A Leader’s Three Levels of Ethical Responsibility

It is fairly easy to understand that a leader is held to a high standard for his or her personal and professional conduct.

ARTICLE | Feb 6, 2014

By Kevin Duggan, ICMA West Coast regional director and ethics trainer

The concept that leaders are responsible for conducting themselves in a manner consistent with high expectations for ethics and integrity is well understood and accepted, but what is possibly less appreciated is how this expectation is applied in circumstances that go beyond leaders’ own direct actions.

While the personal conduct of a leader will be scrutinized by the members of the organization and is fundamental to the individual’s leadership credibility, what is often not fully recognized is how a leader’s response to the conduct of others is equally as critical to a leader’s success. In this context, it is critically important for leaders to understand their “Three Levels of Ethical Responsibility.”

FIRST LEVEL: YOUR PERSONAL CONDUCT (WHAT YOU DID)

It is fairly easy to understand that a leader is held to a high standard for his or her personal and professional conduct. You will be judged on how you conduct yourself—your personal decisions to do or not do something.

And as a leader, you will be held to a high standard. While some might object to the notion that leaders need to hold themselves to a higher standard than others, it is a reality that leaders are—and should—be viewed as role models, and they need to demonstrate the behavior and conduct expected of the entire workforce.

Leaders’ personal conduct, which members of the organization will always closely watch, will directly impact the level of ethical conduct throughout the organization.

You will be carefully observed and evaluated based on a variety of criteria, including how you use public resources, how honest and straightforward you are with others, and the level of personal conduct to which you hold yourself.

And always be mindful that the consequence to the public sector leader for a personal misstep is likely to be much more significant than to a member of the general public. The notoriety and impact of a local government manager being arrested for DWI, for example, will far eclipse the impact on most other members of the public who find themselves in similar circumstances.

SECOND LEVEL: WHAT OTHERS DID THAT YOU KNEW ABOUT

Many, if not most, organizational leaders who find themselves accused of ethical misconduct are in that position because of how they responded—or failed to respond—to the unethical actions of others (versus having committed the initial ethical transgression themselves).

It is regrettably all too common for individuals to become ensnared in the misconduct of others because of their failure to appropriately respond once they become aware of the ethical lapse. Among the criteria leaders will be judged on are:

  • Addressing the issue in a timely fashion.
  • Being fully transparent and disclosing the issue to all those who would be reasonably expected to be informed.
  • Taking appropriate disciplinary action in the case of a subordinate employee.

A delay in responding is often viewed as a failure to respond. Not taking action consistent with the misconduct is also a potential area for criticism. Leaders who do not take appropriate and timely action with full disclosure will often be judged as harshly and may face similar consequences as the individual initially causing the ethical breach.

THIRD LEVEL: WHAT OTHERS DID THAT YOU DIDN’T KNOW ABOUT

Possibly most difficult to fully accept is that leaders are responsible for conduct in their organizations even if they had no prior knowledge of the conduct. Although it might appear unfair to be held responsible for the conduct of others that you were not even aware of, as the leader you are ultimately responsible for the performance of an organization and the conduct of its members.

While it is not feasible, except potentially in the smallest of organizations, to be aware of the conduct of all members of the organization, it is clearly possible to reduce the odds that a leader will be held personally accountable for such misconduct. Here are factors that can impact how the leader is viewed in such circumstances:

  • Have you undertaken preventative steps including ethics training and being clear concerning organizational ethical expectations?
  • Has your organization provided multiple avenues for employees to report ethical concerns?
  • Are you viewed as a leader who gets “out and about” in your organization, or are you almost always working behind a closed door in your office?
  • Have you personally made it clear that you are open to and willing to hear “bad news” without “shooting the messenger”?
  • How quickly and effectively did you respond when the issue comes to light?

While no amount of preventative work will immunize you and your organization from all risk, being able to demonstrate that ethics and integrity were a known organizational priority before an ethical scandal will significantly impact the consequences.

In order for the leaders of organizations to be viewed as effective ethical leaders, and to help their organizations be effective in terms of ethics and integrity, they need to be aware of their three levels of organizational responsibility and conduct themselves accordingly.

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