“I’m a preacher’s kid and we were always told, ‘Act right all the time, because someone’s always watching’.” – the late political reporter and co-anchor of PBS NewsHour Gwen Ifill
Based on the thousands of glowing tributes from politicians, the public, and fellow journalists after her unanticipated death at the age of 61 on November 14, Gwen Ifill closely followed that guidance.
The timing of her death was inauspicious – less than a week after the US presidential election and 12 days after a fascinating panel discussion on “The Neuroscience of Ethics & Values” at the 2016 NeuroLeadership Summit I attended.
The four panelists, all academic researchers, talked about their ongoing studies in light of recent moral dilemmas and crises of values that we’re experiencing in American society and global business. (Think Volkswagen, Wells Fargo, and Mylan’s EpiPen.)
The panelists all agreed that to stay on an ethical path it helps to have strong moral values, principles, and goals, as did Ifill from an early age.
However, the panelists cautioned that even individuals who identify themselves as highly ethical can find their morals becoming malleable under certain situations.
Rather than depend primarily sheer willpower, employees who can rely on these three elements in place at their organization stand a better chance of staying committed to core values:
- The organization’s values are in sync with the individual’s personal values.
- The organization articulates the core values over and over again.
- Leaders role model the core values.
Employees also benefit from frequent exposure to good role models who live their values.
All too often, one of the professors lamented, we focus our attention on the bad guys who violated social norms and values, such as Bernie Madoff and Enron’s Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling, and forget about the good guys.
In fact, this professor committed to everyone in the room that he’s going to start to feature the best and the brightest on the values front.
Gwen Ifill was one of the best and the brightest. When I heard of her death, I immediately thought that she’d be a great example for the professors’ students as well as the rest of us. She was a hard-working, tenacious, and courageous role model who radiated grace, strength, and integrity.
In September 2015, I had the good fortune to watch Ifill up close in person when she and her film crew traveled to Charleston, SC to tape the PBS special America after Charleston: A conversation about race.
Just three months earlier, a white gunman had shot and killed nine African-American members of Charleston’s historic Mother Emanuel Church during bible study.
The taping that September Saturday morning at the Circular Congregation Church, just down the street from Mother Emanuel, brought together a diverse group of people from Charleston as well as the country.
Many of the invited guests were involved in government, health care, education and race-related projects and causes. The objective was to encourage a constructive conversation about race, primarily with these experts as well as approximately 200 general audience members. (I was one of the audience members. To learn about my experience, see this blog post How to admit to a biased brain and overcome the backlash.)
During one of the many filming breaks due to power outages in the 125-year-old church, Ifill roamed the aisles and asked audience members, “What should we be talking about that we’re not?”
That question underscored her curiosity in her fellow humans, which certainly aligned well with her career as a journalist who broke gender and race barriers while upholding strong journalism ethics.
In the spirit of Ifill, here are other good questions to keep you and others focused on living strong core values and ethics:
- When’s a time that you could have acted unethically and didn’t? What made you stick with your values and act ethically?
- Who has inspired you to follow strong social norms and values? What lessons did you learn from this individual (or individuals)?
- What are your “non-negotiables” in terms of making sure you do the right things? Why are they so important to you?
By reflecting on what’s important, you’ll recommit to your core values and ethics. That secures their position as your north star – in case you don’t have someone always watching you as the incomparable Gwen Ifill did.