Back in the day of the alleged FIFA kickbacks, I was sadly amazed by the response of Sepp Blatter, the FIFA president, up for and successful in re-election within hours, who said, “We cannot constantly supervise everyone in football . . . you cannot ask everyone to behave ethically.” A distinct lack of responsibility taken to demand ethical behaviour.

This is not just a FIFA leadership problem. Many companies, regions, departments, and team leaders around the globe believe the same thing: “Leaders cannot ask their people to behave ethically. I am not responsible for whether my leaders or team members behave ethically.”

Here’s another example. In Denver, a former sheriff’s department investigator reported that his captain told him to avoid logging into evidence a videotape of inmate mistreatment. The incident would not have been investigated further if the tape wasn’t logged into the evidence system. The department has suffered systemic problems, including poor training of officers and mistreatment of inmates for years.

Responsibility for ethical behaviour

So who is responsible for ethical behaviour across your organization? The reality is that if you are a leader, YOU are, indeed, responsible. You are responsible for the creation of productive workplaces. These workplaces must treat everyone with trust, respect, and dignity in every interaction.  In NASCAR, for example, the crew chief often has to take the suspension or penalty for something the team did to skirt the rules, no matter who actually took action to do so.  It is assumed that the chief is in charge and influences the team.

Where leaders create clear performance and value expectations and hold people accountable, results and profits steadily grow. Where leaders do not create clear expectations of performance and citizenship, a void is created. In the absence of solid leadership, we humans will fail.

Leaders must demand ethical behaviour

Leaders can absolutely ask, expect, and,  yes, even demand that everyone behave ethically. How?

First, formalize performance standards and values expectations, setting clear ground rules.  Now for the hard work – holding everyone accountable for both.

Model these standards in every interaction. Be a champion of your desired culture. Then hold others accountable, too, by gathering performance and values data (from peers, employees and customers,) feeding it back, and coaching players to success.

It’s not easy, but it is the right thing to do and takes more courage than abdicating responsibility for your team.

Article updated September 2021

S. Chris Edmonds is a speaker, author, and executive consultant. He shares insights on organizational culture, servant leadership, employee engagement, and workplace inspiration.

He writes books and articles and records podcasts.

In his free time, he’s a working musician with the Brian Raine band in Denver, CO.