In the ethics portion of the business law course I teach to M.B.A. students, I underscore that great leadership in any endeavor is set from the top down, and I note the remarkably similar foundational principles for ethical leadership given in very different contexts by three figures whom I greatly admire: South Africa’s freedom leader and President Nelson Mandela, Prof. Randy Pausch of “Last Lecture” fame, and Major Dick Winters who, as a captain during World War II, led the roughly 150-man company of the Army’s 101st Airborne Division that was the subject of Band of Brothers. Their 10 principles are these:

       1.) Try always to lead with character, competence and courage.

       2.) Lead from the front but don’t leave your base behind (get buy-in).

       3.) Get a feedback loop from those you trust, and listen to it.

       4.) Develop your team: know them, be fair in setting expectations, lead by example.

       5.) Delegate, and let others do their jobs using their own creativity and imagination.

       6.) Anticipate problems and prepare to overcome them so that preparation meets opportunity.

       7.) Don’t worry about who gets the credit.

       8.) Apologize when you screw up.

       9.) Never let power or authority go to your head.

     10.) Don’t be afraid to be earnest about what you believe in.

I hand those 10 principles out to my students each semester on a small sheet of paper and ask them to apply one or more of them every few days and let me know, if they feel comfortable doing so, what they experience as a result. Those 38 or so students each semester are all part-timers, attending my class three hours a week one semester and proceeding with other courses at that pace through five or so years to complete their degree.  

These students work full-time in usually very responsible middle-management positions where others report to them, and I remind them that whether you’re a leader of 5,000 or five, your example matters: those who report to you expect you to set the standard not just by what you say but by what you do: “walking the talk” as it’s sometimes phrased.

It’s not as though the students who have reported back haven’t been doing things like these principles themselves for some time, but they seem to find that the list is helpful in bringing both an added intentionality and an affirmation to their leadership practices. In fact, time after time, those who do report back tell of unexpected benefits from doing those things that are perhaps the hardest on the list: not worrying about who gets the credit, delegating and not micro-managing, apologizing, and not letting power and authority go to your head.  

We cover a lot of areas of commercial law over the semester — sometimes at what seems like breathtaking speed! — but I really think the ethics portion of the course is in many ways the most important. We study in considerable detail examples of large corporation ethical failures. They span an enormous range, from auto-manufacturer-rigged pollution-testing results to securities manipulations and financial defalcations on a mammoth scale. Their common denominator is the tone set at the top. Everyone in the organization feels it, and all respond to it.  

In the ethically led corporation, the inevitable screw-up that happens from time to time, even of major proportions, is immediately, forcefully, and intelligently addressed, and its handling is transparent within the company — and also to the outside world when public disclosure, whether required or not, is appropriate. And with that kind of approach comes great public trust.

But that trust can be lost — even after being hard-earned by doing the right thing multiple times — when the wrong way is chosen. The long-term quantifiable costs of choosing the wrong way often exceed by huge multiples the cost that acknowledging the screw-up and doing the right thing from the outset would have occasioned. That point seems pretty obvious, especially in hindsight, but it’s amazing how often it’s ignored in the moment and in cover-ups thereafter. So, a key element of my teaching in this part of the course is driving home with these concrete examples the fact that such ignoring often leads to disasters far larger than the initial screw-up.

These past several extraordinarily violent weeks have starkly driven home the consequences of ignoring principles such as these in government service as well as in corporate America. Leadership that gives license to bad things will see bad things happen.
Stephen Hudspeth
Columnist