True leadership is about who you are

Leadership ethics

Lessons from Dieselgate: Leadership Ethics in Personal Branding

In the business landscape, leadership ethics and personal branding are not just buzzwords, but essential components that drive trust, reputation, and success. Today, I would like to illustrate how these two concepts intertwine and why they’re so crucial for your company.

Consequences of Lacking Leadership Ethics

Let’s start with the challenges that arise when leadership ethics are lacking. For this story, I’ve highlighted the three main pain points. Of course, there are many more negative consequences that could be mentioned, but ultimately, it always boils down to a lack of trust and a damaged reputation. If you would like to see a full list, you could read: The high cost of Lack of Integrity in Business Practices.

Loss of Trust from Stakeholders

Trust is the lifeblood of any business relationship. Imagine a scenario where you have painstakingly cultivated relationships with customers, employees, and shareholders. However, a single act of unethical leadership can dissolve that trust rapidly. Suddenly, the faith that people once placed in your leadership is shattered, and the loyalty they felt towards your brand is replaced with suspicion and doubt.

Damaged Reputation

Your reputation is your calling card in the world of business. It’s what makes clients choose you over competitors and inspires employees to follow your lead. Imagine working for years, pouring your heart and soul into building a reputation that shines. Now, picture a moment where unethical leadership compromises that reputation. The image your brand held in the market, the respect and admiration people felt, can come crashing down, leaving you with a steep uphill climb to regain what was lost.

Difficulty in Talent Acquisition and Retention

 In the modern workplace, talent is king. It’s the driving force that propels your company towards innovation and success. But what happens when a lack of ethical leadership creeps into the picture? You may find yourself struggling to attract new talent. The brightest minds are often drawn to companies that value ethics and integrity. They want to work in an environment where their values align with those of the company. Similarly, retaining your existing talent pool can become challenging. Employees, disheartened by the lack of ethical leadership, may seek opportunities elsewhere, leaving you with gaps that are hard to fill.


The Volkswagen Emission Scandal: An Illustration a lack of leadership ethics

Let’s travel back to 2015, a year that will forever live in infamy in the automotive world. Volkswagen, a titan in the industry, revered for its high-quality vehicles, and trusted by millions worldwide, found itself in the epicenter of a storm.

The tale begins with an innocuous investigation into emission levels. However, what was meant to be a routine check transformed into a full-blown scandal. Volkswagen’s diesel cars, it was discovered, were installed with software designed to deceive emissions testing, painting a false picture of environmental compliance. The truth? These vehicles were emitting up to 40 times the legal limit of harmful pollutants (source: BBC news)

Imagine the shock waves that ran through the world. Customers who had invested their hard-earned money in a Volkswagen vehicle felt betrayed. They had trusted a brand, and believed in its integrity, and that trust was now broken. The relationship Volkswagen had spent decades building with its stakeholders was now in tatters. 

And the company’s reputation? It took a nosedive. Volkswagen, once a symbol of reliability and quality, was now associated with deceit and environmental harm. The scandal, aptly named “Dieselgate,” was splashed across headlines worldwide, and the once revered brand name was now a byword for corporate misconduct.

Then came the talent crisis. Employees who had joined Volkswagen, proud to be part of a world-renowned brand, were now questioning their choices. Prospective talents, who might have once dreamt of working for such a prestigious brand, were turning away.

The Dieselgate scandal is a stark reminder of the devastation resulting from a lack of leadership ethics. Trust, reputation, and talent – three pillars of a successful brand – were all severely impacted, leaving Volkswagen with a long and arduous path to recovery.

Ethical Leadership and Strong Personal Branding: Lessons from Volkswagen

In the wake of the Dieselgate scandal, Volkswagen found itself confronting a daunting task – restoring trust, rebuilding its tarnished reputation, and attracting and retaining talent. This led to a renewed focus on three key areas:

Restoring Trust and Reputation: Volkswagen committed to full transparency, admitting their mistakes publicly and accepting responsibility for the damage caused. The company also invested billions in rectifying the emission issues and compensating affected customers. This was an important first step in rebuilding trust, showing stakeholders that the company was committed to making things right.

Building a Respected Personal Brand: To reestablish their personal brand, Volkswagen made a strategic pivot towards sustainable mobility, a move that was in stark contrast to the emission scandal. They announced an ambitious plan to launch several electric vehicle models by 2025, a clear commitment to environmental responsibility. This bold move signaled a new direction for the company and a step towards restoring their reputation.

Developing Ethical Leadership Practices: Volkswagen understood that restoring its brand required a deep-seated change in its corporate culture. Therefore, they implemented a robust compliance and ethics program, revamped their corporate governance structures, and made changes to their leadership team, underlining their commitment to ethical practices.

Did it work?

The road to recovery was not a quick one. It required time, significant financial investment, and a radical change in corporate culture. However, Volkswagen’s commitment to rectifying their past mistakes and building a future grounded in ethical practices has indeed begun to restore stakeholder confidence and rebuild their brand.

While the scars of Dieselgate remain, the company’s efforts demonstrate how leadership ethics can play a crucial role in overcoming crises and strengthening personal branding.

Preventive Measures: Learning from Dieselgate and Building an Ethical Brand

Dieselgate serves as a cautionary tale, illustrating the disastrous consequences that can stem from a lack of ethical leadership. It underscores the importance of preventive measures and ethical considerations in the early stages of brand development.

To work on your personal brand in an ethical way, it’s important to build it on the following 5 foundations:

1. Establish Clear Ethical Guidelines

From the outset, a company should define its ethical guidelines. These guidelines should be clear, practical, and aligned with the company’s core values. They should guide decision-making at all levels of the organization and be incorporated into all aspects of the business.

2. Foster a Culture of Ethics and Integrity

 Ethical guidelines are only as good as the culture that supports them. A company needs to foster a culture where ethics and integrity are valued and rewarded. This involves not just stating ethical values, but living them in everyday business practices. Leaders should lead by example, demonstrating ethical behavior and fostering a culture of integrity. If you would like to read more about this, consider reading: Ethical Leadership: Insights From Simon Sinek, Brené Brown, And John C. Maxwell

3. Encourage Open Communication

 A company should encourage open communication and provide safe channels for employees to voice concerns without fear of retaliation. Many ethical breaches, like Dieselgate, can be prevented if employees feel empowered to speak up about potential issues.

4. Regular Reviews and Audits

Regular ethical reviews and audits can help identify potential issues before they become significant problems. These reviews can assess the company’s adherence to its ethical guidelines and pinpoint areas that need improvement.

5. Transparency with Stakeholders

Trust is built on transparency. By being open with stakeholders about business practices, decisions, and challenges, a company can build a strong relationship based on trust and mutual respect.

Leadership ethics

By learning from the Volkswagen scandal and building your personal brand on these foundations, your company can avoid the pitfalls of unethical behavior. Building your brand on a solid foundation of ethics and integrity can not only help prevent crises but also position your company as a trustworthy and respected player in your industry.

After all, a strong brand is not just about what you do or what you offer – it’s about who you are and what you stand for.

Recommended book:

“Faster, Higher, Farther: The Volkswagen Scandal” by Jack Ewing is a book that provides an in-depth look into the Volkswagen scandal, its causes, and its impacts.


Table of Contents


On Key

Other Posts