Effective, ethical leadership begins with leaders who themselves demonstrate and value integrity. Leaders who engage in or condone unethical or illegal behaviors cannot create a climate where staff or colleagues are willing to stand up for what is right. Actions and communications must be congruent with values. A leader cannot espouse a belief in the “highest standards of conduct” in the department mission statement while wiring an allegedly open job search so that a friend or crony is selected. The alignment of messages and actions requires transparency, to the extent that confidential processes allow, so that those working in the unit believe in the leader’s honesty and trustworthiness. Staff and colleagues will observe the leader’s response to critical incidents and organizational crises, and the ways personnel are chosen and treated, as the criteria by which rewards and status are allocated. These and other “culture embedding mechanisms” outweigh rhetoric: actions speak louder than words
Leaders must also mindfully reinforce the behaviors they want to cultivate and hold others accountable when they fail to live up to expected standards. The sense of futility can be a powerful deterrent to ethical action. Staff observe what behaviors get rewarded and punished and decide accordingly whether they are willing to put their reputations and relationships on the line in instances of improper conduct.
Studies suggest that the greater the difference in power between the person who commits an inappropriate or harmful act and the person who observes it, the less likely it is that any action will be taken to report or correct the mistake. Known as “the authority gradient”, this phenomenon is particularly common in health care, higher education, and other settings where educational attainment, socioeconomic status, and influence are unevenly distributed among co-workers.
Leaders must rely on input from a variety of sources to make sound decisions. However, various factors can distort the accuracy of the information they receive. Communications are distorted when they pass through too many layers of bureaucracy and when they are manipulated by the interests of those in the chain of communication.