Beyond H-P: Is There Hope for Leaders?


Yet another Fortune CEO has fallen due to ethics violations. Hewlett-Packard, a company that started out as an example of moral leadership with “The HP Way” in 1939, has proven itself vulnerable to an unscrupulous CEO when Mark Hurd recently resigned.

There are 5.5 million employers, 1.5 million nonprofit organizations, and more than 87,000 governmental units in the United States. That’s a lot of businesses with lot of leaders who have the potential to be unethical.

This weekend, a Wall Street Journal essay by Jonah Lehrer called “The Power Trip” highlights research that supports the view that when in power, a leader may have a greater tendency to act unethically or immorally. According to the author, surveys show that bad behavior occurs most often in the offices of those with the most authority. Lehrer backs his findings with psychological studies that suggest  unethical behaviors that seem to slink into a clueless leader’s character without their knowing it.

Is there hope for ethical, moral power to prevail? Certainly. I talk to leaders every day who want to continue to take the high road. If you are a leader who is concerned about falling prey to bad behavior, there may be some things you can do to prevent it.

Know yourself first. You must find ways of holding up a mirror to your actions. The good, bad and the ugly need to be reflected upon. Know your strengths, and be vigilant about your weaknesses. Use of self assessments and 360’s are a good way to start.

Have trusted advisors surrounding you. These are the people who will give you their unbiased opinion. They are not dependent on you for a paycheck (i.e., they don’t directly report to you; you cannot count on your staff to be completely open). Mentors, peers, and an executive coach may work. Consider belonging to an “advisory group” of external, non competing peers (such as a Mastermind group).

Ask for feedback. Ask those you trust to give honest, open feedback. Ask specific questions, and you have a much better chance of getting specific answers. “Am I acting ethically in this situation?” “What is my moral responsibility in this circumstance?” “Am I staying true to our company’s values when I do this?”.

Keep your ears open. Listen deeply and openly to what others say about your behavior. Ask questions about what you hear and reflect on it. Discuss or create an action plan for change based on what you hear.

Treat others as they want to be treated. You’ll have a much better chance of getting feedback if you stay open to others. Be kind and respectful. Open your heart as well as your ears. 

Assuring that your leadership is moral and ethical can be easier when you have good relationships with those around you. There is hope.

P.S. Wally Bock suggests some resources for ethics in a recent post, Business Ethics Pointers and Comment.


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Mary Jo Asmus is the founder and President of Aspire Collaborative Services LLC, an executive coach, writer, internationally recognized thought leader, and a consultant who partners with organizations of all kinds to develop and administer coaching programs. She has “walked in your shoes” as a former leader in a Fortune company.

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