A Program of the Dalai Lama Center for Ethics and Transformative Values at the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

What is ethical leadership?

Leaders behave ethically when they do what is right, good, just—and authentic. Ethical leadership is not simply compliance to rules, or even fairness. It is fundamentally about considering the impact of words and actions on others. Ethical leaders make choices that align with their core values and beliefs, and that honor others’ right to express their own values.

When leaders are ethical, their actions and words reflect the values of their company, society, and themselves as individuals. Thus, bringing one’s most positive personal values into the workplace is not just desirable: It is the responsibility of an ethical leader.

Ethical leadership is associated with outcomes organizations care about, including

  • More ethical behavior from employees
  • Commitment to the organization and willingness to contribute extra effort
  • Greater awareness of and willingness to confront deviant behavior in the workplace
  • Retention of top talent and lower overall employee turnover
  • Managerial job satisfaction

Most importantly, research has established that organizations with ethical leadership simply perform better!

The Program on Organizational and Executive Ethics helps companies to train and retain ethical leaders. We challenge perceptions about what it means to be ethical, connecting employees with their own values as a source of ethical behavior in their organizations. Participants in our programs see and create alignment between the values of leaders, employees, and the organization. Graduates leave with a powerful grounding in the insight, knowledge, experience and courage required of ethical leaders.

The Framework for Ethical Leadership

We organize our program around four distinct aspects of Ethical Leadership: Insight, Knowledge, Experience, and Courage.

Ethical leaders see beneath the surface.

Ethical behavior begins with insight into people’s values, motivations, strengths and vulnerabilities. Leaders must understand these aspects of themselves, their teams and their organization. Insight extends beyond personal knowledge to a subtle understanding of the ways in which situational forces shape behaviors and decisions.

Ethical leaders know their business—and their people.

In addition to having technical competence, leaders must have knowledge of the interpersonal skills needed to manage people. Core competencies of effective leadership include the ability to motivate and persuade, enlist others in common goals, create accountability, manage conflict, innovate, and lead change.

Ethical leaders have been tested.

The difference between knowing how to do something and being able to execute it is experience. This is true both of technical skills and “people skills,” which can be developed with practice. Ethical choices, too, are learned through experience, emerging from the daily exercise of expressing values and considering one’s impact in the world. With more exposure to challenging dilemmas, people can become adept at making ethical decisions.

Ethical leaders are willingly vulnerable.

Powerful leaders routinely make themselves vulnerable—mentally, emotionally, and physically. With unpopular decisions, they risk disapproval or outright rebellion. In leading change, they make themselves vulnerable to criticism, doubts, and fears. In taking an ethical stand, a leader accepts vulnerability to the reprisals, censure, and rejection of those who disagree. Extreme circumstances may call for leaders to be vulnerable with their very lives in service of the people they lead. Any time a person chooses to make herself vulnerable for the sake of others, she displays courage. All people have the capacity for courage. Ethical leaders develop this capacity through intention and practice.

Our Philosophy on Learning

Our program methodology is rooted in two fundamental truths about human growth: people learn by doing, and the basis of sustained change is relationships.

Learning by doing
Experience is required to truly master technical skills. This is accepted wisdom in most professions. Internships, residencies, on-the-job training, apprenticeships, and mentorships are all motivated by the understanding that “book learning” will only get you so far.

In contrast, people tend to act as though reading and discussion are enough to learn how to act ethically. We disagree. It is not a stable characteristic that people either have or have not, do or do not. We hold that ethical behavior is a skill to be learned, just like any other.

One factor that undermines people’s intentions to act ethically in trying circumstances is lack of preparedness. They may intend to do the right thing. But without practice in managing the serious situational pressures that influence their actions, even principled people may succumb to doing what is easiest or clearest, rather than what is right. Only by experiencing these pressures and reflecting on them with guidance can people be prepared to implement ethical decisions in their daily lives.

Our program offers a safe and structured environment to practice these skills. Our methods are experiential and engaging. We introduce situations designed to help participants discover the contours of their own ethical beliefs in practice.

Changing through relationships
We are a society focused on individuals. We admire people who “pull themselves up by the bootstraps.” Our heroes are surrounded in a mythos of individual determination overcoming adversity. Willpower is revered as a powerful catalyst for change.

In reality, people are much more likely to grow when they enjoy supportive communities. Warmth, connection, mutual respect, and feelings of being accepted and nurtured are fundamental requirements for the kind of change we seek to engender in clients. When individuals have strong positive relationships with others in the organization, they are more willing and able to act in ways that benefit others and themselves.

To this end, our programs are not classes: They are communities. Our facilitators create authentic relationships as the basis for lasting, meaningful personal development. Participants develop these relationships with one another, as well, creating self-sustaining networks that ensure the learning continues far beyond the lesson.

Program Content

The Program on Organizational and Executive Ethics comprises four core offerings. Each addresses one or more of the pillars of Ethical Leadership.

  1. Values, Ethics, and Insight
    (1- to 1.5 days)Ethical behavior begins with insight into one’s own values, motivations, and vulnerabilities. This experiential seminar, designed for employees at all levels of the organization, introduces the concept of values and their part in employee satisfaction, commitment, and job performance. Participants examine their own beliefs about the relationships between personal values, leadership values, business values, and their organization’s values. A series of experiential exercises leads participants to deeper insights about their own core values and how those impact their engagement at work and in their personal lives. This work forms the basis of a conversation on ethics in which we change the paradigm from mere compliance to an ethical responsibility to align values and actions. Participants engage in discussions and exercises that bring them to a new understanding of what it means to be ethical, and what personal and situational factors must align to foster ethical leadership.An option for teams is the ½ day add-on in which participants examine not only of their own values, but also those of their team or organization. We help groups to find gaps between their organization’s values and actions and to understand the impact of these gaps from the perspective of ethical behavior.  An outcome of the seminar is participants’ commitment to enact specific behaviors to make the organizational values more salient to internal and external stakeholders.
  2. Insight and Skills for Ethical Leadership
    (2 days)This workshop invites participants to learn about themselves at their best—what they hold to be true, what they value most, what they strive to be. We begin with a thorough examination of personal core values and their expression in the workplace. Participants identify organizational needs to which their values and skills are best suited, and develop an implementation plan for change.Armed with new insights and determination, participants then learn powerful leadership skills necessary to enact their vision. Where a specific need has been identified in advance, we address knowledge gaps in organizational behavior and leadership skills. If the organization has not presented a specific concern, we focus on the fundamental leadership skills of persuasive communication, leading teams, creating accountability for action, and managing conflict.Our content and methods of teaching these leadership skills reflects our combined years of experience teaching MBA students at top business schools, including the schools of management at Yale, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Cornell University.

    Two skills sessions are included in a standard 2-day workshop. Clients can add additional skills instruction modules at their discretion. Each module adds approximately ½ day to the seminar.

  3. Ethical Leadership in Practice
    (2.5 days, with a 1-day follow-up after three months)It has been said that the hardest part of training young military cadets to be leaders is getting them to see themselves as leaders. This is true of many hierarchical organizations. It is a paradox that the employees most likely to recognize needed changes are often the ones least likely to see themselves as change agents.We believe leadership is not just about title or position. All of us have opportunities to be leaders when we see a change that needs to happen, and take action to make it so. This workshop empowers people to become forces for ethical leadership in the workplace regardless of their formal position.The first session includes all the insight and knowledge content included in our shorter workshops. We begin with our signature deep dive into values and other areas of self-insight. Participants explore their unspoken assumptions about what it means to be an ethical leader. Through a process of insight and discovery, they come to recognize their responsibilities to themselves and their organization to lead when needed. A powerful 360-feedback tool provides others’ perspectives on what it will take to allow them to step up fully. Skills training modules equip them with tools and tactics they can begin applying immediately.

    After the first session, participants will be given weekly assignments designed to help them put their insight and knowledge into action in the workplace. We guide them in creating opportunities to apply their awareness within the context of the work they are already doing. Participants receive a weekly challenge to practice specific skills in different situations, to deepen their own capacity for ethical leadership, and to reflect on their experiences with other participants. All will receive 1 small group and 2 individual coaching calls in the time between the two workshops; coaching calls will focus on deepening insight, processing feedback, and creating a development plan.

    The second workshop brings participants back to reflect on and share the learning that arose from their experiences. We introduce the idea of courage as a necessary characteristic of leaders and present tools for developing moral courage in the workplace.

  4. The Four Foundations of Ethical Leadership
    2 sessions (2.5 and 2 days, respectively) approximately 5 months apart This comprehensive leadership experience addresses all four foundations of ethical leadership: insight, knowledge, experience, and courage.The first workshop includes all the content described in the “Values, Ethics, and Insights” seminar described above. Skills training focuses on those a leader most needs, including compelling communication and project management. In this offering, participants use their insights and knowledge to develop a project plan, based in their own and the organization’s values, that they will implement with others in the months between the two workshops. Projects provide an opportunity for participants to put into practice the concepts and skills they have learned, fulfilling the foundation of experience. During these months, participants will have monthly 1-hour coaching sessions by phone with the facilitators.Examples of past projects that were successfully implemented include

    • Establishing a mentoring network for female scientists
    • Initiating and staffing an education program to teach children living in poverty in India
    • Creating a structure for employees of all levels to present their most innovative ideas to top decision-makers on a regular basis
    • Instituting a charitable giving outpost on the campus of a multinational pharmaceutical company
    • Refining operations in a research team to increase compliance with ethical and legal guidelines

    The second session of this series begins with a guided debrief of the project experience, whether or not the project was successfully implemented. Participants go beyond self-critique to gain deeper insight into the situational forces that impact organizational behavior and ethics.

    A major part of the second session is to deepen capacity for courageous action on behalf of the organization. Moving beyond mere talk, we create situations in which participants are invited to stand up for their ethical beliefs in the face of challenges to those beliefs. We relate their experiences in the seminar to the real challenges they encounter in the workplace, and help them to build confidence and a firm grounding in their own ability to lead from values.  A closing exercise provides a 6-month road plan for participants’ continued development and service to the organization.

    This offering is ideal for high-potential talent, newly promoted managers and leaders, and other employees in which the organization wants to make a significant investment.

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