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 Award-winning business author and broadcaster

Leadership trainer and coach

Keynote speaker

  • Writer's pictureAudrey Tang

Ethical Leadership in COVID-19

Updated: Jul 25, 2022

Current circumstances remind us much more about what we need than what we want and at the moment it is clear what is being deemed “essential”:

Healthcare, Food, Shelter, Sanitation, but also awareness of our interpersonal relationships (especially in lockdown) and protection of mental health. This series of "essentials" (in much the same order) is not dissimilar to Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs:

While we would love to go out and meet friends in a pub or café, and we are perhaps missing shopping for clothes (although, if you’re like me, I’m living in lounge wear), and some of our favourite programmes are looking a bit odd as presenters struggle with “buffering” wifi connections; we’re finding that a text to ask “What’s been good with you today?” or sharing a laugh, even a surprise care package or handwritten card is beginning to mean a lot more than what we might have thought was a necessity beforehand.

Never have we been more grateful – should we be so lucky – to have a roof over our head, and the luxury of a garden; when we are distancing with loved ones rather than fearing another day behind closed doors; and when we can continue to work or at least keep ourselves occupied despite potential financial concerns.

Right now, vision boards aside, we might realise – some of us – are rich indeed.

Tone deafness v Open hearts

Compounding the situation is the fire that some celebrities have come under – and rightly so…not just for poor ethical judgment, but (worse) not realizing why their behaviour should cause such furore:

- Multi-millionaires Victoria Beckham and Richard Branson coming cap in hand to the government in comparison to Prince Charles, Ed Sheeran and Duncan Bannatyne footing their staff bills from their own pockets.

- Football clubs furloughing their staff yet paying their players full salaries (and not a player suggesting otherwise)

- Ellen complaining about being “imprisoned” in her mansion-like home when some people are struggling without even a window box.

- …and I can’t remember who flew seafood in from Boston, and frankly I don’t really care.

One of my workshops looks at the history of management theory. It’s not the most uplifting of activities as we discuss the changes through the Hawthorne Effect of supervision, to the “resources” part becoming more prevalent than the “human”, but I am always grateful of the restoration of faith through adversity when I can finish on “Ethical management” with the case of the 1995 Fire at Malden Mills.

THE MALDEN MILLS FIRE – a lesson in ethical management

On December 11, 1995 a fire burned most of Malden Mills to the ground and put 3,000 people out of work. Most of them thought they were out of work permanently. The CEO Aaron Feuerstein said, “This is not the end”, and indeed, he spent millions keeping all 3,000 employees on the payroll with full benefits for 3 months until he could get another factory up and running.


He replied, “The fundamental difference is that I consider our workers an asset, not an expense.

This is not to say everyone’s situation is the same, but I know many leaders taking pay cuts to stave off furlough, and even in the case of furlough, it is still a kinder option than redundancy. This behaviour comes not from the “mega rich”, those we might previously revered – but from people who work hard, live well, and always send the lift back when they’ve been able to get to the top. It is the first thing on their minds – as indeed the on minds of those such as Ed Sheeran who are doing more than that because they can – and it is certainly my hope that it is no longer “status” we celebrate once we have come through – but integrity, compassion and ethical judgment no matter how high up you sit.

As we realise what is most important to us, we will be more likely to seek it out.

When we come through lockdown the landscape will have changed, but that means while some opportunities may be lost, others will be created. In the field of travel, for example, it does not necessarily mean that we will no longer wish to fly, but research suggests that it will be “Bucket List” trips that will rate higher on our agendas. It is perhaps not that we will never buy a designer bag again, but that we might buy the one and treasure it and choose to spend the rest of our savings on the dream trip or dream home.

But, this works for people too. Wetherspoons staff may soon recall the CEO refusal to furlough at the start of the crisis, changing only under fire later on; you may remember how you were treated by your own companies. Perhaps a job will still be important, but so is appreciation that you are an asset not an expense.

At the end of my management workshop I often find that people who thought such status was for them, decide to take a pause to rethink their options. Lockdown is that pause right now. Leaders with integrity must remember the following – because if you don't, your teams still will.

4 Ethical points to reflect on

1. Leaders help others succeed: One of your key roles is to help the people who work for you succeed. That's not a job everyone likes to do, especially if you enjoy being the figurehead. If you like helping other people do better, it will make your job as a leader much easier and you are more likely to retain the loyalty and high performance of your team for longer. Don’t forget when a team member looks for another job, the good ones will get it! It’s ok if you struggle, but rather than (like Victoria Beckham) sulk and say “I don’t know why everyone is being so mean” before doing a PR U-turn - appreciate that you will probably have to put conscious effort into helping others on your team, suppressing your own needs for glory. Only you know how difficult that will be for you.

2. Leaders make tough decisions: This is just something you have to learn to be comfortable with – especially the tough ones. You will not please everyone. If you are comfortable making decisions, you can improve your technique, but no amount of training will make you more willing to make decisions. Think about how you live your life. Do you make decisions as needed? Or do you put them off or hope that someone else will make the decision for you? You will not always be right (you will not always be wrong either) – but you must be able to act and flexible to alter, then have enough integrity to be accountable.

3. Leaders must confront people about their behaviour or performance: You will need to master the art of managed confrontation. Every day you will need to talk to people who work for you about their behaviour and performance. You will need to confront some of them with how they're doing and what they need to fix. I’m not talking about big, blow-up, "Jerry Springer" confrontations. Most of your confrontations will be about small things. But you might have to do this every day and continually work in a supportive manner to ensure interventions are successful.

4. Leaders must be willing to let the group become their destiny: We may like to say that when you're the leader, you've got power. But that's not entirely true – you are only a leader if you have followers. In some ways, unless you own the company, when you get promoted, you may less power than you do now: When you're an individual contributor and you want to improve your evaluation or income, all you have to do is work harder or smarter. When you want to achieve the same thing as a leader you've got to convince your team members to work harder or smarter. The team is your destiny. Your success and your rewards are based on their performance. Are you ready for that?

Dr Audrey Tang is a chartered psychologist and author. Listen to her podcast Retrain Your Brain here; and catch her practical masterclasses Psych Back to Basics on DisruptiveTV & Energy Top Up for resilience For quick tips and tools: click for SKILL PILL and Q&A videos and here for Media appearances. Twitter/IG @draudreyt

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