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Ethical Leadership

Written & Contributed by Nick O'Sullivan MBE

In early 2024, the UK was rocked by ongoing revelations surrounding the Post Office, a beloved institution with over 300 years of history. This scandal unveiled the wrongful prosecutions of over 700 individuals for crimes they didn't commit, highlighting a grievous lapse in ethical judgment. Lives were shattered as people were unjustly separated from their families, faced public disgrace, and some tragically took their own lives.

Former Royal Marine Commando Officer and 360 Speaker Nick O'Sullivan MBE, takes a thought-provoking look into what it means to show Ethical Leadership, ahead of an address to a regional CMI - West Midlands & North West. Based on his own personal experiences it explores the critical importance of ethical leadership at every level and what we, as leaders, must do to deliver it.

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"Ethical leadership demands courage—the courage to stand up for what's right, even when it's unpopular or risky"


A Pattern of Ethical Oversights


The Post Office Scandal is far from isolated. The corporate world is rife with examples where profit trumps principle. From Du Pont's environmental negligence to Facebook's disregard for mental health impacts, where knowing it’s algorithm meant that many young minds were subjected to content that harmed their mental health, in some cases leading to self-harm and even suicide, these cases reflect a deeper, pervasive issue that touches many.There are doubtless many, many more smaller scale cases where people’s mental, and often physical, health is being impacted by unethical business behaviours. Including myself.


Personal Encounters with Toxicity

​"I made the decision then and there to go back to earning £0 per month and build my way back up in a new, healthier, more sustainable environment".


Between 2016 and 2017, I endured a military work environment that severely affected my mental well-being and, by extension, my family's life. This toxicity wasn't confined to office hours; it was a constant, looming presence, in an ‘always on’ culture. And though some might label me a disgruntled employee, I know I'm not alone in my experiences.


In 2019, now outside the confines of the military, I came very close to a mental breakdown. It had became increasingly apparent that the values and culture of the organisation I joined was nothing like the one I had been led to believe. 


The impact of working within a toxic environment affected us financially too. So much so that the prospect of a second round of coffees for a meeting would terrify me.  That’s how little we had.  

The realisation that something had to change came in February 2020, when in finding myself battling insomnia at four o’clock in the morning, I decided to go for a walk, in my PJ’s and Crocs, with an umbrella, in sideways rain, around the village green.  That’s when I realised that this situation was not right and could not continue. I made the decision then and there to go back to earning £0 per month and build my way back up in a new, healthier, more sustainable environment.

The truth is, while the seismic failures of leadership grab the headlines and prompt national inquiries to force change, it is the smaller level incidents that occur everyday in the organisations we all work in, that are just as damaging to the mental health of individuals.  These are the root causes and the things we should be focusing on. 

As much as everyone can talk a great game on leadership, as my toxic boss did, less people actually do it.  If we are to improve things, ethical leadership must become a core pillar of addressing the issue.


The Quest for Ethical Leadership


What then constitutes Ethical leadership? The answer isn't straightforward, because what is ethical to one person may be unethical to another.


However, a simple test is to ask: Who benefits from this decision? If it's the people or the environment, you're likely on ethical ground. 

In contrast, The Post Office scandal where business reputation was prioritised over human dignity, starkly illustrates the consequences of getting this balance wrong.


To put it simply, Ethical Leadership is leadership which considers the existential needs of living entities above the P&L or balance sheet needs of an entity which exists primarily on paper.


Now, I’m a pragmatist and a business person too.  So even I recognise that sometimes it can be hard to differentiate the needs of some people from the needs of the business.  


‘If the business does this, it will massively impact and we’ll have to make people redundant.’  Or, 


‘If the business does this, everything I have worked for over the last twenty years will be ruined and I’ll have hugely set myself back’.  


Yes, of course these things will negatively impact people too, but people made redundant can find new work.  Business owners who built a business once, can do so again.  


But people who become a recluse, depressed, have marriages and relationships with their children break down, may never recover the years that they lose.  Their cost is greater than the cost of others.  And so leaders have to objectively weigh up what the ‘least bad’ option is – not for them personally, but for all people impacted by the decisions they make.


Courage and Conviction


Ethical leadership demands courage—the courage to stand up for what's right, even when it's unpopular or risky. 


Field Marshall Slim, perhaps my most inspiring leader from history, once said “one must never be too afraid of losing ones job”.  This resonates deeply with me; it’s one of many great truisms he said.  His point relates to the fact that the moment we put keeping our job, or preserving our business above the needs of others, we lose the objectivity required to make the best possible decisions.


And so yes, ethical leadership takes courage.  The courage to make a stand which may displease others, but which enables us to ‘do the right thing’ regardless of the displeasure of powerful people.


Cultivating an Ethical Culture


I studied sociology at A-Level and later at University. One thing that has increasingly fascinated me over the years, is the observation that we are all enthralled by stories of huge, pivotal, inspirational (or abhorrent) instances of leadership.  Where the impact is so ‘stand out’ and significant for the obvious and immediate impact it has.  These are the leaders that get all the attention.  Perhaps deservedly so.

And yet, what I have experienced, and observed in my career, is that any such great, singular moments of leadership are built on foundations made of thousands if not millions of other, much smaller interactions.

Ethical leadership isn't just about making grand gestures; it's built on the multitude of small, everyday interactions that shape an organisation's culture. Policies and values mean little if daily behaviours undermine them. 


It's in the small moments—calling out inappropriate behaviour, insisting on quality work, and doing the right thing even when it's easier not to—that ethical cultures are forged.


The big scandals occur, when the gap between the organisational culture and the ethical action required to be taken is too great to be bridged.  Where the culture leads to ‘group thinking’ and cognitive dissonance has too great an impact to enable the gap to be bridged by the individuals within the organisation.  That’s when, no matter the evidence, terrible outcomes can be justified and positioned in such a way that is acceptable to the culture that has been established.



The Cost of Ethical Stands


Taking ethical stands can be daunting, as I've personally experienced. I’ve faced aggression and isolation for challenging the status quo. Believe me, it takes a toll on one's well-being. Yet, it's essential for leaders to build resilience and prepare for these challenges by starting with smaller ethical decisions.


You Are Not Alone


In confronting unethical practices, the support of like-minded individuals is invaluable. During my most challenging times, confiding in and gaining support from colleagues provided the strength I needed to persevere. This solidarity is crucial in sustaining ethical leadership.


Having someone with whom to share the burden, meant it didn’t weigh quite as heavily upon me, and I could sustain myself for longer. Exercising Ethical Leadership against the prevailing winds can, sadly, be a long and wearing task.


Ethical Vigilance


To prevent future ethical lapses, we must continually evaluate our priorities and decisions. Asking ourselves who we are benefiting, whether we are acting out of fear, and if we are overlooking unethical practices are crucial steps in maintaining ethical integrity. By fostering a culture that expects and celebrates doing the right thing, we can ensure that when faced with significant ethical dilemmas, the choice to act correctly is not just expected but ingrained.


Start Small, Impact Big

If you aspire to embody Ethical Leadership, remember that significant change starts with small actions. By setting a personal example of integrity and accountability, we can inspire others and cultivate an environment where ethical leadership thrives.


Prepare yourselves as best you can for the resilience you may well need, and identify the sources of the support that may well prove to be the difference.


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