Bernie Madoff, Allen Stanford, Martha Stewart, Ken Lay, Bernie Ebbers, Dennis Kozlowski, John and Timothy Rigas, Mark Hurd.
That’s just a short list of leaders who have exhibited behaviors that resulted in ethical failures in recent years. Other cases have also shaken the public’s faith in the integrity and character of leaders at the top of organizations.
To provide insight into why such ethical failures happen, the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) recently completed research examining the role that character strengths play in the performance of top-level executives and mid-level managers — many of whom are being groomed for senior positions.
Examining the character strengths of integrity, bravery, social intelligence and perspective at work in 246 mid-level managers and 191 top-level executives yielded some surprising and sobering findings, among them:
• The character strength viewed as most important for performance for top-level executives was integrity. Bravery was a close second, according to the CCL study.
• The character strength viewed as most important for performance for mid-level managers was social intelligence.
• When examined together with all four character strengths, perceived levels of integrity had no impact on performance ratings of mid-level managers.
These findings offer insight into the ethical failures that have become increasingly common at organizations. Think about the way in which people are usually promoted — it’s ordinarily due to their performance. So if mid-level managers are being promoted due to performance, and research shows that integrity has nothing to do with performance ratings, organizations really do not know if they are promoting leaders with integrity. That is, until a well-publicized organizational or public scandal occurs.
So what should organizations do to increase the chances of developing leaders with integrity now and in the long run?
Follow these three rules:
Emphasize integrity in the talent pipeline. It may not be the most important or obvious factor in achieving higher levels of performance, but CCL’s research shows that mid-level managers need integrity once they reach top-level positions. Help mid-level managers understand the importance of integrity in everything they do. Emphasize its importance in their work and the decisions they make now, so it will be second nature and part of the way they naturally lead as they progress.
Walk the talk — at work and in life. C-suite executives set direction and they model normative behavior. They are the face of the organizations. If the top leaders aren’t embracing integrity and don’t epitomize living it by example, their followers are not likely to care much about integrity either.
Make time for feedback. There is hardly a free moment for executives and managers. But to understand character strengths, executives and managers need to take time and ask for feedback from bosses, peers, direct reports, family and friends. Another finding from CCL’s research was that C-suite executives tended to overrate their own integrity compared to how their direct reports rate it.
In other words, leaders may not even know they have problems with integrity when they arrive in the C-suite. Therefore, it is important that managers and executives receive comprehensive, timely and truthful feedback.
William A. Gentry is a research scientist at the Center for Creative Leadership, an executive education provider. He can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.