How to be an ethical leader

Sheila Stokes White on Ethical Leadership

A virtuous approach to business needn’t come at the expense of your bottom line, says Sheila Stokes White, author of The Ethics of Work. Here are her five tips for being an ethical leader

1. Have a clear vision
Stokes White says: “Steve Jobs’s mission statement for Apple was, ‘To make a contribution to the world by making tools for the mind that advance humankind.’ Anita Roddick’s for The Body Shop was ‘To dedicate our business to the pursuit of social and environmental change.’

“A declaration of your company’s ethical stance is essential in order to establish a working culture which is values-based. Why this business idea? How are we going to put it into practice? What kind of impact will it have on the world? Young people now ask themselves, ‘Do I want to work for you?’ when going for jobs. They want to do something worthwhile, to add value to the world.”

2. Exude, air and share your values
“A business that grows well and stays ethical tends to have a coaching and mentoring approach. All staff, even top players – the chief executive and so on – need some kind of private, confidential relationship with a guru or sounding board to knock ideas around with and discuss dilemmas they’re facing.

“What should happen then is that ethical values become a kind of essence which permeates everything in the business environment. That leads to staff having fewer dilemmas about whether this is the right thing to do or not.”

3. Choose advisers wisely
“I meet young entrepreneurs who have created profitable businesses at the age of 18, and by 21 they’ve gone bankrupt, because people they sought advice from weren’t acting in their best interest. It could be that they suggested methods of running the business which yielded high and fast profits but involved questionable elements. The entrepreneur has not had time to nurture a sense of judgement about other people. If you want your business to have legs, you have to develop a sense of judgement about how you make decisions and who you trust.”

4. Hone your listening skills
“Leadership in the UK, as opposed to say the US, has a military aspect to it. It’s perceived to be a way of doing things which commands respect instantly, to be seen as a powerful person.

“The leadership style which is inordinately successful today involves being very clear about [ethical] parameters but also excellent at the softer skills. Today’s successful leader is much less inclined to do things in the command-and-control way. It’s about teaching people to stop trying harder to do things which don’t actually work: things like trying to make yourself look more important, being very assertive all the time, demonstrating power and control.

“You have to learn to listen to all the people in your organisation. Keep your antennae out, and teach others to do the same. There’s nothing weak about being a good listener – it’s fundamental.”

5. Lose the blues
“Successful leaders whom I have observed exude a sense of positivity and optimism. They consciously go to work with a positive demeanour, feeling that it is their responsibility as leader to do so – they feel that it comes with the territory. They would see the expression of negativity and gloom to junior staff who have less power within the business as a dereliction of duty – and in that sense, unethical.

“If you’re saying to people, ‘Right, we’ve got a £100,000 deficit here, we need to clear it in six months’, you should also be saying ‘Right, these are three things we’re going to try immediately, here are three things we’re going to look at in the longer term, who’s responsible for A, who’s responsible for B – identify the depth of the problem but also the sharing of the problem.”

Sheila Stokes White is an author and management consultant. She is a branch member of IoD Northern Counties and an affiliated branch member of IoD Central London

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About author

Nick Scott

Nick Scott

A former editor-in-chief of The Rake and deputy editor of the Australian edition of GQ, Nick has had features published in titles including Esquire, The Guardian, Observer Sport Monthly and Rolling Stone Australia and is a contributing editor to Director magazine. He has interviewed celebrities including Hugh Jackman, Daniel Craig and Elle Macpherson, as well as business people including Sir Richard Branson, Charles Middleton and Nick Giles and Michael Hayman MBE.

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