Essay: Three Keys to Ethical Leadership

General Peter Pace

By General Peter Pace

Although I have little experience in business, I want to share three specific things about ethics that I believe transcend the type of work you do.

Setting Your Moral Compass

The first has to do with what I call “setting your moral compass.” This is nothing more than looking yourself in the mirror in the morning and telling yourself who you want to be when you go to bed that night. It sounds like a simple process, but when you are least expecting to be challenged, it happens.

Now everybody’s day does not include somebody shooting at you. But everybody’s day does include some kind of ethical challenge. And I think the more senior you are in business, the more money you are responsible for, and the more people you have looking up to you, the more you have to worry about who you are and how you are going to operate.

It is easy to say, “Oh, yes, I am going to operate ethically.” Then you have a spouse, two kids, and a mortgage, and your boss asks you to do something that is just a little bit outside the lines that you would have drawn for yourself. It is so easy to let yourself drift outside the lines — unless you have said to yourself, literally, in the morning, “This is who I am, and this is what I want to be when I go to bed tonight.”

You will not be able to think through every potential challenge. But if you discipline yourself to think through the challenges you can see coming, then that process will allow you to handle the topic you didn’t expect. It allows you to think it through very logically and quickly: Who am I, who do I want to be, and what is my response to this particular situation?

Demonstrating Intellectual Courage

Second, I have learned to admire two kinds of courage. The first, and no surprise here because of my military career, is physical courage. I have witnessed incredible acts of bravery on the battlefield, and I have witnessed incredible self-sacrifice in battle.

But what I have come to really admire is something I call intellectual courage. This is the ability to sit in a room full of very powerful people, see a conversation going in one direction and feel in your gut that something is not right, and have the temerity to say, “I see it differently, and here’s why.”

If you are wrong in combat, you may die. If you are wrong in that situation with very powerful people, you have to live with it, and that’s very tough. You should always tell the truth as you know it, always speak up when you see something that in your gut you know is not right, and accept the fact that at the end of the discussion you may not be right. But if you put your proposition forward without emotion, in as articulate a way as you possibly can, you will always be invited back. People will know you are not just there as a nodding head, but people can trust you to speak up when you have a different opinion.

As a leader, I most valued the people who would help me understand where I am right and where I am wrong. It is important, especially when you are younger and not really certain how to challenge folks. You should challenge respectfully. Do so by asking questions, but get your point on the table. Others may not always agree with you, but they will be able to trust that you have expressed your viewpoint.

Protecting Your Name

Third, you have two things that nobody can take from you. One is your name, and the other is your integrity. Only you can give those away. Whatever course you pick for yourself in life, no matter how successful you are, you should like the person looking back at you in the mirror in the morning. Having a gazillion dollars is not an acceptable alternative.

Check your moral compass daily. Have the courage to tell the truth as you know it, accepting the fact that you may be wrong. Then you will always have your good name. You will always have your integrity. And you will always be welcome at the table.