Power, Ethics, and Leadership

This was first published in March 30, 2017 – Written by Chuck Papageorgiou

This research paper really touched a nerve for me! The conclusion of the researchers is a sad commentary on what passes for leadership, but, unfortunately, based on my private observations and experiences from many years of business, it is unsurprising. Organizational or Principled dissent – the act of identifying, protesting, or driving change to ethically objectionable practices – even though not the expectation for mob bosses, for they also hold power and lead organizations, should not, and is NOT optional for business leaders.

As the research found, many people in power positions think principled dissent is optional, and even actively avoid it. Be that as it may; I still don’t, nor will I ever, accept that this is the right way to conduct business! Ethical behavior is the standard leaders hold themselves to, when nobody is watching; even if, or especially when, they know they can use their position of power to ignore, avoid, or deflect the consequences of unethical or illegal behavior. Maybe I am strange, or idealistic, but I don’t subscribe to that view and don’t, and won’t, operate that way. Over the years, I have walked away from deals, resigned from positions, un-apologetically and un-ceremoniously fired employees, executives, and even dropped customers, for breaches of baseline business ethics, let alone illegal behavior, or dealing in bad faith. And did it sometimes at great personal cost, rather than allow my ethical standards to be questioned. And even with that history, I am sure there is something I’ve done in my decades in business where someone may disagree with me whether it was up to a mutual definition of ethical or not. But that would be one rare occasions, and nothing I would hide!

Don’t get me wrong; I wear the “operator”, “tough, hard-ass, etc.” leader and business partner label with pride, and it’s not beneath me to play hardball to extreme levels, if that is what the situation requires. But I also wear the “fair and ethical” label with the same pride, and that label is not situational. And I am not being self-righteous, or assume I have any right to preach. There is a practical career side to all this too. Ethical behavior is becoming more important today than it ever was, and that includes the absence of principled dissent by executives. Just look around at what boards and investors are doing to executives who, knowingly, allowed their organizations to behave unethically. We run International Screening Solutions in an unflinchingly simple way, using the highest ethical standards possible for our selves and our employees. That is what our clients expect of us; they experience it, and love us for it, or find out quickly we don’t have the same ethical standards, and stop being our clients. Even on a personal level, in today’s hyper-connected world, reputation for ethical behavior is absolutely critical, especially since it can be easily verified or confirmed (see this blog entry). I know this to be true, first hand. When someone tried to spread a rumor about me, and the way I conduct business, the collective response from the business community I work with was to privately roar in laughter at that person! Decades of leading and doing business in a consistently ethical way, is not easily discounted.

Maybe I am not adopting to the new age, but I was trained to believe that the “shadow of a leader” is cast across the organization, and not the other way around; that leadership demands setting the highest example for integrity; and if the light required to show the way is only that of a candle, leaders need to shine with the power of a search light, not hide behind their position and plead ignorance.
…but then again, what do I know?

The advice shared in this article is based on how I work and a preview of the counsel I provide to entrepreneurs, founders, Corporate Executives, and Private Equity and Venture Capital clients based on three decades of work in these areas.