This article was originally published in March 2010 and is re-published as one of a series of Business Ethics’ popular posts on leadership issues.
by Kenny Moore
Before I came to work in corporate America, I spent 15 years in a monastic community as a Catholic priest. Actually the work’s proven to be quite similar, only the pay’s now a lot better. With all the recent scandals plaguing the business world, the question of integrity often arises: How can I tell if an executive is trustworthy? What are the signs to look for in promoting leaders in this new era of doubt and suspicion? With over 20 years in the workplace, here’s my litmus test for gauging executive credibility and trust.
1 – How do they treat waiters?
Character is revealed by how we treat those with no power. Watch how executives act around folks who have a vulnerable stature in the community: waiters, secretaries and bathroom attendants. People who are powerless draw out our internal dispositions. No one watches how you treat those on the margins. If what we do when nobody’s watching reveals character, start paying closer attention. Executive assessment has now become as plain as day.
If you can’t join your corporate bosses for lunch, do the second best thing: observe how they act around children. Johnny Carson never liked having kids on The Tonight Show because they stole the limelight and often got more laughs. People who are focused on themselves and require absolute control and personal adoration don’t mix well with children. So at the next company picnic, be vigilant about how your leaders respond to the kids in the crowd. It’s more statistically significant than 360-degree feedback.
2 – Can they pass the “Carl Sandburg test”?
This Chicago poet was the champion of ordinary folks, the common men and women of the workplace. Pay attention to how executives relate to the folks who make up the rank and file of organizations. These are not your high potentials that get chauffeured away for Executive Development. They’re the ones who do the chauffeuring or stay behind and get the work done. Corporate success resides in engaging their passion and commitment. Sam Walton’s spirit must have plummeted when news reached Heaven about rogue Wal-Mart managers locking store doors and forcing their laborers to work unpaid overtime. I wonder if there’s an Enron in the making somewhere in that corporate culture?
Look closely at how executives treat their daily laborers. Do they talk with them and invite them to any of their employee meetings? Do they have a personal relationship with a few and know something about their families? It gives me hope when I see my leaders authentically relate to our entry-level workers. If it were up to me, Sandburg’s “The People, Yes” would be required reading for climbing the corporate ladder. I believe most of the world would respond favorably to a C.E.O. who could quote poetry.
3 – What’s their “interior” business conversation?
Part and parcel of business life is making decisions. Whenever I can, I listen for the hidden dialogue that’s used in pondering and resolving ethical business issues. What goes into the executive’s moral judgement-call? Is it only about profit, sales and career advancement? Is there any semblance of an “interior life” that exists within this business leader? Some consideration of purpose, meaning or legacy? Are there other facets being viewed: impact on the customer, the environment and the local community? Was some thought given to corporate values, ethical principles or (God forbid!) employees’ feelings?
I still remember the day when I was hosting an executive meeting and we were informed that one of our managers had just died of cancer. As the President shared the news with the group, he then asked for a minute of silence for him and his family. Moments later, we composed ourselves and continued the meeting. This small gesture said volumes about how the executive viewed his workers and their contributions. I think that was the juncture where I fell in love with my company. Something inside me realized that corporations are truly human systems – they live, breathe and grow. And I decided that they’re worthy of my affection. It’s sort of like being with family. Not that I always like what they do, but I work at loving them just the same.
4 – Do they occasionally see themselves as part of the problem?
I’ve grown weary of hearing every C.E.O. who gets before the media, glibly announce: “We have no ethical problems in my company.” Huh? If we’ve learned anything in these recent months – it’s that all man-made systems are flawed and full of mistakes. As long as organizations are comprised of people, they’re not going to be infallible institutions. This is something even the Catholic Church, experts on infallibility, have recently come to appreciate. The revealing executive question is: “What is your contribution to the problem that you’ve come here to explain away?” If they see none, then we’re in for trouble.
Not that I’m asking all executives to bare their corporate souls in public, but business leaders need to create the environment for surfacing flawed practices and taking decisive action. This line of thinking has a confessional aspect to it, and the priest in me likes it. I find that those who have the humility to acknowledge corporate shortcomings offer us some hope that business justice will eventually be served.
5 – Can they make the workplace friendly for artists?
My favorite definition of integrity is “… a firm adherence to moral and artistic values.” The moral part of this discussion is obvious. The artistic side often gets lost in business. Executives can’t rely solely on accountants and engineers to safeguard the integrity of our corporate institutions. We need artists to complement their efforts. They are the ones who have the language, mythology and requisite skills for building the spiritual side of business. In large part, it is the voice of the artist that has remained silent during these corporate failures. It is they, however, who are the shamans of the 21st century.
Business and religious leaders have left us feeling violated and without hope. We need spokespeople for the Sacred and the True, which co-exists within the world of commerce. Our organizational charts long for those who can use word, color and brush to reveal that the world has became surprisingly small. That my individual action reverberates across the globe. Artists remind us that misdeeds done by a few can injure the many. Just as we look to our internal “adult” for moral direction, we should look externally to the poets, painters and mystics in our places of work to shore up the frailty of the human condition in the marketplace. Like Walt Whitman of old, I believe that present day artists will usher in a new era of celebration in business … revealing the sacredness of the human spirit, its vast potential for world good and its rectitude in the face of deceit and transgression.
It’s a message of hope. The Corporate world could use more of it these days. I believe it’s a legitimate demand to place upon our leaders.
P.S. If you’re thinking about writing me, give in to the temptation. I love getting mail … and being influenced by what you have to say. Please e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Kenny Moore (www.kennythemonk.com) is co-author of The CEO and the Monk: One Company’s Journey to Profit and Purpose (John Wiley and Sons), rated as one of the top ten best selling business books on Amazon.com and based on his experiences as a Human Resources executive for a large international energy company where he reported directly to the Chairman and CEO. Kenny’s numerous writings have been published in Warren Bennis’ Leadership Excellence magazine, OD Practitioner and The Journal for Quality and Participation. He is also an “Executive in Residence” to the Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp).
Prior to his corporate career, Kenny spent 15 years in a monastic community as a Catholic priest. He is now President of Kenny Moore Consulting, LLC and is a well-regarded keynote speaker, executive coach and business consultant in the areas of Leadership Development, Change Management and Employee Engagement. Kenny Moore can be reached at email@example.com.