Lapses in ethical behavior at the top have been grabbing the headlines recently. Ruth McCambridge, in the November 2007 issue of the Nonprofit Quarterly online newsletter, addresses the lack of a moral compass for some leaders of large nonprofit organizations. Case in point is American Red Cross whose CEO was asked to leave by their Board because of an affair he was having with someone on staff. This happened after the previous CEO had been embroiled in controversy around the distribution of funds. American Red Cross had been desperate for a leader who would create a strong ethical image in the community. There was little tolerance left in the organization for any deviation from that goal.

Bill George, former CEO of Medtronic and professor in the Harvard Business School, was interviewed by The Wall Street Journal regarding True North, a book about “authentic leadership” that he wrote based on a study he did of 125 leaders from both business and nonprofit sectors. When asked about the definition of an “authentic leader” he said:

They lead with their whole selves – their hearts as well as their heads. They don’t get pulled off course by seductions and pressures. Every leader who has failed, that I’ve seen, has not failed to lead other people, they’ve failed to lead themselves…If [leaders] start to think it’s all about their fame and power and glory, in the end they’re going to do the wrong thing, and they’re going to lose it along the way.

In answer to a question about how to become an authentic leader, George said that leaders must be given opportunities to make mistakes and receive feedback early in their careers. “Good learning organizations allow people to do that – they give them those opportunities, they watch them closely, and then they give them feedback.”

These CEOs should have learned everything they need to know in Kindergarten, but apparently they forgot some of it when they walked into their C-level office suites. I have some sympathy for them because I don’t think the right thing to do is always clear. But that is why everyone, especially CEOs, should be having ongoing conversations with their peers about what is right in different circumstances. Their crime is arrogance, i.e., assuming that because they are on top they are not accountable for their actions and, at the same time, having the ability to rationalize anything that they do. We should expect ethical behavior from our leaders, but the lesson is that we can’t assume that because they made it to the top that they have a clear view of right and wrong. Sometimes grown-ups need to be reminded about what they learned in Kindergarten.