Leadership is often thought of in terms of decisiveness and energy, of focus and delivery. And when it comes to ethics, these can have value, especially when the circumstances involve pulling a firm out of an ethical hole that misconduct has landed it in. Yet ethical leadership revolves more often around the everyday improvements that firms can make to avoid such ethical holes in the first place. In this post, I want to draw on what I wrote last week about persuasive argumentation and show how it’s just as important for delivering ethical leadership.
I talked in my previous post about how insurers need to think more carefully about how they construct persuasive argumentation around key ethical challenges such as fairness and discrimination. The key point in that post was this:
“What matters in constructing a persuasive argument is not what premises you believe are best, but which premises your audience is most likely to accept.“
Something similar applies to ethical leadership. Take the recently renewed emphasis in UK conduct regulation on ethical culture. Changing a firm’s ethical culture can be challenging, for it’s grounded in a complex web of shared assumptions about what the firm is there for and what it takes for someone to be successful there. Yet change is often necessary, both from the framework of regulatory expectations and from the influence that ethical culture can have on successful innovation.
In such circumstances, a characteristic of successful ethical leadership is understanding the people in your firm well enough to recognise what reasons for action they will find compelling. You can then take what you’ve learnt and and use it to construct your argumentation for why people need to change ‘how things are done round here’. In other words, a successful change in ethical culture is more often fueled from harnessing the ‘bottom up’ than from delivering the ‘top down’.
And remember that unless you’ve just taken up the reins of leadership within a firm, your own personal role in the firm’s ethical culture can’t be overlooked. You will have your own pre-formed preferences about ‘how things are done round here’ and in order to ask others to change their inbuilt preferences, you need to understand your own and be willing to change your own. For example, what values do you emphasise the most, and how do you respond to certain behaviours?
Thankfully, these two skills (listening and critical thinking) are now being more widely recognised in management circles, even if their practice is still a ‘work in progress’. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be preparing a short guide that will help managers self-assess the extent to which they’re listening to what a key audience has to say. Watch this space.