Improved Leadership. Competitive Advantage.

Okay, we're tricky, but if you look around, it is amazing what we can learn to do and not to do from the decisions and behaviors of others. Remarkably, on the same flight mentioned above, we also saw exactly what NOT to do. Yes, in the same 65 minute flight we witnessed both the victory and defeat of a leadership orientation.

About 10 rows back from us, a passenger did what many passengers do—he listened to music. Unlike other passengers, however, he decided to do it without headphones. To make matters worse, this passenger seemed to be both hearing impaired and ALSO a Britney Spears fan. When we say loud, we are sure that the pilots could hear it from the cockpit.

Here's where the leadership lessons begin. First, and to our utter and total amazement, the passengers to his left or right did nothing. They didn't intervene. A bunch of hands went up to hit the flight attendant button. Here’s how the flight attendant, who through the entire flight tried to juggle handing out drinks in short order and picking up trash on a deadline, responded via intercom announcing, "This is a reminder that all movies and music must be enjoyed using headphones." This didn’t dissuade our Britney Spears fan who was waist deep in her greatest hits. Sadly, the flight attendant made this announcement at least four more times. It never worked, and amazingly, if not laughable, he kept trying the same tactic. Nobody slept. You couldn’t possibly read. What we got was 65 minutes of Britney’s best.

This was a problem. Make no mistake, it's a crippling problem that most organizations face. The problem is managing by exception rather than dealing with the bad actor. In this case, we had one person that was violating procedures and impinging on the privacy of others. Rather than dealing with that one person, the flight attendant tried to send out a blanket statement. That doesn't work, it wasn't needed, and it's incredibly inefficient. 149 passengers didn't need to hear the message—only 1 did. We all suffered, because the flight attendants and other passengers lacked the moral courage to simply say, "Would you mind turning that down or putting on your earphones?"

Often, regulators will come in and find some violation of a given standard. Sometimes, it can even be an egregious violation of the standard. However, in our experience, it is often the work of a few—not the masses. Rather than dealing with the subpar performance or the behavioral problems of a few, some feel compelled to publish new procedures and enact new policies that make everyone suffer. Put differently, we manage by exception. Instead of holding the few accountable that need to be, we put restraints and hardship on everyone. From the flight example above and from our own years of experience, the most significant contributing factor here is the lack of moral courage to confront the one or two bad actors. It is much easier to just issue a department or organization-wide decree. Again just like the example above, we know that it never works. The bad actors don’t listen to rules or decrees or policies. If they did, they wouldn’t be playing Britney Spears at 100 decibels in the first place.

So, in this month's Leadership In Action piece, we urge you not to give in to the Dilbert notion of managing by exception and penalizing all for the behavior of a few. Next time a regulator comes in and delivers some bad news ask yourself, "Am I going to overreact and punish the whole, or am I going to be responsible and courageous and deal with the problems of a few?"

To learn more about the dangers of managing and leading by exception and to improve your own leadership decision-making, pick up the phone and call Robin Bichy at 703.999.5676.

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.

Most of the organizations that we deal with are supremely concerned about safety—as they should be. Nuclear power stations, bulk waste storage, rail lines, rail car manufacturers, shipyards—it’s all risky business. It should be of no surprise, then, that many of these organizations are remarkably skilled at marketing and communicating safety messages.

Let’s take a moment, though, and learn from exception. One leader at a fairly large organization mandated an ethics or value message be formally communicated once a week in lieu of the daily safety message. Over a glass of wine, we asked about this executive decision. He answered our question of why with a question of his own: “Can you have a culture of safety without a culture of strong ethics?” He extended his logic, “If an organization lacked trust, exhibited low levels of moral courage, wasn’t very forthcoming or transparent, and was generally viewed as unfair, could that organization possibly build a strong safety culture?” Interestingly, for years nuclear safety has been guided by the principle that trust permeates the organization, but how often have we reflected on the centrality or criticality of this? I suspect not much. After some soul searching of our own and focused coaching sessions focused on exactly this topic, we’ve reached our own conclusion. Namely, we believe strong ethics is a necessary but not sufficient condition for a solid safety program/culture. Put differently, without a bedrock of integrity or character to anchor upon, safety initiatives are doomed to fail.

What does this mean to you—the senior executive, the emerging leader? It means, perhaps, that the best way to influence safety is, first and foremost, by influencing ethics and character building. This one executive in the example shared above offers some immediate counsel: during any given week, devote one message to ethics rather than safety. Trust us, it will solidify a safety culture; it won’t hurt it.

To learn more about how ELP fuses ethics training with safety programs to build a comprehensive and revolutionary culture, reach out to Robin at