England to achieve fundamental change in the way it does business. As these businesses shift their focus and place more importance on achieving their business goals with integrity, not everyone will be on board. The companies will need to understand that there can be trade-offs involved in acting ethically, including lower profits. The ultimate power to make this change must start at the top of the organisation, but as leaders and managers, we can help to tie ethical decision-making to new goals. Johnson-Poensgen and his team do this by applying a 'third-party' test, which simply means considering how an impartial party would view the proposed course of action.

Ethical leadership isn’t difficult, but it does take courage to act in a manner that reflects your highest ideals. Or, to put it more elegantly, in the words of Susanne Madsen, author of The Power of Project Leadership: “Unethical things happen when people forget the real purpose of their leadership, which is to lead people towards a better future, serving others, and being an example that others can


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  1. John Cropper
    John Cropper 30 March 2015, 04:20 PM

    Many thanks for an interesting piece, Dave. As someone who has worked in international development and humanitarian projects for many years, I welcome your call to make ethics central to project management - and not treat it as an 'add on' or a tick box exercise.As you say, a lot of PM time and effort is focused on delivery. How can we be as effective and efficient as possible? In short, it is about the 'how' and making sure that we are doing the project 'right'. But what if the project itself is not ethical? If we use our skills to deliver an unethical project effectively and efficiently, then we are making things worse. I feel that we need to give as much thought to doing the 'right' project as we currently to delivery. Clearly, this raises the issue of courage. How do we refuse a project that is not ethical? It is very hard to offer guidance on this - and the objection - 'someone else will do it anyway' is easy, convenient and wrong (in my view). All I can offer is that the first principal of humanitarianism is 'do no harm'. Thinking about this and combining this with a broad understanding of stakeholders - including indirect ones - anyone affected by the project - helps me to think through issues of ethics in projects.

  2. Patrick Weaver
    Patrick Weaver 23 March 2015, 10:08 AM

    Ethics and governance are inextricably linked and both start at the top. Courage is always important but it is far easier to be courageous and ethical if the organisations governing body sets the standard for executive and other managers to follow.These concepts are outlined in  - its only when the very top echelons of an organisation demand ethical behaviours and create the cultural environment for ethics to flourish can you expect 'everyone' to behave ethically. Until that’s achieved you really do need to be courageous..

  3. Dave Wakeman
    Dave Wakeman 23 March 2015, 03:16 PM

    Don't you feel like that is a pretty strong condemnation of our business culture? And, I don't disagree...its become too easy and too common to take short cuts, liberties, and other poorly concieved or unethical decisions. But there never feels like there is a strong incentive to change and start acting in a way that is uplifting, ethical, and progressive...At the most, some crisis occurs, the offending organization rolls out "ethics are a focus" and after a few weeks...the idea is swept under a rug. 

  4. Ian Koenig
    Ian Koenig 21 March 2015, 10:24 PM

    Dr. Norman Vincent Peale's Ethics Check suggested three ageless tests for your actions that work across cultures:- Is it legal?- Is it fair - can you sleep at night?- How does it make you feel - would you be proud to tell your mother?

  5. Dave Wakeman
    Dave Wakeman 23 March 2015, 03:13 PM

    Ian-I agree. This idea that ethics should be courageous or radical is a real statement on our business culture. I'm on your side, I don't do things that would embarrass my family or that make me lose sleep.