Compliance and ethics professionals agree that role-modeling by senior executives, starting with the CEO, is the beachhead of any ethical leadership culture in an organization. That’s because employees have an uncanny ability to detect hypocrisy in their leaders. They are adept at reading between the lines of internal announcements and closely observing what their leaders say and do. When what leaders say doesn’t match up with what they do—ethical culture takes a hit. The most powerful role models lead more by action than words. This is a lesson leaders and managers could learn just by watching the biggest, baddest new CEO on the planet, Pope Francis I.
Pope Francis began to signal that he was a different kind of leader even as he stood on the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica moments after the white smoke had cleared (literally), wearing a white cassock instead of the traditional red, ermine-trimmed “mozzetta” used by his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI. That night, the new pope took the bus home rather than the papal limousine. When he was reported to be taking taxis around Rome, nervous Cardinals in the Vatican began to follow suit, taking regular cabs instead of the large fleet of luxury sedan cars at their disposal. Self reform and culture change, the Italian journalists giddily reported, had begun.
What’s more, it seems there is a “humble pope” story reported almost every week since Pope Francis’s election. Last week media reports surfaced that he had chosen to live in a simple two-room apartment, rather than the luxurious digs of the Vatican penthouse. Apparently, he makes his own telephone calls too—to the dentist to cancel an appointment, and to the newsstand to suspend a home delivery subscription. He made the phone calls himself, you see, to save the Vatican the cost of the long-distance calls. And if that’s not enough role-modeling for the month of March, the newest Catholic CEO just washed the feet of 12 inmates, two of them women. All of this has taken place without being prefaced by a single big speech, memo, or video.
I don’t think there is a compliance officer today who wouldn’t give their eyeteeth for a CEO like Pope Francis. Yes, I know, it’s incredibly unfair to compare a mere mortal CEO to His Holy Father. A CEO has real-world things to worry about: business strategy, revenues, cost-cutting, employees, customers, business partners, competitors, compliance, culture, and reputation, Wait . . . so does the Pope (not to mention that one of his competitors is reportedly very powerful and lives in Hell).
Having been inside a wide spectrum of organizations in three capacities—in-house lawyer, compliance officer, and independent consultant—I’ve had a bird’s eye view of a variety of CEOs and the different cultures they have driven. And my observation is this: the most enduring, most powerful ethical cultures have at their core some simple, well-worn CEO stories that go something like: