Principled Leadership? Not ***** likely!

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What is it about banks spouting ethics that brings out the cynic in all of us? I went to a conference on 'Building Principled Leadership' last week, aimed at the financial fraternity. On hearing of this, several of my mates guffawed and said: "You may be gone some time."

I was. It was a gruelling all-day event, peopled with worthy, earnest folk from banks and the like, all hell-bent on exploring how to engender principled leaders. They talked for hours. Some of it was interesting, intelligent, and thought-provoking; some of it wasn't. But the underlying question remained: How do you develop principled leadership in the corporate environment?

It seemed a bit of a no-brainer to me: get yourself some leaders with principles intact. There must be some around - even in the financial world.

But that might be the problem. Leaders with principles seem to be a bit thin on the ground these days. In fact, to succeed in the financial world, sharp elbows and ethical myopia appear de rigeur.

You're on a bit of sticky wicket if you want to bring integrity and probity into a workplace where the ability to smarm your way out of difficulties and brown-nose superiors earns generous bonuses and likely promotions. If you can back-stab a colleague or two en route, so much the better.

Leadership in Real Life

Undeterred, the PL (not to be confused with Profit and Loss) conference divided into work-groups, each tasked with solving a principled leader conundrum based on a real life incident: Ours was the juicy story of Laura Zubulake, who recently won $29-million from UBS in a sex discrimination case in a New York court.

To précis: Ms Zubulake claimed that her boss, Matthew Chapin, discriminated against her when he called her 'old and ugly' and that this, coupled with his routine treatment of her vis a vis her male colleagues, constituted sex discrimination.

UBS compounded the felony with some diligent deletion of emails (which they said was inadvertent), and some dodgy testimony from her seniors. The New York judge got, um, rather testy, with UBS when this emerged.

The bank relied on something known in the legal world as 'the bastard defence'. Apparently this was that Chapin didn't discriminate against Zubulake when he was foul-mouthed and ghastly to her: he did this to everyone. (So that's all right then...)

The case continues, with UBS considering its options regarding appeal.

How would we do it better?

Our work-group, (comprised of HR professionals, PhD's studying corporate governance, the odd employment lawyer and me, had a robust debate).

Apart from the suggestion that the whole UBS board be fired for being terminally incompetent in allowing such a damaging case to reach court in the first place, we came up with several better case scenarios, including:

  • Firing Chapin and settling out of court with Zubulake
  • Making Zubulake Chapin's boss and giving her free rein to comment on his paunch/receding hairline/hairy ears (this wasn't actually suggested by attendants, but seems a good idea nevertheless).

However, the best solution seems to be that dictated by common sense. Surprisingly, no one suggested a robust apology, reinstatement of Ms Zubulake and a vigorous attempt to restore decent employee equilibrium.

It got me thinking about 'respect'. I was always taught that respect - like charity - begins at home. You can't insist on it. You have to practise it.

You want principled leadership? Look in a mirror. Do as you would be done by. Unfortunately, in the dog-eat-dog world of banking, the motto is more likely to be 'Do unto others before they do unto you.'

All the corporate mission statements so beloved of banks don't mean a thing unless those principles of decency and ethical behaviour are embedded in - and practiced by - every employee from the lowliest junior right up to the Big Chiefs.

In their absence, many employees have to operate in a cut-throat world of bad language and bad behaviour.

According to the reports, Chapin was notorious for his verbal abuse to all and sundry. It doesn't give one much hope for a really professional and comfortable work environment if managers lay verbal waste all the time, does it?

Small step for womankind:

I confess to an ability to swear like a trooper: it's undeniably satisfying to use the odd Anglo-Saxon invective when it's situation-specific and life is being a tad troublesome.

But I still feel a tinge of discomfort whenever I utter one of the retinue of four (or more) letter words. The same goes for skiving, fibbing and putting the boot in to colleagues. You know you shouldn't do it, and it doesn't do you or your business any good in the long run. So how about taking one tiny step towards principled leadership right now?

The clean up act starts here: I promise to spend the next week as a swear-free zone. Anyone care to join me?

Jane welcomes feedback and guarantees complete confidentiality to anyone who wishes to discuss employment issues with her: jcarruthers@efinancialcareers.com.

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