The Wheatley Institution

Fellow Notes

The Power of Ethical Examples

“The examples set by those at the top will reflect on everyone beneath them.”

W. Steve Albrecht | January 22, 2016
| Print | Google plus Google plus linkedin share button
An airplane flies high in the sky, symbolizing the height of ethics that leaders should aspire to show in their examples.

One of the things I am most grateful for with my membership in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, is that the teachings of the Church are so consistent with the values that bring happiness and success in life. For example, in the business world, there is a very important concept known as “Tone at the Top.” “Tone at the Top” is a term that is used to define management's and board of director’s leadership and commitment toward openness, honesty, integrity, and ethical behavior. It is the most important component of the ethical environment of a company because employees watch the leaders of an organization and often copy what they do. An organization’s leadership creates the tone at the top – an ethical (or unethical) atmosphere in the workplace. Management’s tone has a trickle-down effect on employees. If top managers uphold ethics and integrity so will employees. But if upper management appears unconcerned with ethics and focuses solely on the bottom line, employees will be more prone to be dishonest and feel that ethical conduct isn’t a priority. In short, employees will follow the examples of their leaders.

The quality of financial reporting is positively correlated with the tone at the top

There have been many examples and research findings that have shown how important having a positive tone at the top is. For example, research has shown that the quality of financial reporting is positively correlated with the tone at the top of an organization. Further, the amount of fraud that a company experiences has been correlated with the tone at the top of organizations. In one company the leaders of the company were accepting all-expense-paid hunting excursions from vendors in Alaska which the employees saw as bribes and so several other employees started accepting bribes from vendors.

In another more egregious case, the top management of a company was creating fictitious life insurance policies and then selling them to reinsurance companies to artificially inflate their revenues. Several lower-level employees who saw what management was doing, instead of blowing the whistle on them, decided that they should benefit from this illegal scheme as well. It didn’t make sense to them that all these fictitious people should live without any of them dying and so they started having some of them die, collecting the death proceeds. They would never have done this if top management hadn’t been dishonest.

As a final business example of the power of tone at the top, consider the wide-spread test-taking cheating case that occurred in the Atlanta schools in the past few years. The superintendent, Dr. Beverly Hall, initiated cheating so that student performance in her school district would look better and so that her district would be the recipient of increased federal funds. (Unfortunately, she died before going to trial.) She was even awarded educator of the year because of the remarkable increases of the reported test scores of Atlanta students. However, in subsequent investigations and trials, it was discovered that, while at first only a small subset of teachers actually broke the law and cheated, in the end many teachers lied and cheated and used rogue defenses at their trials. At least 44 schools had been troubled by organized and systemic misconduct and nearly 180 employees, including 38 principals were accused of wrongdoing as part of an effort to inflate test scores and misrepresent the achievement of Atlanta’s students and schools. Dr. Hall, instead of setting the proper tone at the top had created a culture of fear, intimidation and retaliation that had permitted cheating at all levels to go unchecked for years. Many of the defendants were convicted for racketeering in lengthy trials and sentenced for as much as 20 years in jail.

What’s interesting is that “tone at the top” is nothing more than setting a good example. It is a powerful teaching that we hear all the time in the Church. It is important for us as Church members and it is important for us as parents. The tone at the top in the home is important and the tone at the top for our non-member friends is important. President Heber J. Grant stated that “Every man among us carries on his shoulders the reputation of his Church, and as you and I live the Gospel of Jesus Christ, we bring credit to the work of the Lord that has been established again upon the earth in this dispensation.” He asked that we live the Gospel so that our lives preach the truthfulness of it. We have all heard too many stories of members of the Church who didn’t set a good example or “tone at the top” and left non-members with a bad perception of the Church. While there is debate about whether or not he really said it, St. Francis of Assisi is often credited with having said, “Preach the Gospel at all times and if necessary, use words.”

Setting a proper tone at the top is equally important in the home. I love the quote by James Baldwin that states: “Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.” Let me share two personal examples. Upon graduating from BYU a number of years ago, my first job was as a CPA in Salt Lake City. Because LeAnn and I were newly married and didn’t have much money, we rented a small apartment in one of the rougher neighborhoods of the Salt Lake Valley. About ten feet behind our back window was another apartment where a single mother and her four-year-old daughter lived. Both LeAnn and I can still remember very vividly how that mother used to curse and scream at her 4-year old daughter. We heard more four-letter words during the 6 months that we lived there than we have heard since. One day, with our window open, we heard a little, high-pitched voice yelling and swearing. Looking out the window, we saw the little girl cursing and screaming at her pet cat. She was using the same 4-letterswear words her mom used and had learned an awful lesson from her mother’s tone at the top.

My second example is even more personal. When I was ten years old, my friend, Jerry, and I were dishonest. Jerry’s parents had the contract to clean the theater every week in our small town that showed weekend movies. Jerry and I stole his parent’s keys, went into the theater, jimmied open the candy counter that was locked and filled our pockets with candy. We relocked the theater door and took off running up the vacant lot behind the theater because we were scared that someone would catch us. Fortunately now, but unfortunately then, our home was only one house away from the theater and my mother was washing dishes in the kitchen and looking out the back window. She saw us running behind the theater looking suspicious. When I came home she interviewed me until I told her the exactly what happened. My mom, who was one of the most honest people I have ever known, told me I had to call the theater owners and tell them exactly what I had done and promise to pay them back. The year was 1957 and I ended up pulling weeds around the theater for $.03 per hour to compensate them for the candy I stole. Thanks to my mother I learned that stealing didn’t pay and haven’t been dishonest since. My mother’s tone at the top made a huge difference in my life.

We should each examine our lives and ask where we can do better

It is extremely important that in all the realms of our lives, we set the proper “tone at the top.” We should each examine our lives and ask where we can do better. Maybe we can do better at work; maybe we can improve at home; maybe we can be better Church members. It is never too late to change. To show how powerful, even changing our “tone at the top” later in life can be, consider this following story.

Many years ago, Al Capone virtually owned Chicago. Capone wasn't famous for anything heroic. He was notorious for enmeshing the windy city in everything from bootlegged booze and prostitution to murder. Capone had a lawyer nicknamed "Easy Eddie." He was Capone's lawyer for a good reason. Eddie was very good! In fact, Eddie's skill at legal maneuvering kept Big Al out of jail for a long time. To show his appreciation, Capone paid him very well. Not only was he well paid, but Eddie received other special dividends as well. For example, he and his family occupied a fenced-in mansion with live-in help and all of the conveniences of the day. The estate was so large that it filled an entire Chicago City block. Eddie lived the high life of the Chicago mob and gave little consideration to the atrocities that went on around him. Eddie did have one soft spot, however. He had a son that he loved dearly. Eddie saw to it that his young son had clothes, cars, and a good education. Nothing was withheld. Price was no object. And, despite his involvement with organized crime, Eddie even tried to teach his son right from wrong. Eddie wanted his son to be a better man than he was. Yet, with all his wealth and influence, there were two things he couldn't give his son; he couldn't pass on a good name or a good example. One day, Easy Eddie reached a difficult decision. Easy Eddie wanted to rectify wrongs he had done and set a better parental “tone at the top” for his son. He decided he would go to the authorities and tell the truth about Al "Scarface" Capone, clean up his tarnished name, and offer his son some semblance of integrity. To do this, he would have to testify against the Mob, and he knew that the cost would be great. So, he testified. Within the year, Easy Eddie's life ended in a blaze of gunfire on a lonely Chicago Street. But in his eyes, he had given his son the greatest gift he had to offer, at the greatest price he could ever pay. Police removed from his pockets a clipping from a magazine. It read: "The clock of life is wound but once, and no man has the power to tell just when the hands will stop, at late or early hour. Now is the only time you own. Live, love, toil with a will. Place no faith in time. For the clock may soon be still."

Now fast forward a few years to World War II. World War II produced many heroes. One such man was Lieutenant Commander Butch O'Hare. He was a fighter pilot assigned to the aircraft carrier Lexington in the South Pacific. One day his entire squadron was sent on a mission. After he was airborne, he looked at his fuel gauge and realized that someone had forgotten to top off his fuel tank .He would not have enough fuel to complete his mission and get back to his ship. His flight leader told him to return to the carrier. Reluctantly, he dropped out of formation and headed back to the fleet. As he was returning to the mother ship, he saw something that turned his blood cold: a squadron of Japanese aircraft was speeding its way toward the American fleet. The American fighters were gone on a sortie, and the fleet was all but defenseless. He couldn't reach his squadron and bring them back in time to save the fleet. Nor could he warn the fleet of the approaching danger. There was only one thing to do. He must somehow divert them from the fleet. Laying aside all thoughts of personal safety, he dove into the formation of Japanese planes. Wing-mounted 50 calibers blazed as he charged in, attacking one surprised enemy plane and then another. Butch wove in and out of the now broken formation and fired at as many planes as possible until all his ammunition was finally spent. Undaunted, he continued the assault. He dove at the planes, trying to clip a wing or tail in hopes of damaging as many enemy planes as possible, rendering them unfit to fly. Finally, the exasperated Japanese squadron took off in another direction. Deeply relieved, Butch O'Hare and his tattered fighter limped back to the carrier. Upon arrival, he reported in and related the events surrounding his return. The film from the gun-camera mounted on his plane told the tale. It showed the extent of Butch's daring attempt to protect his fleet. He had, in fact, destroyed five enemy aircraft. This took place on February 20, 1942 and for that action Butch became the Navy's first Ace of WWII, and the first Naval Aviator to win the Congressional Medal of Honor. A year later Butch was killed in aerial combat at the age of 29. His home town would not allow the memory of this WWII hero to fade, and today, O'Hare Airport in Chicago is named in tribute to the courage of this great man. So how did Easy Eddie’s decision to set the proper parental tone at the top make a difference? Butch O'Hare was "Easy Eddie's" son.