Leadership Summit

Sonny Perdue

April 11, 2003
Leadership Summit
Kennesaw State University

Speaker: Sonny Perdue
Governor of Georgia

Perdue biography

I was pleased to get the invitation to speak at a conference on developing ethical leadership, although in my mind the phrase "ethical leadership" is redundant.

Think about it. Leadership can’t exist without ethics. Ethics are those rules we live by that guide our choices and our personal behavior. You might fake it for a while, but the unethical leader will always be found out in the end and will fail due to that lack of ethics.

Just think about the scandals we’ve seen in recent years with Enron, WorldCom and other companies where people tried to exercise leadership while abandoning ethics and abusing the trust placed in them by shareholders and employees.

You can keep the charade up for a while, but the day of reckoning always comes.

Leadership and ethics go hand in hand. And it works both ways – ethics can’t exist without leadership.

We learn our individual ethics and habits of leadership by modeling the ethical leadership behavior of others. Doesn’t every one of us have role models we absorbed our value system and our personal ethics from? And doesn’t each of us in a leadership position owe a debt of gratitude to the leaders we learned from?

I learned the principles and habits of leadership in many different roles before becoming governor
As a young man quarterbacking a high school football team …I learned lessons about the importance of every person completing their individual assignments to help the whole team succeed.

As an officer in the United States Air Force I learned more about duty, service and having accountability for the welfare of those under your command.

As a member, majority leader and president pro temp of the Georgia state Senate, I learned that your reputation for keeping your word is the most valuable asset you have in politics. Trust allows you to work constructively even with those you may disagree with.

And in every case I learned in part by modeling a coach, a commanding officer or a respected colleague.

It is important for those of us who are in leadership positions to be always conscious of the fact that those we lead and those we deal with are taking their cues from us about how to behave ethically…or not.

We are always teaching, even when we aren’t aware of it. In fact, we probably teach the most valuable lessons when we aren’t consciously trying to teach a lesson. It is those unintentional lessons that make the strongest impressions.

Nowhere is that clearer than in the most important leadership and teaching role any of us can have … as a parent. I have learned more about leadership raising four children with Mary than from any other experience.

Parents are leaders. And in parenting that merger of leadership and ethics is complete. Our children may listen to the words we say … but they watch even more closely what we do. They are modeling us constantly.

Parents soon learn you can’t fake it with your kids. The only way to teach those ethical values you want to impart to your children is to live by them yourself.

The teaching duty parents have extends to any leadership position. We have a fundamental responsibility to help identify and develop the next generation of leaders.

That applies to every leader here today … from business … government … education … and the non-profits. You set an example for your employees, business associates, clients or constituents. They are always learning from you. They are learning what kind of person you are, what standards you set for yourself and what standards you set for others in your organization.

The quality of the leadership determines the culture of any organization. My first goal as governor is to restore public trust in state government by changing the culture of state government. Our form of government depends on a mutual bond of trust between the people and their government. But people have become cynical about their government.

They’ve seen too many examples of officials abusing public office for private gain, of clear conflicts of interest and undue influenced exercised by a favored few and of leaders saying one thing and doing another.

Everyone in public life says they are for ethics and open, honest government. In fact, you’ll be hard pressed to find someone announcing that we have too much ethical behavior happening. But ethics has become a lot like the weather … everyone talks about it and no one does anything about it.

The people of Georgia want something done to give them greater confidence in their state government. The best way to change that culture is to lead by example. That is why from my first day in office, I have stressed the importance of high standards of conduct and ethics in state government.

I want to demonstrate to the people of Georgia that their government is trustworthy, responsible, accountable and ethical. These are the values I want to instill throughout state government.

As the chief executive, it is my responsibility to set the tone and the example I expect others in state government to follow. So I issued the executive order on my first day in office creating a strict code of ethics for the governor’s office and executive branch employees. I also created the office of inspector general to ensure accountability by searching out waste, fraud and abuse.

To extend these standards of conduct throughout state government, we introduced strong ethics legislation to correct potential conflicts of interest, strengthen the reporting requirements for candidates and elected officials and move away from the negative "gotcha" approach to ethics and into a positive, proactive mode in which ethics officers and the State Ethics Commission can offer advice and guidance to help state officials avoid ethical conflicts in the first place. These measures will help us transform the culture of state government.

I have done my best to lead by example in my own conduct and in the conduct I expect of those working for me. And I have called upon the General Assembly to also lead by example and pass my strong ethics legislation.

It is all well and good to talk about ethics in government … but actions speak louder than words. The Senate has passed my ethics package. The House has passed less comprehensive legislation that I would call "ethics lite." It’s watered down.

With only days left in the General Assembly, I call upon the House to make their actions consistent with their word and pa ss a strong, comprehensive ethics bill.

I recently spoke to about two dozen college students in the governor’s intern program who took a semester out of their studies to work in various agencies of state government.

They’ve had a chance to see from the inside how their state government operates … what value system is in place … what level of commitment exists to serve the people of Georgia.

As the higher education leaders here today might expect, these young people came to the internship program full of idealism, passion and a desire for public service. As part of my obligation to nurture the next generation of leaders in our state government, I want to ensure that when young people like these come to our government offices, they enter an environment that reinforces their idealism, strengthens their passion and fuels their desire to serve the people of Georgia.

I want to be certain that throughout state government they will find role models they want to emulate … and will find that what we say about ethics and integrity matches what we do.

I hope that many of those interns I met will decide to devote a portion of their careers to public service.

Even as we deal with all the challenges and issues of the day, we must be consciously growing the next generation of Georgia’s leaders, those we will pass the baton to and who will carry it forward. Growing those leaders follows a very simple and ancient rule – as you sow, so shall you reap.

Let’s be conscious that with every action we take in our official duties, in our personal conduct and in the policies and legislation we enact, we are planting the seeds and setting the example for those who are watching and learning from us what it means to be an ethical leader.