Leadership & integrity have never been more important

Recent events have again shone a light on the importance of leadership and organizational culture. Over the past few years, we have seen several CEOs step down after allegations of unethical behaviour and a toxic working culture. What can these and other examples teach us about the values of leadership and integrity?

The first problem is the myth of the 'maverick' and 'visionary' leader. This unhelpful idea perpetuates beliefs that 'true leadership' consists of risk-taking, a brash personality and a huge dollop of egomania and narcissism. In reality, while self-confidence and a willingness to take risks may be important traits for entrepreneurs in new start-ups, mature organisations need the kind of leaders that have both a clear vision and an ability to lead by example in their behaviour. Leaders are vital drivers of organizational culture and will ultimately determine whether unethical behaviour is encouraged, tolerated or challenged within any organisation.

Leaders need to do more than just signalling support for change, however. When  contractors at Google walked out of their offices in a mass protest over cases of sexual harrassment, called the Google Walkout for Real Change, CEO Sundar Picai publicly offered his support for Google staff over the issue. However, since the walkout two of the key organizers have alleged they are paying the price for speaking out, being sidelined from key projects and marginalized at work.

Diversity and Inclusion

In their Diversity and Inclusion Report 2021, Hays found that while 62% of respondents say that their employer actively talks about the importance of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion, less than half thinks that their employer combines this with noticeable action, and in 2018 Hays found that only 34% of employees considered their leaders to be role models who challenge traditional viewpoints and established ways of working. This suggests that not much progress has been made in recent years and the time is overdue for companies to be less forgiving of poor leadership and to demand a greater focus on ethical behaviour and corporate culture.

The simple fact is that it's what workers (and customers) increasingly expect. Surveys suggest that new generations of workers are expecting higher ethical standards of their employers than those did in the past, and in a tight labour market they are increasingly able to a shop around to find an employer that better aligns with their values.

Integrity is one of the four pillars of employee engagement. It means living up to high standards of ethical and professional conduct and having a culture that promotes the same and challenges those who fail to do so. This should cover everything from diversity and inclusion, tackling sexual harassment and discrimination, to transparency, anti-corruption and general principles of treating others with fairness, honesty and respect regardless of who they are.

Companies with integrity in turn benefit from higher engagement, better reputations, lower staff turnover, more productivity and a whole host of other benefits. When competing for talent, these are the organisations more likely to succeed.

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