How leaders at PwC endorsed but didn’t adopt principles the firm espoused

July 25, 2023

The scandal engulfing PwC is a salutary reminder of the importance of shared values being recognized, endorsed and adopted by senior leaders at the top of organisations. The sad reality is that most organisations will have integrity in some form in their values, but the example set by too many leaders indicates that they simply don’t get it – a simple word, but largely ignored. Over the past decade PwC embraced “act with integrity” as one of their core values and “build trust” as a core part of their purpose. Recently, however, there has been a change in leadership and a decentralization of the structure in the firm which has given practice groups greater autonomy, and perhaps lessened central scrutiny of values and culture.

It is extraordinary, but true, that we have seen too often how executives and senior leaders don’t believe that the values apply to them. We have had Royal Commissions into the financial services expose the blatant disregard for honesty and integrity by the big banks and Crown casino has even been charged with complicity in money laundering. Now PwC, a firm which prided itself on being values guided and purpose driven, has become instead one where some senior partners, in their own disregard for ethical conduct, have undermined the efforts of thousands of their own people across Australia (and perhaps globally) who have worked to build a firm they could be proud of.

What is it about leaders that they don’t think that the rules they prescribe apply equally to them?
What is about leaders that they don’t think they need to role model the values?
What is it about leaders that they can talk about building trust, but not about being trustworthy?
What is it about leaders that they can endorse principles, that they themselves don’t adopt?

Over the past decade PwC has positioned itself as purpose driven with a commitment to “building trust and finding solutions to important social problems”. Recent events however have tarnished that reputation and seemingly demonstrated that profit trumps purpose, when self-interest is involved. The deeper human malignancy occurs at the individual level when purpose becomes the servant of ego rather than ego being subordinate to purpose. They can talk the talk, but the walk they walk, reveals a different agenda.

The simple truth is that trust is built when what leaders say and what they do is aligned. When what they espouse and what is produced is not aligned, the resultant cognitive dissonance not only degrades trust, but spreads the cancer of cynicism wider and deeper within. Leaders shoot themselves in the foot when they don’t live up to the standards they loudly proclaim. When the issues at stake have a wider community impact, then reputations can be trashed – when they impact governments and regulators the damage quickly escalates.

Trust in most human relationships takes time to build, but is quickly lost. For PwC the price they pay may well be severe and decades of work on values and culture building can be undermined in a moment. The price externally may be easily quantified, the price internally in the hearts and minds of teams and true believers who were inspired to believe they could make a difference may be equally profound, but harder to see.
All of this proves once again that values are very fragile constructs, and that a life-long challenge we all face is to clarify what matters most in the lives we lead and the work we choose to do. When revenue and profit become key performance measures and are given a premium over service and contribution, then our human values are given a back seat.

The leaders who stand out, stand for something beyond self-interest – and so it is and so it has always been. We don’t have to continue with this procession of ethical scandals if we can only find leaders who truly are servant leaders. Leaders driven by purpose, guided by values and energized by a passion to make a real difference to the lives of the people and communities they serve.