Goodbye Tone at the Top, Hello Ethical Leadership

Donna Boehme – Corporate Compliance Insights – May 17, 2019

Meaningful ethical leadership drives cultures of integrity and trust at modern workplaces. Gatekeepers need to forget “tone at the top” and educate, coach and hold CEOs, boards and management to a higher standard than a checklist and catchy phrase.

In 2014, I decided to put the greatly overused phrase “tone at the top” on my banned list. I did that because its misuse by so many commentators, boards and self-appointed compliance “experts” had gotten so out of hand that the misuse was becoming institutionalized to the point that CEOs, boards and management had begun to think “tone at the top” meant “tone from my mouth” (a problem first coined by the great Joe Murphy) and that “tone” could be achieved and conveyed via company memo, video or a carefully worded interview arranged by their PR Wizards of Smart. The phrase had become so misused and overused that it had lost all meaning and had become such a low standard that it could be met by any “paper program” or even a “paper memo.” When compliance becomes nothing more than a “checklist and a catchy phrase,” we’re all in big trouble.

Clearly, a new standard that combined both words and meaningful action was needed – “walk” as well as “talk.” Then the world saw the fortuitous election of a new pope, Pope Francis, who demonstrated both “walk” and “talk” from the first day of his election by 115 cardinals via papal conclave on March 13, 2013, as I noted here. Here was a leader whose actions powerfully matched his words, as he demonstrated true ethical leadership for all the world to see. Even one year into his papacy, the impacts of his ethical leadership could be strongly felt. Pope Francis, known as the “Humble Pope,” has made it clear that he values actions over words – a lesson I wish more CEOs and boards would see and comprehend. As I once noted, the archbishop from Westminster reportedly observed: “To understand Francis, you have to look at what he does.”
So, I say to the compliance, ethics and governance communities and all gatekeepers, forget “tone at the top,” and let’s educate, coach and hold our CEOs, boards and management to the higher standard of meaningful ethical leadership that can drive cultures of integrity and high-trust workplaces. When senior leaders on the corporate landscape begin to understand the value of authentic ethical leadership, that’s when they can begin to deliver the “tone” we’ve been advocating for decades.

This article first appeared on Corporate Compliance Insights.

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