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A Great Tip from a Cowboy: How to Lasso Ethical Behavior in Your Culture

I don’t know much about the life of a cowboy, ranching, or even actors like John Wayne. There weren’t many grazing livestock where I grew up in Pittsburgh. But when a friend of mine sent me a video about a cowboy in Oregon who captured a thief, I couldn’t help but marvel at this old-school approach to a very present-day crime.

Robert Borba had taken his horse to the local Walmart to buy dog food when he heard someone shouting, “Stop him! He stole my bike!” On horseback, Borba chased down the thief who was speeding away on the stolen bicycle. He gave his lasso a couple of rotations in the air and landed it successfully around the cyclist, tying him to a nearby tree, and called 911.

When Borba was asked about what prompted him to take swift action, he said, “I just figured it was the right thing to do, you know?” When we’re presented with an ethical dilemma in life or in the workplace, I’d like to think we all could act as quickly and intentionally as Borba.

As leaders, there’s never been a more critical time—with so much uncertainty and social unrest in the world—to provide ethical leadership. And while working remotely is increasingly the norm, leaders aren’t always just down the hall or immediately accessible when guidance might be helpful. Even if you are still under one roof, leaders can’t be available to everyone every time an ethical decision needs to be made.

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That’s why setting the tone by example and exhibiting a positive influence are essential practices for establishing your house culture. Another critical tool to establish your influence when you can’t always be there is developing a thoughtful code of conduct. Your people prefer to be brought together by a sense of accountability and standards of behavior with one another. Equally important, codes of conduct provide a framework for trust because they give employees an immediate common ground for what’s considered fair and how they can expect to be treated.

Codes of conduct positively influence groups outside of the organization too. They “help to reassure investors and other stakeholders, in particular those looking for socially responsible investment, integrity, and a commitment to ethics.” Plus, “consumers tend to prefer to buy from organizations with strong records of adherence to standards of conduct and socially sensitive behavior,” says Stathis Gould, director of advocacy at International Federation of Accountants.

Pet supplies retailer Petco took the idea of positive guidance to the next level when it reimagined how its policies were written and designed. Rather than distribute a sleepy missive that prescribed a list of dos and don’ts, Petco’s leadership knew a lively document that provided real prompts for employees might be more compelling. The result is better awareness and higher employee engagement.

As leaders, there’s never been a more critical time—with so much uncertainty and social unrest in the world—to provide ethical leadership.

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Starbucks leaders also recognize the value of getting real with its partners to influence behavior. It released a code of conduct that provides actual scenarios its partners have encountered in the past, from “May I accept a business meal from a supplier?” to “I’m going to a trade show. May I go to a competitor’s booth?” The document also provides an Ethical Decision-Making Framework its employees can use to create a way forward in difficult situations by asking questions like, “How would your approach look published in the newspaper?”

How you choose to share your code of conduct is as critical is having one. Employees are more likely to meet or surpass your expectations if they are engaged by information that’s clearly supported by leadership, written in plain English, and engages the reader visually. Even cowboys have a thoughtful code that was created by Gene Autry and influenced many aspiring cowboys over the years, much of which is still relevant today. Not surprising when it prompts you to catch a thief. Maybe I need a lasso.


  1. Steven Laposa

    Years ago I was given a book by a former Trammel Crow partner. Your story reminds me of that book called “Cowboy Ethics: What Wall Street Can Learn From The Code Of The West”. Thanks for sharing this story.

    Reply to Steven Laposa

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