Leadership: Doing the right thing, even if nobody is watching

I have worked with a number of great leaders and managers over the years, some of them are famous for this but others are quiet achievers. Watching ABC’s Four Corners program about St Ann’s Secret on television tonight made me think about what makes a great leader.

The story of abuse of disabled children by paedophiles in Adelaide was heart-rending, and the failures of leaders in various roles and in various situations often seemed to compound the damage.

It takes leadership to stand up and do what is right. As an one of my managers used to say it’s about “doing the right thing even if nobody is watching”. And he often noted that it is also about being seen to do the right thing at the right time.

Over the years I have also worked with leaders who flirted on the edge of illegality (some of them even went to gaol a few years after we parted company). The organisations that were led by those people all foundered over the years. The story in each case was similar: procedural irregularities, illegality, bankruptcy, civil and criminal charges, many ordinary  workers and investors betrayed.

The common thread was that these leaders encouraged their staff to skirt probity and fiduciary duty. The road to hell is not just paved with good intentions, it is also a long slow and slippery slope. Attention to small things and attitudes to them are paving stones on the road to hell.

And the consequences of those little things do not just fall on a business, or on its investors. The consequences also fall on society at large, upon families, and upon young people.

We see the consequences of this bad behaviour of organisations in the scandals that rock our churches so regularly, in the business failures that damage lives and our economy, and in the world our young people will inherit.

How organisations function comes down to all of the individuals, but it is the leaders who set the tone. And it is the leaders who bear the responsibility for the kinds of behaviour that are seen as acceptable and appropriate.

Leaders need to think about what messages they send about which behaviours and practices are appropriate. It is not merely the explicit messages that signal to people how they should behave. In many cases it is also the behaviour, comportment, and gestures of the leaders that set the tone.

Organisations are organic and their culture is viral. And the strongest form of the virus comes from the leaders. If you’re a leader it’s time to think about the example you set.

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