Meaningful ethical leadership drives cultures of integrity and trust at modern workplaces. Gatekeepers need to forget “tone at the top” and educate, coach and hold CEOs, boards and management to a higher standard than a checklist and catchy phrase.

In 2014, I decided to put the greatly overused phrase “tone at the top” on my banned list. I did that because its misuse by so many commentators, boards and self-appointed compliance “experts” had gotten so out of hand that the misuse was becoming institutionalized to the point that CEOs, boards and management had begun to think “tone at the top” meant “tone from my mouth” (a problem first coined by the great Joe Murphy) and that “tone” could be achieved and conveyed via company memo, video or a carefully worded interview arranged by their PR Wizards of Smart. The phrase had become so misused and overused that it had lost all meaning and had become such a low standard that it could be met by any “paper program” or even a “paper memo.” When compliance becomes nothing more than a “checklist and a catchy phrase,” we’re all in big trouble.

Clearly, a new standard that combined both words and meaningful action was needed – “walk” as well as “talk.” Then the world saw the fortuitous election of a new pope, Pope Francis, who…


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