William H. Gerstenmaier, NASA

William H. Gerstenmaier, Associate Administrator for Space Operations, NASA, Washington, D.C., USA



OFTEN, TODAY'S BUSINESS WORLD pushes so hard for results that people lose sight of their actions and the implications of their leadership. Within government or industry, high ethical standards are mandatory. We must remain ethical above all question, not only doing things that are legally binding, but also avoiding things that may be perceived as violating laws or regulations.

If you want to stay effective as a manager, there can be no question as to your integrity or the motivation for your actions. Your employees and the general public must trust that you've done everything “above board.” You must keep your actions clear and crisp and your rationale crystal clear. If people even start to perceive favoritism or unethical behavior, then you've got a real problem. People will follow you only when you demonstrate good character. As a leader, your actions are watched more closely than your words.

Sometimes in the project management environment, you may be tempted to skirt official processes or do something that otherwise calls your judgment into question. As a leader, you must realize that you'll be confronted with these issues, and you'll have to decide for yourself how to react. The temptation is real, and it initially may seem innocent and effective to deviate slightly from pure ethical practices. Delaying an accounting report several weeks in order for that report to appear better than the real data shows seems innocent, but this can be the beginning of even larger infractions.

You may be OK for a while living on the margins, but it will eventually come to light, and that will be the end of your project, your career and your company. The consequences are simply not worth the outcome. It is better to have a bad accounting statement than loss your company. Think about your actions and how you would feel if they were published in the paper. How would the man on the street see your actions? Would you be proud of them?

You must ensure, as a leader, you are leading your team in the right direction. In hindsight, when you discover that you've made an unethical or questionable decision, fully admit your mistakes. Continuously review your actions and make sure you police yourself so you don't drift off. If you discover that those you lead are behaving in an unethical manner, you must step forward. And don't forget to reward those who choose the right action, even if the ethical choice resulted in slipped deadlines or cost objectives.

When an unethical directive comes from above, you owe it to yourself to discuss your concerns with your management. Executives might not recognize the perception. If your organization still continues to do things you can't agree with, take a stand and be willing to leave. Only you are accountable for your actions.

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