Why good people sometimes do bad things: 52 reflections on ethics at work
In organizations, directors, managers and leaders are important role models for the behavior
of others within and around the organization.They are expected to represent the norms of the
organization. The higher they are in the organization the more this applies.
My own research shows that in organizations where the management sets a good example,
signiicantly less unethical behavior is seen in the rest of the organization than when the
management sets a bad example. 32 aspects of unethical behavior were measured, including
actions such as cheating consumers, squeezing out suppliers, deceiving shareholders,
competing unfairly and violating human rights. At the same time employees and outsiders are
often critical of the lack of role-modeling at the top. The positive side of this criticism is that
it conceals an expectation: employees and outsiders expect top management to give a good
example. That means that there is a need for ethical leadership. But what exactly is ethical
First of all, ethical leaders have a moral compass. They explore their environment, with a well-
developed vision of right and wrong. They have a clear sense of direction when it comes to
deciding what can and must be done better.They see and hear what others do not see or hear.
They not only draw a clear line between what is and what is not permissible, but at the same
time push the boundaries, and raise the bar, for others as well as themselves to become more
Ethical leaders have courage. They not only know that things must and can be different, but
they do things differently themselves. They don’t low downstream like dead ish, they swim
against the current. A head wind makes them strong, causing them to rise like a kite.They have
the drive and the guts to persist where others give up. Where others are silent, they speak.
They demand responsibility. As American president Obama said, in response to criticism of
greed in the inancial sector, ‘Ultimately, I’m responsible. The buck stops with me. And my
goal is to make sure that we never put ourselves in this kind of position again.’
The director of a consultancy in Florida gave an unusual example of courage. Due to the
recession 51-year-old Lol Gonzalez was forced to make one of her employees redundant.
Instead she herself decided to leave. ‘How can you sack someone who trusted you and who
you trusted too?’ she said when the news came out. The staff were astonished when she
17.The need for ethical leadership: moral compass and courage