Honesty is a vital character attribute of role model leaders. That word is used so often to describe admirable people that it has lost some of its meaning. I deine honesty as a triad: truthfulness, integrity, and ethical behaviour.
The easiest to understand and most important attribute of the triad is truthfulness. It is impossible for a leader to inluence people to make positive change without telling them the truth. Some people resort to lies to inluence people. Lies and deceptions in the leader / follower relationship can never go undetected in the long term and are often revealed in the short term. Lies, when discovered, have a devastating effect on the leader / follower relationship. Followers have enormous power: they can say no easily and in many ways to the leader who is attempting to inluence them. A single lie – when a follower detects it – and the leader's credibility is lost for a very long time and perhaps forever.
From truthfulness we move to integrity. Integrity can be learned and can best be understood in terms of our personal fundamental values. It encompasses those values that each of us holds close and that form and maintain our personal identity. Integrity is often and correctly assigned as the sum of the honesty of all the people in an organization
Let us test our understanding of honesty. We will do so in the context of an organization's leaders. We know that role model leaders are admired for their honesty. We also know that it is preferable for our organization's leaders to hold beliefs that coincide with our own as followers. Some examples of beliefs:
• Stealing from customers is bad.
• Providing products to customers that are safe to use is good.
• People are vital to our success.
• I can call these truths because all of us hold them to be true and because they have been tested by experience and example. Now, a leader of the organization may hold the following additional beliefs:
Stealing from customers is bad – but once is okay.
• Providing safe products to customers is good – if we can raise the
prices to cover costs.
• People are our greatest asset – except in a poor economy, when we have to reduce costs and can therefore justify terminating 20 per cent of the workers.
Any or all of these may constitute a set of beliefs or a philosophy of leading an organization held by a given leader – a leader who, I would say, is a “bad” one. Here we are entering the world of personal choice – a world guided by an individual leader's choices, which are expressions of that person's integrity. Integrity in this sense is the sum of those beliefs that describe a philosophy of leading for an individual or as already mentioned, for an organization.
To complete the picture, let me recast the above ideas as a statement of philosophy that relects a role model leader's integrity:
• Stealing from customers is bad; even once is not acceptable.
• We will only manufacture safe products; we will never sell unsafe ones.
• People are our greatest asset; even in tough economic times we will
have concern for the well-being of our people.
These examples are all relections of the admired character attribute called honesty. They also help us understand why role model leaders must learn what truthfulness and integrity signify both for themselves and for the organizations they aspire to lead. As has been said, “The devil is in the details.” If the leader and the organization are comfortable with deining honesty as
we will not steal from customers
and then one day the organization inds out its leader really means
we will steal from this customer, once
then the leader will be viewed as dishonest – as not credible – and may well lose the ability to inluence and lead. This points to why role model leaders interact regularly with the people in their organization: to truly understand them, and they him, so that the values of leader and followers are aligned. Returning to the honesty triad, we can expand this logical discussion of the character attribute we call honesty. As noted earlier, the three related ideas that together deine honesty in the role model leader are truth, integrity, and ethical behaviour. The irst two are related to the levels of thought we have referred to as beliefs and philosophy. The third is related to the third level of thought – principles.
Truth: A belief I and most others hold.
Integrity: A philosophy or set of beliefs we hold to be true.
Ethics: Principles, or guides to action, that I am willing to use as my deinition of ethical behaviour.
Each of these levels of thought in turn moves us closer to action – to doing something, to getting results. Principles are guides to action. They are our thoughts taken to a high level to describe why we do things and in what circumstances we will take action.
Say that a principle relative to safety and security in Organization A is: “We will ensure the safety and security of all people in our organization and set our goal as zero injuries in the workplace.” That is a powerful statement. It is also an honest statement of Organization A's care and concern for the safety of the people in the organization. At Organization B, by contrast, regarding ethical behaviour, a principle might be: “We will ensure the safety and security of all people in our organization and obey all existing laws and regulations relative to safety and security of people.”
These two principles are quite different. Each is an honest and ethical statement and a guide to future action. But each will result in a very different set of actions. In Organization A, the leaders will expend all effort, all cost, all their energies to establish policies and procedures to prevent even the most minor of injuries to people in the workplace. Whereas in Organization B, those same leaders will establish policies, procedures, and actions after determining what the laws are in their community. The actions of this organization will be directed by the laws, which most often will be much less stringent in terms of cost and effort. In many instances, this approach will “build in” a certain number of accidents. Thus, we have two very different outcomes from two different statements of organizational principles or ethics.
• The leader-engineer must deal with ethical ambiguities and dilemmas on a continuous basis in areas such as the following:
Public safety and design
• Conlict of interest with customers arising from technology utilization
• Trade secrets and industrial espionage
Engineering professional organizations provide some, but unfortunately limited assistance in dealing with the ongoing speciic ethical questions surrounding things like genetically modiied foods, global warming, and political freedoms around the world. The leader-engineer is expected by her business organization to solve technological problems in circumstances where ethical questions are important yet supremely dificult to answer. Questions regarding organizational and leadership ethics are especially important. The good news is that the engineering design process is closely related to some accepted frameworks for making ethical business decisions.1 The important point here is, again, that ethics are rooted in principles, and everyone needs to be clear to themselves – so that they can be clear to others – what their own principles are.
A inal word: developing common understanding among all people in an organization on something as important as honesty is hard work. And that hard work starts with the role model leader, who must learn to understand his own beliefs, philosophy, and principles as they relate to honesty, and to all other character attributes as well. Once the organization's leaders understand their own individual beliefs, philosophy, and principles as these relate to honesty, they must inluence the rest of the organization to do the same. In this way, the organization as a whole will learn to “inhabit” the trait of honesty as the leaders have determined it.