Watch And Learn, CEOs: A Powerful Example Of Ethical Leadership

Donna Boehme – Corporate Compliance Insights – February 15, 2019

So as my networks know, I’m in my home state of Hawaii for our annual Super-Bowl-related pilgrimage, recharging and visiting with family and friends. During these visits, the only news we pay attention to are the stories that turn up on our phones and iPads. Yesterday, hubby tells me about the big American Media, Inc. (“AMI”)/Bezos blackmail story, and it was so sensational I had to take a look.

I guess it was the admiration in my spouse’s comments, referring to the choice that Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos made to immediately publish the extorting emails and texts, because – in Bezos’s words – he would “rather be embarrassed than extorted.” Because if the richest man in the world can’t stand up to extortion, who could?

That caught my attention, because lately I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about the commodity of ethical leadership in organizations, a key asset that should be nurtured and cherished because of its powerful role in building #Trust and a culture of integrity, trust and collaboration. Ethical leadership cultures encourage collaboration, accountability, performance and success. Leaders who demonstrate ethical leadership set a powerful example and tone for their teams and employees, business partners and the communities they touch. This corporate asset has been recently recognized by pharma giant Novartis in its recent moves, as I discussed here.

On the other end of the spectrum, we have seen media giant CBS miss some enormous opportunities to build trust through ethical leadership, which I hope will not be lost on other boards and C-suites. Over the past five years, I’ve spent time with Barbara Kimmel’s brilliant Trust Alliance, which has engaged me in some rich conversations about the impact of ethical leadership on trust and culture within the workplace. This is why I have been encouraging my CCO networks to add trust to their toolkits: because compliance and ethics share many commonalities with the trust community. For the same reason, one of my resolutions this year was to facilitate more cross-fertilization between these two communities.

Sometimes I am reminded of the old adage I learned in childhood from my mom: “If you are looking for buttercups, you find hundreds of buttercups, but if you are looking for weeds, that’s all you find.”

When I scan the news these days, I am interested in themes of ethical leadership in companies and its impact on the organizational culture – and, of course, the opposite (I’m lookin’ at you, CBS). Thus, I am following the fascinating (and terrible) story of how the parent of the National Enquirer (AMI) set out to extort Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos to drop investigations he had started regarding AMI’s relationships and dealings with the Saudis (Jeff Bezos owns the Washington Post).

The last headline I read was about how Mr. Bezos “annihilated” that extortion bid by his decision to promptly publish all the details, texts and emails of that seedy extortion attempt in a candid blog, which he tweeted to the world. Wow! That’s what I call strategic (jiujitsu), and at the same time, a shining example of courage and ethical leadership. It’s an action that any Amazon employee, business partner or customer can interpret as a strong, unmistakable statement of the CEO’s courage and integrity. In making this choice, Mr. Bezos displayed many of the high trust behaviors that leadership coaches identify as critical in building trust in the workplace: be open, honest, transparent and authentic; explain your decisions; meet tough issues head-on; and act consistent with your values and your words.

According to Ms. Kimmel, CEO and Co-Founder of Trust Across America, “No business leader, or anyone for that matter, is perfect. Jeff Bezos certainly isn’t. But by displaying both transparency and vulnerability, he is more likely to build stakeholder trust than through any attempted cover-up of his misdeeds.”

These are the leadership behaviors that others admire and remember on the road to building a high-trust, collaborative and motivated workplace. Now, just imagine the opposite headlines if Mr. Bezos had been blackmailed into squashing a hot story on AMI and the Saudis; the damage to reputation and trust would have been complete and devastating! Now, maybe those readers who were influenced by the “fake news” label applied to the Washington Post may well rethink their opinions. I know that I for one will read that publication with more confidence, and of course… trust.

My hope is that the journalist community and media outlets can take a lesson from Mr. Bezos and start to rebuild trust and professionalism in their work. Because, in these times, our democracy needs a high-trust Fourth Estate and much more visible #EthicalLeadership!

This article first appeared on Corporate Compliance Insights.

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