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


Posted by Dave Wakeman on 20th Mar 2015

About the Author
Dave Wakeman is a globally recognized expert in the areas of management and leadership. His consulting firm, Wakeman Consulting Group, has attracted clients like Odwalla, Yahoo!, Google, the US Department of State, SAIC, American Express, and the Seattle Times. He has served on the board of directors of organizations like Sela Public Charter School and Stand Up For Kids NYC. Follow him on Twitter @davidwakeman or email him

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