Collaborative Leadership Blog

Being Honorable With Accountability

I would prefer even to fail with honor than win by cheating.    –Sophocles–

It seems to start early in life. My wife’s second grade class has seen dishonorable behavior show up when a student lies to save face, or manipulates to gain the favor of others. I see it among graduate students who plagiarize an article for a better grade or disrespect their teammates by not pulling their weight. We see dishonorable behavior in business, whether it is Retrophin’s meteoric increase in the price of a life-saving drug, Wells Fargo’s sales culture which defrauded millions of their customers,, the Volkswagon “Dieselgate” scandal, “white lies”, withholding critical data, or the sleight of hand by a senior business leader taking credit for someone else’s work. No matter how old we are, we are living in an era where the culture of deception, manipulation, lying, cheating or stealing is rampant. It is not OK.

Whatever has happened that lying, cheating or stealing can be rationalized or justified and is not met with righteous indignation? At West Point, the Cadet Honor Code is straightforward: “A cadet will not lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those who do.” If you are found to have violated this code, you are investigated, tried by a jury of your peers, and if found guilty,  your case goes to senior leadership and you may be expelled. There is accountability for dishonorable conduct. In the Navy’s Blue Angels high performance flight team, if you make a mistake on one of their many hundreds of maneuvers while traveling in excess of 700 mph, you are expected to hold yourself accountable, and never repeat that mistake. It could cost everyone their lives—and a number of years ago it did.

In a collaborative workplace, honor is not only about integrity and self-accountability, but also about respecting the worth of every person, transparency, fair treatment, and empowering people so they can do their best work and be their best selves. It is about the dignity, value, and trust of every individual.

It is critical that we all assert the principles of being honorable with accountability in every aspect of our lives. Here are some possible guidelines:

  • Model the Way: Be clear about our own ethics and behaviors, and walk-the-talk with whomever we encounter
  • Take a Stand: If we see dishonorable behavior, say something and do something
  • Call it What It Is: Tell the truth about unethical conduct—a lie is a lie is a lie
  • Insist on Accountability: If the individual will not hold themselves accountable, it is our responsibility to do so, even for what may seem to be minor infractions; otherwise we head down a slippery slope
  • Escalate If Necessary: If the powers that be will not hold the individual accountable, escalate the dishonorable conduct to the next level, within or outside the organization

Our honor is to be guarded carefully, especially within the culture of corruption that is evident across our society today. As role models for our children, teammates, peers, and workforces, it is our duty, and our responsibility to be ethical leaders of consequence.


*Dr. Edward Marshall is an Adjunct Professor in Management at the Fuqua School of Business, Duke University; ICF certified executive coach, Lifetime Top 15 Trust Thought Leader, and author of the forthcoming book: The New Age of Collaboration: Leadership for the 21st Century, 2020. You can contact him at or (919)265-9616