Perhaps the most memorable health headlines of the last five years have been dominated by the C-suite (and not in a good way). Examples include Theranos’ Elizabeth Holmes, Turing’s Martin Shkreli, and INSYS’ John Kapoor, all of whom managed to put a personal face on major frustrations with the pharmaceutical sector. More than being fall guys or victims of the 24-hour news cycle’s near-constant hunt for a scoop, these executives made headlines for embodying the worst impulses that pervaded every level of the companies they led.
We focus on the negative examples because good leadership is often only recognizable in terms of what you don’t see. What tends to escape the media’s attention is how ethical leadership leads to ethical decision-making and ethical companies. It’s less common to see someone getting praised in the press for their adherence to strict values, but every health company we admire has a strong hand at the helm, guiding the company towards more ethical positions and setting an example for employees to make ethical decisions every day.
The C-suite wields both hard and soft power
Senior leadership is most obviously responsible for setting the rules for official actions, but this only goes so far in shaping the way decisions are made at all levels of the company. Ethical action is more commonly found in response to the loopholes and blank spaces between official visions and values.
The C-suite can often find itself arbitrating challenges between different divisions of the company, and these are the proving grounds for a company’s values. Some of my most thoughtful and ethical clients end up relying on the soft power of the C-suite to remind internal teams of their north star when infighting threatens to steer them off course. It doesn’t matter whether today’s sales figures look great if tomorrow’s headline will be about the people who are affected by cutthroat strategies. The mediator role that senior leadership plays can be the deciding factor behind whether company values endure everyday conflicts.
Culture starts at the top
We regularly advise our clients to see executive positioning as a way to disseminate culture throughout their company. A company’s culture most often plays out in interactions between colleagues, but employees’ opinions of their employer are shaped equally by the company’s reputation when they’re at a family barbecue or talking to friends after work. Culture cannot be separated from reputation. The way that executives present business objectives, the response to external challenges and even the existence of a core narrative about “why we do what we do” all contribute to the decisions made every day by the people who make up a company.
When there’s a joint sense of purpose that binds people in an organization together, that esprit de corps is seen in how individuals and teams act when solving the small things and the big ones. Executive positioning shapes company culture and encourages ethical decision-making.