A guide for coaches, healers, heart-centered entrepreneurs, and other conscious leaders who are ready to get clear on their unique ethical code in order to build trust with clients and vaccinate themselves against their own potential to cause harm.
I would love for every conscious leader on the planet to have their own Code of Ethics – a document they craft and publish that declares how they will show up with themselves, with clients, and in the marketplace.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that this conviction comes from my own experience of failing to have a clear ethical operating procedure. In my 7 years as a full-time professional coach, I’ve made my fair share of learning mistakes, but the one I’m about to share was the toughest yet…
How good people cause harm (despite their positive intentions)
I don’t believe that most harm is caused intentionally, or by bad or malicious people. Although those people certainly exist, I see most harm being caused by people in positions of power who are acting from confusion, ignorance, and/or their own wounding. What precipitates the harmful incident is often a challenging or triggering context.
In October, 2017, I was in a perilous situation of guest-leading a group coaching call without fully understanding the group dynamic or intention behind it. I ended up getting triggered by a client’s anger (real or perceived) and coached her in a way that really didn’t work, upsetting her and other people on the call.
When it came to my attention that I had a negative impact, I felt sick to my stomach with regret and shame. Reviewing the situation and how it all went down, I decided to be vulnerable and write a post about the incident in a community of conscious business leaders.
This post had an impact that I really didn’t anticipate. The thread blew up with with a hundred different perspectives. While many people appreciated my vulnerability, others took issue with what I said and how I said it. They called me out on various blind spots – around sexism, arrogance, lack of care for others, and an inappropriate use of the group’s attention.
Having thousands of eyes on my shadow was absolutely terrifying for me. Yet I was committed to “staying in there” with my impact on the group and non-defensively receiving the feedback that was coming at me. For the 3 or 4 days that the thread was “hot” I alternated between self-care and responding with empathy to the comments that were coming in.
Just when I thought I couldn’t take any more, the group surprisingly (and mercifully) closed down. My post was not the only one that was causing harm, and the moderator intervened to initiate a restructuring of the group.
I now had the time to slow down, get back to my life, and reflect in a calmer way on what happened.
On The Value of Self-Reflection After a Leadership Mistake
I asked a colleague to spend a couple hours with me to hold me through the process of sorting through the experience and all the feedback I received and decide what was important to address and what wasn’t mine to take on.
I realized that not only had I lost some trust from my community in this incident, but I had lost some self-trust as well.
As someone with a lot of confidence (that sometimes tips into arrogance), losing self-trust is an uncommon experience for me. I didn’t want to brush past this but to really ask myself “What would it take for me to authentically re-build this self-trust?”
What emerged on a set of giant post-its was a holistic strategy for healing and developing my weak spots as a leader. It was beautiful and inspiring to me and to my colleague. I felt like my tires were firmly gripping the road for the first time in a week.
One element of this strategy was to create a Code of Ethics for myself.
This code of ethics took a month or so to incubate, then flowed out of me one morning into my journal over the course of a couple hours. I’ve since edited it slightly, but it was essentially born whole.
You can read my Code of Ethics here.
As my Code of Ethics flowed through my hands, I could viscerally feel my self-trust and strength returning to my body. I was whole again.
Since the incident, I had stopped taking on new clients. But after writing my Code of Ethics, two new clients reached out to work with me as if by magic. These clients were true visionaries, highly accomplished, and exactly the sorts of clients I wanted to work with next. Even though my Code of Ethics wasn’t yet public, perhaps on some level they could sense my rootedness and integrity, and it created a sense of safety and appeal to them. Was it a direct result? God only knows, but it certainly created a shift in me that was palpable in the external world.
Benefits of having your own Code of Ethics
You don’t need to wait until you have a lapse in judgment and inadvertently hurt other people and your own reputation before you create your own Code of Ethics.
That was the impetus for me, and sadly it is for many people and organizations, but it doesn’t have to be for you.
Very few coaches, healers, heart-centered entrepreneurs, and conscious leaders have their own Codes of Ethics. Perhaps it’s because they’re too busy offering and marketing their services to take the time to step back and reflect on their principles. Or perhaps it’s because this is seen as a “big company” thing to do. Well, I’m here to change that!
Because I think having a Code of Ethics is extremely important, and I can’t believe I didn’t have one before.
Ethics is defined as “moral principles that govern a person's behavior or the conducting of an activity” – and while I think morality is part of it, a great Code of Ethics goes beyond the moralistic land of “right and wrong.” It’s actually a set of principles that sets you up to do your best work, keeps you out of trouble, and amplifies your impact.
It’s a way to develop self-trust and deepen trust with clients. The transformational marketplace is like the wild west – unregulated and risky for consumers. Because there are no standards, and a lot of deceptive marketing, stating in no uncertain terms what you stand for and how you’ll be accountable will have potential clients feel that much safer working with you.
How to Craft Your Code of Ethics
If you haven’t already, you can read my Code of Ethics here and use it as a model. I’m putting it under the Creative Commons Attribution license, so you can feel free to borrow and remix as much of it as you want to make your own.
If you’re feeling intimidated, remember that your Code of Ethics can be far more minimal and develop over time.
In fact, I want to encourage you to begin with a blank slate and ask yourself the following seven questions to generate the material for your Code of Ethics. Dedicate 60-90 minutes to this initial process. Write down whatever comes to mind:
What mistakes am I aware of having made in the past? How have I harmed people? What are my weak spots? Where do I tend to get lazy or sloppy in my words or actions? What patterns have gotten me into trouble in the past?
What shadow parts of me were driving these behaviors? (These are the parts of you that are the polar opposites of your gifts. Karen McMullen calls these your “Leadership Kryptonite”)
What positive impact do I want to have as a coach/healer/transformational service provider? Who do I want to be as a conscious leader? How do I want to show up with clients?
What conditions need to be present for me to do my best work? How will I take exquisite care of myself? (This one is important! Often we do harm inadvertently when we’re in a context that’s not good for us or when we’re depleted.)
How will I hold myself accountable as a leader? Who else will hold me accountable? How will I seek out, respond to, and grow from feedback? (Establishing feedback loops is the key to continual growth.)
What is my process for resolving tensions? For cleaning up mistakes? How will I treat myself when I “screw up”? (Kindly, I hope. We’re human, after all. We hope to not make the exact same mistake twice, and we will inevitably make similar patterns of mistakes so long as we’re alive and breathing. There’s a fine line between being willing to feel the impact of our actions and beating ourselves up.)
How will I be courageous as a leader? How will I express my purpose and joy? (We need not turn our Code of Ethics into a Code of Limitations. Sometimes the most ethical thing to do is to go for it. You’ll see this in my code of ethics.)
Take time with these reflection questions and any other ideas that come to you, writing from the heart and the gut, not just the mind. You’re seeking a deep resonance and a custom fit to who you are. No two Codes of Ethics will end up the same because none of us have the exact same life experience, aspirations, or sticking points. Your Code of Ethics is first and foremost for you, and secondarily it is a communication tool for creating shared expectations with others. It is not fixed, but will evolve over time – perhaps as part of an annual review process.
Once you’ve reflected on these questions, you can do what I did and number your points and group them by theme. Share your Code of Ethics with a few trusted colleagues for feedback, and then share it with the world. Enjoy the new level of self-trust and trust from your community and clients that you experience as a result, and I encourage you to post your Code of Ethics below for us all to appreciate!
Because crafting your Code of Ethics may not be a quick process, I also welcome you to comment below and share – in your own words – what you’re taking away from this article. Thank you for engaging!
P.S. I also want to invite you to join my newsletter. You’ll get a free copy of my Authentic Marketing Starter Kit right away and be kept in the loop as I release innovative ideas and tools for your visionary business, like this guide to crafting your own Code of Ethics.
Thank you to George Kao and Tomar Levine for editing this article and my Code of Ethics. Thank you Michael Tertes and Karen McMullen for your leadership coaching. Thank you to the TAO and Awarepreneurs communities for tolerating my imperfections as a leader and offering courageous feedback.