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Ethical Leadership—First Quarter 2019

NACVA Association News

Tonisha Pinkney

The Next Generation of Ethical Leadership

Tonisha M. Pinckney, PhD., MSCJ, MAFF, CFE, CBE, CSCD, CCII

Some may see ethics in business as the imposition of the leaders’ moral and value system on their followers. While the aforementioned is both true and false, an ethical leader works deliberately to set the tone for what is considered right and wrong in an organization.

The current demographic of the workplace includes five generations, Traditionalists (arguably “The Greatest Generation”—born before 1946), Baby Boomers (born between 1946 and 1964), Generation X (born between 1965 and 1980), Generation Y (also known as Millennials—born between 1981 and 1996), and now Generation Z (born after 1997). Ethical leadership requires that one pay homage to the generations before, but respect the morals and values of the current and even immediate next generation.

Ethics are not a stagnant concept, nor are they completely fluid. Ethical standards and codes within an organization do require updating and changing. So, what happens when a Millennial is interviewed by a Baby-Boomer and realizes that their immediate supervisor may be a Generation Xer and their followers consist of all five generations? Adding to that scenario, the current ethical code was written and is overseen by those classified as being a part of the Traditionalist generation. How does one navigate such a landscape?

Ethical leadership begins before getting the job. Do not be afraid to ask ethics-related questions specific to the company and the role before taking on a leadership position within an organization. Never assume. Often when taking on a role, people trust that the organization or department shares the same ethical or value code simply because they were hired or promoted. Joe Deobald, Founder of Full Frame Marketing, and Entrepreneur in Residence at Left Technologies (one of Canada’s Top 100 Employers with a 97% voluntary retention rate), is celebrating ten years in leadership. Mr. Deobald considers himself a “Creative Catalyst for developing ideas and opportunities within various verticals to help empower people, challenge processes, and impact the world.” He suggests asking the following: What do you believe compromises the ethical workplace? What initiatives are in place to maintain a strong ethical culture, and how are you measuring its success? Asking such questions may be uncomfortable for the person taking on the position, but they should not make the interviewer or current leadership uncomfortable. Hesitation to answer may signal a lax ethical standard, an ethical tone that is not shared consistently or frequently, or a current ethical dilemma. 

Dr. Cherita Weatherspoon, CEO of Spoonfed Motivation, LLC has over 20 years of administrative experience in higher education, non-profit, and faith-based environments. Dr. Weatherspoon assists organizations in solving “their people problems so they can solve their process and profit problems.” She suggests the following questions: Which of your corporate values most reflect your stance on ethics and integrity in the workplace? How do you communicate and demonstrate your commitment to these values to your internal and external stakeholders? How do these values translate in the daily operations of the organization and in interactions among leaders and staff? Word of caution—make sure you actually know your philosophy and can defend it or you may open a can of worms that cannot be closed. You must ask yourself the same questions that you may ask of the organization or current leadership. Ethical leadership begins with self-leadership and the impact of your self-leadership on others.

Once you are a new leader, in position, it is up to you to set an ethical tone. Regardless of the current tone, you are the leader. Your followers will want to know your ethical philosophy, whether it is consistent with the prior tone, and how they fit in. You will need to communicate, not only the changes, but your commitment to honoring aspects of the current philosophy. 

Setting an ethical tone and communicating changes to the ethical tone requires a degree of finesse.Simple conversations make team members feel valued and important. Per Mr. Deobald, “sit down with people from the mailroom to the boardroom to get their first-hand feedback on what’s working ethically and what needs improvement.” These conversations offer an opportunity to communicate the importance of ethical decision-making in all aspects of the organization without being confrontational or dismissive of prior efforts. 

Like any other process, setting the tone requires one to gather anecdotal evidence and perform data-informed analysis. As the leader, you are responsible for establishing guidelines, policies, practices, and the concept of organizational success must find a place above personal success—ethical leadership requires self-leadership. Self-leadership includes knowing that “I” must often take a backseat to “WE.” 

It is often said that “it is not what you say but how you say it.” The same is true when communicating changes to the ethical tone—it is not only important what you communicate but how you communicate it. Context is important. Speaking with those in all levels of the organization or department will give you an understanding of the various communication styles. In your previous role, it may have been acceptable to send an e-mail or extended memorandum outlining changes. In you new role, your followers may see this as “top-down” or “heavy handed.” This is another place where having five generations in the workplace is important. Each generation comes with their own comforts related to technology and communication. A Traditionalist may appreciate a meeting and a formal letter with a hand-written signature. Whereas a Gen-Xer, may want a detailed e-mail, a Millennial may appreciate an e-mail with bullet points, and a Gen-Z may prefer an online “working” document that is open to commenting and sharing. It is no longer enough to communicate. Offer numerous methods for understanding and embracing the new ethical policies. Align the old policies with the new, showing the changes, reasons for the changes, and the impact of the changes on internal and external stakeholders. Communicate using various modes of technology such as: e-mail, short and long videos, courses that give certificates and badges, live and recorded training, in-person discussions, and/or a long-form formal policy document and a one-pager with key points. Leadership style can be informed by the learning style of your followers.

No matter what you do, as a new leader you will be faced with ethical dilemmas. Everyone wants to know how and when you respond. Ultimately, that is when the tone is set. When faced with a difficult situation, Stan C. Kilmer stresses that you “don’t try to spin a story, but instead speak clearly and candidly.” Your followers must trust what you say, what you do, and what you require of them. 

What do you do when faced with an ethical dilemma? How do you handle it? “To thine own self be true,” still applies. Also, remain true to the standards established by any credentialing body (such as NACVA). Those two are the foundations from which you build your planning and strategic response to the dilemma. From there, you review the current policy and be prepared to explain, in detail, any deviation from or additions to the policy. In addition, explain whether the deviations or additions are situation specific or whether they are a precedent for the future. One thing you can be assured of is that you will be held accountable for your actions, the actions of your team, and the implications of those actions.

“Trust but verify.” Those famous words by Former President Ronald Reagan stand as a compass during challenges. Dr. Weatherspoon gives her clients similar advice by urging the importance of giving the benefit of the doubt. Not all infractions are intentional. Not everything is as it appears at first glance. Information gathering is important. For your followers to trust you, they must feel trusted. We also know that perceived trust can lead to otherwise hidden information or impromptu confessions. When investigating the situation and planning your response, you may feel alone. A focus on ethical leadership can cause one to feel as if you are walking against the wind or that you are the only one who cares about the issue. Dr. Weatherspoon reminds us to not be distracted or surprised when ethical standards are not in place or are not being followed. It happens—deal with it. That is what leaders do; they deal with the situation, given the context. 

Yes, there are generational differences. Yes, each generation has a different measurement of what is moral or ethical. Yes, it is difficult leading in a time when so many generations exist in one space. One thing that is consistent across generations is what Mr. Deobald identifies as his version of “Substitute Teacher Syndrome.” Remember sitting in class (grades K-12) and finding out your teacher was absent? Remember the combined thrill and dread of knowing that someone, a substitute teacher, would take over? Some students consider the substitute teacher as an outsider. Others thought of the teacher as being there to be difficult. A few may have even thought this was a time to slack off, not do the work, or not follow the rule. Students pushed the boundaries and tested the veracity, leadership, and steadfastness of the substitute teacher. As a new leader, you are no different. Your new followers, and even perhaps your own leaders, will test the limits of your position, power, and influence. Do not allow “Substitute Teacher Syndrome” to force you into “Imposter Syndrome.” Imposter Syndrome, in short, happens when someone doubts their legitimacy as a leader or expert and their accomplishments. Leaders with Imposter Syndrome begin to feel as if they are a fraud. Followers who excessively challenge the new leader can contribute to that feeling of inadequacy. As a leader, you must be able to stand your ground against the winds of opposition, with confidence.

Finally, diversity and inclusion are important because it gives an organization the opportunity to benefit from diverse ideas, perspectives, and approaches. Having five generations in one workplace is an asset. Often, we speak of age discrimination and not enough about age bias. Older does not mean better or obsolete and younger does not mean more learned or less skilled. Everyone has something valuable to make your organization great. As an ethical leader, it is up to you to bring out the best in your followers and to show the best of yourself. 

Dr. Tonisha M. Pinckney, the founder of Revelatus Specialized Accounting & Consulting, LLC (Revelatus Consulting), is an anti-fraud expert, financial forensics analyst, and criminologist. In addition to fraud investigation and forensic accounting, she offers leadership coaching, mediation, and non-profit workshops and services. Committed to criminal justice and social justice reform, Dr. Pinckney is an author and speaker on issues related to equity, diversity, mental health, and socioeconomic disparities.

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