On August 17, 2022, a CEO resigned. But it wasn’t just any CEO. It was Dan Price, founder of Gravity Payments, labeled by Robert Reich as “the only moral CEO” and by Inc Magazine as “the best boss in America,” the same Dan Price who had amassed hundreds of thousands of followers online for his business tweets. His resignation was the cap of years of under-the-radar leadership problems and legal trouble, with the New York Times publishing an expose detailing multiple allegations of abuse and assault against women.
Price is not the first executive to portray himself as sincere or concerned with worker wellbeing, and he won’t be the last. But the very leaders across the country and around the world who saw Price as a role model are the same individuals who now face the task of digging their heels into doing right in his place.
Why the Failure of a “Moral” Leader Crushes Us
Business headlines are filled with examples of scandals that lead people to believe that those in power are overwhelmingly corrupt. Yet a seed of hope — that systems will change through a strong and courageous champion — sits deep in people’s chests. So when someone like Dan Price comes along to water that seed, we watch. We think maybe this one will be different. When they fall, it feels like our hero has just deserted us and left us to endure only more future anguish.
In this kind of aftermath, the remaining executives, managers, and founders may have to reckon with just how raw people are. It’s painful to feel like connection and advocacy have been lost, to be washed in the fear that the dream of care, health, and happiness will never materialize. The leaders’ job is now harder: To continue to work as they did before to show they are ethical, but also to push more to make up for the fresh loss of trust their fallen colleague has caused.
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Regaining Trust, Step by Step
In a broad sense, trust requires only one thing — the perception that what you say and what you do predictably matches. Blips in this consistency serve as red flags that put people on guard. Being seen as moral thus requires business leaders to, as much as possible, close any gap between their values and their behavior. People also must be able to see that they have eradicated the gap and that it has held over time, which requires transparency and good communication.
So what can you as a typical executive (or someone with leadership aspirations) do to make up the ground that Price and others have lost?
- Review your beliefs and ensure they are clear in your mission/vision and operations
Moral beliefs underpin every business mission/vision. But companies often allow a gap or mismatch between their ideals and everyday operations. Leaders can ask themselves what their beliefs are and why they matter. Can you see your beliefs reflected in your policies or projects? Bring them front and center and make them the cornerstone for everything you approve so that concept and practice are brought together.
- Establish accountability groups
As power in a company increases, it becomes easier and easier for a leader to abuse it unless a system of checks and balances is in place to provide appropriate accountability. So leaders can call themselves to a specific standard. Then connect with other leaders who can keep them accountable to that standard. When others can see plans or intent, everyone in the group can encourage each other, get advice, and avoid the weeds, which improves the odds of consistent follow-through.
- Go public with more, more often
When people don’t have information, it can create the feeling that there is a veil of secrecy or intentional withholding, contributing to an us-versus-them break within the workforce. By democratizing as much data as possible, you not only send the message that you have nothing to hide and that people are welcome to compare that data to what you have said, but also that you trust your workers or buyers to use the data in appropriate ways.
- Strictly enforce your disciplinary policies
In many companies, leaders can be arbitrarily wishy-washy on the disciplinary policies they enforce, allowing emotion or unique circumstances to seep into the decision-making process. Two policies operate — the formal, documented one, and the unspoken, social one. Picking and choosing when to enforce what’s on the books or looking the other way creates a gray area around the moral boundaries behind the discipline and the value of the morals.
- Insist on extreme ownership from the beginning
It’s not unusual for people to advance to become the next CEO or other high-level executive but this sequence means that if a business wants generational leadership that adheres to the same moral set over time, every individual has to be a moral leader in their own right. Each worker must hold everyone else accountable for the beliefs that provide a foundation for operations.
Welcome extreme ownership among employees from day one. The longer people in an organization stay quiet on the improper things they see, or the longer they go without pathways to advocate, the harder it is to reorient the business to its original moral sets.
Consistency Provides the Means for Reconnection
There will always be leaders who fail us all. But when the Dan Prices of the world are exposed, it’s up to leaders (or those who hope to reach leadership positions) to be even more ruthless about adhering to their word and policies. It’s only through strong exposure to a model of consistency that people will learn to trust again and not dismiss every leader as corrupt. Offering that model is not easy or quick but it’s when the helm is empty that your team and the public need you to assume the captainship the most.