Develop a leadership code of behavior


Is the line between acceptable and unacceptable behavior changing as you shift a culture or as you struggle with different generations of leaders who have varying ideas on what’s permissible at work? Do you feel like you have leaders or employees who are acting outside the lines of what might be considered ideal behavior? If these things are true for you, it may no longer make sense to continue to assume that everyone knows what behaviors are appropriate. What should a leader do to help the organization achieve clarity in this case?

Consider that the “rules” or guidelines for acceptable – if not exemplary – leadership behavior can be developed collaboratively with your leadership team and then shared widely with all employees. If behavioral expectations are mutually developed and openly shared throughout the organization there is a smaller chance for slip-ups. With a set of behavioral norms in place, when they are not followed, there is a foundation for a conversation about them.

I am suggesting that the organizational leaders begin the process because they are expected to model (appropriate) behaviors for others in the organization.

Sit down with your leadership team and facilitate a dialog about the type of behaviors that you want to foster starting with yourselves. What you’ll be looking to develop are actual observable behaviors that you want to see and model for the organization.

To get you started, here are some questions you can ask:

  • What behaviors do we want to model?
  • What will others see us actually doing and saying?
  • How will they see us doing and saying these things?
  • Why are these behaviors important?

Here are some examples and how they could be described:

Respect others: We know it’s possible to understand a colleague without agreeing with their opinion. We respect each other by listening to understand, even if we disagree. When we disagree, we verbalize it in a direct manner, calmly, and with kindness. When we respect others, it is returned not only to us, but to our customers and clients.

Give feedback: We provide feedback to each other in an open and honest way as soon as possible after we observe a situation that calls for our reaction, criticism or advice. We give critical feedback privately and praise publicly. When we deliver feedback with respect in this way, we create culture of trust.

Communicate: We communicate clearly, openly, and honestly as much as we can and as soon as we are able. We communicate things consistently and often, and in more than one way often using more than one tool. We don’t gossip or speculate about others’ motives; we ask them respectfully to clear up any misunderstandings or confusion. When we communicate in this way, we are all are better informed and better able to act consistent with our organizational mission.

As you develop your own leadership code of behavior, you can communicate it to all employees in the organization, getting their input and setting expectations for their behavior as well. When leaders create a code of behavior for themselves and hold each other accountable to it, they are in the best position to communicate and expect such behavior from everyone else in the organization.




I am a former executive in a Fortune 100 company. I have owned and operated an executive coaching firm since 2003 called Aspire Collaborative Services LLC. We partner with great leaders to help them become even greater at developing, improving, and sustaining relationships with the people who are essential to their success. This blog is for leaders and those who help them to be more intentional about relationships at work. My top personal values include respect for others, kindness, compassion, collaboration and gratitude. I work very hard at practicing my values daily and when I don’t succeed, I practice some more. I am married with two wonderful daughters and two spoiled pugs.

4 comments on “Develop a leadership code of behavior

  1. Loved the piece above. Just wrote about this very concept the other day in my leadership newsletter. While everyone in the business is a leader (because each of them has influence on each other and the other stakeholders/client/customers), it is incumbent on the positional leaders (administrators/directors) to live out and role model the behaviors that they seek across the entire organization/business. While Core Values are so incredibly important, organizational culture is even more important because it is in essence, what those core values look like when they are applied to our workplace behaviors on a minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day, decision by decision basis. Thanks for a great piece which I plan to reference in the future… Rick DeBowes, Washington State University, College of Veterinary Medicine

  2. Rick, thanks for your response. I believe that leaders should always look to themselves for the wisdom they need to do something about behavior they are unhappy with (even in others). I often ask my clients the question, “what would a leader do?” when faced with situations and behaviors they want to change in their organizations.

  3. Hey Mary Jo,

    I too love the article and the idea of deliberately setting intention around a code of behavior. Also appreciate the questions to make it more tangible.

    The 2 pieces I would add are: 1.) the unacceptable behaviors (to which consequences are attached) and 2.) is looking at when a company value goes to the extreme and has unintended and undesired consequences below the radar screen.

    Many of my clients are clear about their values and behaviors yet have not drawn a “hard line in the sand” when a behavior is “unacceptable” and won’t be tolerated … no questions asked.

    A recent client example of extreme demonstration of a value that has undesired consequences is around their value of “trust.” They translate that value to “have each other’s back.”

    Where the extreme of that value has created undesired consequences is what I would call “inauthentic conformity.” I.e.., they have a mindset if they speak their truth esp. to their peers on the leadership team or disagree, they do no have each other’s back. So now we are redefining the value to prevent polarizing behaviors and include both.

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