Friday, January 15, 2010

A Leadership Development Code of Ethics

I have a lot of unwritten rules around ethics, confidentiality, and behaviors that I adhere to and expect anyone that works on my team to adhere to when practicing leadership development. They are just things I’ve picked up over the years based on my own personal values, learning from others, and a lot of mistakes. I’m usually pretty flexible about most things, but on these I don’t give an inch.

Here’s an experience that I’ll never forget that had a big impact on me. I was in my early twenties and just starting a new position as a corporate trainer. I was in a meeting with my supervisor, manager, and vice-president – three levels of hierarchy. We were in the process of rolling out a new supervisors training program, and a component of the program was sending out surveys to the participant’s employees and manager. The forms (no online surveys back then) were supposed to be sent directly to an outside vendor for the purpose of needs assessment and evaluation. I found out the manager wanted to keep copies of the surveys for each individual supervisor – without telling anyone. “No one will know, and it would be good information to have to know who our good and bad supervisors are” was the rationale. Being young and na├»ve, I was appalled, and gave an impromptu and passionate speech on the evils of such an approach. I said I’d refuse to be a part of it. My supervisor turned white, the manager turned purple, ...... and the vice-president agreed with me.

It wasn’t the best way to manage up and influence, and my manager wasn’t too pleased with me in the short term. But in the long term, it paid off. Over the years I’ve had lots of opportunity to refine my technique (less confrontation, more influence), but I’ve stuck to my guns and have never been fired for it.

I’m wondering how common these rules are for others who work in leadership development, or talent management – i.e., those in HR, training, coaching, and consulting.

Last year the International Coaching Federation adopted a Coaching Code of Ethics.

I’m going to follow their lead and propose a Leadership Development Code of Ethics:

1. I will not divulge leadership assessment results (360s, MBTIs, DISCs, etc…) to anyone other than the recipient of the assessment, unless it is clearly stated in writing whom the assessment data will be shared with.

2. When facilitating a talent review meeting, I will never share the details of these confidential discussions with anyone who was not at the meeting. What’s said in the room stays in the room.

3. I will not share the details of discussions that occur during a training program to the participant’s managers, nor will I share my assessment of the trainee’s behavior or leadership potential (unless it is clearly stated upfront that assessment or grading is part of the program).

4. I will not share succession planning information with anyone but the owner of these plans. I will never tell, or even hint, to anyone about their potential status.

5. When coaching a manager, or helping with a development plan, I’ll not share with anyone the details of our discussion.

6. I will at all times strive to be a role model for the leadership behaviors we are responsible for developing. There is no “on and off” switch.

7. I’ll maintain a high level of respect for the leaders I work with. There will be no “boss-bashing” or “witch hunts”. My role is to help the good ones become great, the struggling ones become better, and establish a culture and processes that weed out the bad ones. I’ll look for good examples instead of always looking for flaws.

8. I will not practice cult-like or just plain wacky leadership development programs or practices. I won't use my role to advance my spiritual beliefs or social causes. I'm paid to develop proven leadership and management competencies – it’s not social work or a personal pulpit.

Note: this rule applies to corporate or government organizations; it of course would not apply to church-based leadership development programs.

9. I will treat external vendors/suppliers/coaches/trainers/contractors with respect and look for win-win partnerships. I will not bully or take advantage of these partners.

10. I will respect the intellectual property of others. Copyrights and trademarks will be honored.

Warning: stubbornly refusing to bend on these rules could get you fired, or at least irritate some very powerful people. But then again, so could breaking them. Which would you rather be fired for?


Mary Jo Asmus said...


Watch out for a bunch of resumes from people who want to work for you! These are wonderful. It makes me consider that every leader should operate under an explicit code of ethics. Thanks for sharing your own.

davidburkus said...

A good list. I like the idea of a leadership code of ethics, moreso if every leader is charged with writing his or her own.

Dan Cooper said...


This is a real keeper! I know I am sometimes picky, but this time I have nothing but respect. I haven't seen anything like this before, and I think it's truly valuable -- including the excellent "disclaimer" in the last paragraph.

Thank you very much,
Dan C.

Eric from Your Effective Leadership said...

I think ethics or Integrity is #1 for a leader. If you can't be trusted how can some one work with you?

Thanh Lu said...

Great story! It's these little actions that define character. Thanks for sharing your leadership.l

Dan McCarthy said...

Mary Jo -

David -
Thanks, this list works for me.

Dan -
Thanks, and I value your opinion. I believe you're the one who influenced to to go back and change a post.

Eric, Thanh Lu -
Thanks. I hope people realize that when I wrote that post, I didn't write it for ALL leaders. It was a code of conduct for how I approach my job, which is leadership development.

Anonymous said...

It is sad that leaders have to be reminded of common sense ethics and the importance of confidentiality. During my years in corporate America, I had a number of instances with leaders failing to live by your guidelines.
It was a painful learning for me as the recipient and unfortunately the leader probably didn't learn and continues the same poor practices.

What damage is being done to organizations due to lack of leadership training?

Companies are missing such an opportunity to increase performance and employee engagement.

Marvin "Coach" Powell said...

Brilliantly done! I'll have to have some of my coaching clients read this for home work! Small business owners easily forget that they are leaders too. A code of ethics is needed for everyone.

-Marvin "Coach" Powell
"Your success is our focus"

Dan McCarthy said...

executive -

Coach Powell -
Great! Send 'em to Great Leadership for homework, pre-work, post-work, etc... (-: