Unlocking Your Leadership Puzzle: Celebrate Your Distinctive Role and Create a Powerful Legacy

You have a headache. Looking for some relief, you walk to the cupboard and pop open a new bottle of aspirin. You carefully tear open the tamper-proof seal and reach inside for the pills.

If you were born within the last forty years, this is the way it’s always been for you: analgesics, vitamins, and all kinds of other consumables come with a layer of protection that assures us it’s safe to consume. But if you were born before that, you may remember a time when this wasn’t the case.

Back in 1982, Chicago, Illinois was shaken by a terrifying tragedy. Of the hundreds of thousands of Tylenol bottles for sale in the city, eight were found laced with cyanide. The discovery came after five bottles led to seven deaths. Two poisoned bottles were later discovered unopened, and one remained on the store shelf, still waiting to be sold. 

Few commercial product incidents have come with such a gruesome wake. But in response, CEO James Burke stepped up to do what must be done. Johnson & Johnson recalled 31 million Tylenol bottles from stores, costing the company more than $100 million (more than $300 million today). Beyond that, they worked with the media to make the public aware of the risk and actively warned consumers against using Tylenol.

Johnson & Johnson was praised for their handling of the situation. Their honesty saved their public image, and even helped them improve their profit margin in the years following the incident. But most importantly, lives were saved, and the company even went on to develop the tamper-proof package that we all know and use today.

Does doing the right thing always improve the bottom line? No. In fact, when the Tylenol incident first occurred, James Burke had no way of knowing it would be anything but a $100 million bill. But is it always worth it? Absolutely.

To some leaders, leading is an occupation. But to many – to the most influential – it is a matter of influence and impact for the better. And that only happens when we’re working ethically.

As you work toward your organization’s mission, consider these 5 practical strategies of ethical leadership:

  1. Lead by example. As a leader, your words are powerful – but they are only as powerful as your actions. Whatever value it is that we want to see in our organization and on our teams, we must model it for them. They will only know that we value what we value when we show them. Make decisions and move forward with actions that are consistent with your ethical convictions.
  2. Foster open communication. Leaders do not see 100% of what’s going on throughout the organization. No one does. But every team member’s perspective illuminates another portion that we couldn’t see before. That includes ethical issues, inconsistencies, and broken or misapplied policies. When those in authority make it clear that everyone’s voice matters, team members are more willing to come forward when they see something wrong.
  3. Provide ethics training. How leaders invest their time and money communicates value to the team. Emphasizing ethics by providing ethical training demonstrates to team members the importance of acting ethically in your organization. Not only that, but the training itself gives the team valuable tools they can use to navigate ethical dilemmas.
  4. Cultivate a strong ethical culture. One great way to motivate a behavior is to make that behavior as easy as possible. When leaders reward ethical behavior, communicate clear expectations about ethics, and make ethical considerations on regular evaluations, we are clearing the way for team members to act ethically.
  5. Implement an ethics policy. Policy is only as effective as it is enforced – but your organization’s values are better written down than not. A clear code of conduct can be a useful roadmap for employees to follow when they are unsure of how to approach a particular situation.

It is unlikely that most leaders will ever find themselves in James Burke’s situation. But regardless of whether the effect is measure in lives saved or lives changed, every leader should strive to lead ethically – one decision, one action, and one word at a time.

That’s all for now. 🙂

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