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Ethos in Leadership

Ethos is the spirit and moral nature of a community or individual. It is derived from the Greek word for character, which is the trustworthiness or credibility of a person. Ethos forms the guiding beliefs of the person or community, which in turn, builds the codes or ethics that guides the community or organization in its behavior. Thus, ethos resides within the person, while ethics are displayed in words, symbols, and actions.

Photo adapted from Pfc. Michael Syner, courtesy U.S. Army

If the leaders' ethos is of good character, it builds esprit de corps (moral); if it is bad, morale suffers. It has this powerful effect because it establishes the way workers interact with each other and the degree of responsibility they have to achieving the organization's goals and objectives.

The U.S. Army's Warrior Ethos is an excellent model to study because they place a high value on their leader's character. While it might look unrelated to civilian organizations, the concepts behind it are perhaps ideal for leaders to reflect upon.

The Warrior Ethos

The Warrior Ethos are four principles of conduct extracted from the Soldier's Creed:

I will always place the mission first.

I will never accept defeat.

I will never quit.

I will never leave a fallen comrade.

While we normally think of a warrior as someone engaged or experienced in warfare, the U.S. Army pictures it more as someone who is engaged aggressively or energetically in an activity, cause, or conflict. Thus, it becomes the foundation of soldiers in both peacetime and periods of conflict.

I will always place the mission first

Missions are an organization's means of achieving its visions. For example, in 1982, Johnson & Johnson was confronted with a crisis when seven people died after ingesting Tylenol capsules laced with cyanide. News traveled quickly and caused a nationwide panic.

I don't think they can ever sell another product under that name. There may be an advertising person who thinks he can solve this and if they find him, I want to hire him, because then I want him to turn our water cooler into a wine cooler. — Advertising genius, Jerry Della Femina as told to the New York Times after the crises.

However, Johnson & Johnson won the public's heart and trust with its commitment to protecting its customers during the crises. They dealt with it by living their corporate business philosophy — Our Credo. It was crafted in the 1940's by Robert Wood Johnson who believed that businesses have responsibilities to society. The credo stressed that it was important for them to be responsible in working for the public interest.

Thus, they approached the crises by living their Credo. From the start of the crises they:

In turn, the media did much of the company's work by praising Johnson & Johnson's socially responsible actions. Johnson & Johnson's top management put customer safety first, NOT their company's profit or other financial concerns. In other words, they did the right thing.

At first, it is easy to believe that such a move was against the best interest of the company's stockholders, but when you put customers and employees first, it actually benefits the stockholders in the long run.

Johnson & Johnson has effectively demonstrated how a major business ought to handle a disaster. This is no Three Mile Island accident in which the company's response did more damage than the original incident. What Johnson & Johnson executives have done is communicate the message that the company is candid, contrite, and compassionate, committed to solving the murders and protecting the public. — Jerry Knight, The Washington Post on October 11, 1982.

Once the crises ended, they started actions to put their organization back on track:

Johnson & Johnson could have disclaimed any possible link between Tylenol and the seven sudden deaths. In other similar cases, companies put themselves first and ended up doing more damage to their reputations than if they had immediately taken responsibility for the crisis. For example, traces of benzene were found in Source Perrier's bottled water. Rather than holding themselves accountable for the incident, they claimed that the contamination resulted from an isolated incident and recalled a limited number of Perrier bottles in North America. When benzene was found in Perrier bottled water in Europe, an embarrassed Source Perrier had to announce a worldwide recall on the bottled water and were immediately criticized for having little integrity and for disregarding public safety.

Lesson Learned:

Discover your ethos, create your vision, set your mission, and then live by it

I will never accept defeat and I will never quit

While the U.S. Army separates these two principles, for the purpose of this discussion, I will put them together since they are interrelated.

Going back to Johnson & Johnson, their executives wept not only out of grief, but some out of guilt. One top executive said, “it was like lending someone your car and seeing them killed in a traffic accident.” During the crises they performed a nation-wide recall of 31 million bottles of Extra-Strength Tylenol capsules. Many of their advisors told them that this was unnecessary as the tainted capsules had only been found in the Chicago area, thus it would be a waste of money.

Yet, not wanting to see even one more tragedy occur, the top executives at Johnson & Johnson stayed true to their Credo. After seeing the media and public's positive reaction, opposition within the company all but vanished.

In January 1993, tragedy struck when the deadly E. coli virus was traced to Jack in the Box's Pacific Northwest restaurants. The 300 food poisoning cases were linked to undercooked beef in the hamburger chain. Jack in the Box initially did not handle the public relations crisis very well as it took two days before they removed all meat from its restaurants. Jack in the Box officials did not take immediate decisive action to shut down all the stores for a few days and teach employees how to grill hamburgers properly.

However, not too long after the incident, the company developed the most comprehensive and multi-dimensional food safety system in the fast-food industry. Called HACCP (hazard analysis critical control points), the program consisted of “farm to fork” procedures that included microbial meat testing by Jack in the Box suppliers and grilling procedures to ensure properly cooked hamburgers. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has since called the program the industry model.

Once you are sure that a decision is morally correct, you stand by it. This does not mean you stand by mistakes. For example, after Jack in the Box's saw that their wait-and-see attitude was taking extreme criticism by the media and public, they backed away from it and learned by it — this lesson helped them to become not only a stronger player in the fast food industry but also a leader in food safety.

Compare Johnson & Johnson, Jack in the Box, and Perrier's responses to crises:

Lessons Learned:

When you are sure that your decision is morally correct, stand by it

Do not only learn from your mistakes, but also grow yourself from them


I will never leave a fallen comrade

While this principle was aimed at the battlefield, the philosophy behind of it reaches far into the boardrooms of corporations.

One of the favorite tactics of organizations to increase their value, especially in lean times, is to downsize. Organizations are famous for proclaiming that their workers are their most important asset, yet during a financial crises they turn 180 degrees and not only let their most valued assets fall, but also cause them to fall in the first place.

In a speech to the Academy of Management in 1996, Donald Hastings, CEO of Lincoln Electric, called downsizing and rightsizing “dumbsizing.” Note that Lincoln Electric is one of the leaders in its field and has not laid off since its inception in 1948. The company has been through all the hard times like everyone else, yet it chooses to redeploy people rather than lay them off, such as having factory workers selling products in the field. Another company, the Saturn Division of General Motors did similar redeployments in the 1990s, and Honda never laid off workers in North America during the latest recession. Why?

Because innovations, productivity improvements, and other such measures are not likely to be sustained over time when workers fear that they will work themselves out of a job (Locke, 1995). Using the analogy of pruning, it is generally done to create new growth or to get rid of diseased parts. Yet, when organizations prune, they have no desire to create new growth (or they would train and redeploy) and they normally miss the diseased portions because the ones who got them into trouble in the first place (the executives and managers) are still there!

The evidence indicates that downsizing is guaranteed to accomplish only one thing — it makes organizations smaller. — Jeffery Pfeffer (1998).

In fact, the consequences of downsizing are (Jeffery Pfeffer, 1998):

With all the negative connotations associated with downsizing, very few firms use other means to avoid downsizing (1994 American Management Association survey), such as:

One of the fads in management is forced ranking — managers reflect on how each team member is performing, relative to others, and are then ranked in order from the highest to the lowest performers. The ideal is to identify top-performers and weed out the bottom-ones. For example, the top 20 percent might be amply rewarded, while the bottom 10 percent are shown to the door.

It [forced ranking] creates a zero-sum game, and so it tends to discourage cooperation. — Steve Kerr, a managing director at Goldman Sachs Group Inc.

Contrast the above with U.S. Marine Drill Sergeants, who are considered some of the toughest warriors on earth. Yet they hold one deeply held value on the human spirit — they will never give up on any recruits who do not give up on themselves (Katzenbach, Santamaria, 1999). Their value-driven philosophy allows them to train some of the most effective warriors on the battlefield.

While Marine Drill Sergeants never give up on those who do not give up on themselves, forced ranking schemes often pits employees against each other, rather than fostering a climate of a collaborative team environment that more often leads to dysfunctional and hyper-competitive workplace. Thus, these employees who have not given up on themselves may be shown the door, indeed, they might even be better performers than some of their competitors.

Lessons Learned:

You must truly value your most important asset

Never quit on those who do not to quit on themselves


Instilling Ethos

Unlike some tasks that can easily be grasped, learned, and used with relative ease, ethos is born of compassion and empathy for others. During a crises it is all to easy to say that it is not our fault that someone tapered with our product, a supplier sent us bad product, or downsize your most important asset as a quick way out. Thus, ethos must be modeled, practiced, and reflected on in everything you do.

Next Steps

Case Study: Ethos Case Study

Next Chapter:Emotional Intelligence (EI) in Leadership

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Katzenbach, J., Santamaria, J. (1999). Firing Up the Front Line. Harvard Business Review, pp107-117, May-June, 1999.

Locke, M. (1995). The Transformation of IR? A cross national review. The Comparative Political Economy of IR, pp18-19. Wever, Turner (eds). Champaign, Illinois: IR Research Association.

Pfeffer, J. (1998). Human Equation. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.