Improved Leadership. Competitive Advantage.

About three years ago, we witnessed a small but remarkable event. Finishing up a discussion in a nuclear control room, a Reactor Operator knocked on the door. He relayed to the Shift Manager (SM) that he hurried and may have entered some critical parameters wrong in the logs. Indeed, he had and made the corrections. The SM frowned knowing that this would result in a RESET (nuclear term for mistake or recordable deviation from standard). We asked the SM if he would have been caught if he had done nothing, kept his mistake to himself, and just not reported it. The SM thought for a minute and said probably not as the critical parameters were still within boundary limits.

To us, this seemed almost spectacular. A person told the truth when he made a mistake knowing that he would not have been caught. From a cursory read in the papers or from watching television, we know that in American society the default mechanism is not always truth telling. If anything, it seems just the opposite: tell lies to protect yourself. The SM, almost cavalierly, shot back that it was an expectation to tell the truth. He went on to explain that many of his crew members were in the Nuclear Navy, and they just knew better. He assumed that they would always abide by the code and tell the truth no matter what.

We could (but we won’t) bore you with the rest of the details, but some intriguing learning emerged from this conversation. First, an assumption was made—which is fairly ironic, as nuclear leaders never assume anything related to equipment or human performance. There are always double checks, peer checks, and oversight, but, in this case, the SM took it for granted that truth telling was cemented in the DNA of his team. Just a couple of months later, a Chemistry Manager at a large nuclear facility was found to have doctored and falsified some chem logs. Here, clearly, the assumption didn’t quite hold. We urge you never to take ethics and integrity for granted. Second, and in keeping with this spirit, put some strong command emphasis behind it. We know of one leader in the rail industry that devotes the first 15 minutes of his annual management and sales meeting discussing and revisiting their espoused core values.

Periodically during the year, he will start a meeting with the following question: How are we doing living our value of transparency? Or of trust? Third, as leaders we may not be happy when someone brings us bad news, but we must be careful with our body language and our tone as followers are tuned-in to our every movement, our every reaction. In this case, the SM frowned when the Reactor Operator came in to reveal his mistake. It is okay to acknowledge the mistake while rewarding the ethics behind it, for example: “Randy, I’m not happy about this error. We must have better attention to detail, but I like your character and integrity here. Thanks for bringing it up.” Finally, ethics doesn’t equal compliance. Never confuse the two. Compliance means following rules and regulations. It means staying legal. Ethics is personal. It is less about illegal and, instead, focuses on the immoral. While compliance is about meeting the letter of the law, ethics is about meeting the intent and the spirit of the code. Words such as fairness, justice, empathy, and trust aren’t the lexicon of compliance, but they are the essence of ethics. Talk less about compliance. Talk more about ethics.

Remember, ethics doesn’t need to be boring and uninteresting. It can be more. Make it personal. After all, there are good and bad examples all around us. We just need to pay attention and never take it for granted.

Of course, if you ever want an ethics refresher or some good ethics training, you know where to call. The ‘E’ in ELP doesn’t stand for Ethics, but it could. Drop Evan a line at to learn more.