Defining Ethics

The concept of ethics is easy to understand but it is difficult to define in a precise way. Ethical behavior refers to treating others fairly but “fair” isn’t exactly precise either. 

 

When I think of fair I think of things like being honest, maintaining trust and credibility. Fair to me means following the rules and behaving in a proper manner. It means doing your share of the work and accepting responsibility when you don’t do something you should have…or did something you shouldn’t have.

 

An ethical dilemma is a situation where you have multiple choices and each choice has some undesirable elements with negative ethical consequences. I hear about supposed ethical dilemmas from time to time but most often they don’t meet the true definition of a dilemma. They don’t meet the definition because while most of the choices might have the potential for negative ethical consequences there is at least one choice that doesn’t. 

 

The actual dilemma in those cases is that we want to make one of the choices with the negative ethical consequences. We see what’s right but what’s right is not necessarily what we want. So we claim an ethical dilemma and do whatever the heck we want. 

 

I’m tempted to say we have all, at one time or another, sacrificed our ethics for something we really wanted. But I can’t say all; surely there are people in the world who have such high ethical standards that they would never trade them for anything. 

 

I’d love to say I’m one of those people but I can’t say that either. Well, I could say it but lying about your ethics seems to me to be an especially egregious ethical violation. 

 

What I can say is that I’m a work in progress. I understand the three levels of ethics and I’m much closer today to level three than I’ve ever been. The struggle is that when I think I’ve got level three locked in I slip back to level two. That’s not bad but at level two your motivation can be called into question. 

 

Level one is what experts call the Pre conventional level. At this level an individual acts in their own best interest and only follows rules to avoid punishment or receive awards. They break moral and legal laws if they think they can do so without being caught. Sometimes they don’t even care about being caught.

 

Level two is known as the Conventional level of ethics. This level is where individuals conform to the expectations of others. They uphold moral and legal laws because they believe it’s right and they want to fit in. 

 

At level three, known as the Principled level of ethics a person lives by an internal set of morals, values, and ethics. These are upheld regardless of punishments or majority opinions. These individuals are ethical all the time, in every circumstance, even if it means they are completely alone. 

 

Remaining ethical in the face of endless temptations to sacrifice your ethics is a huge challenge. It’s another area of life where a coach or mentor is an immense help. They can point out to you why your ethical “dilemma” really isn’t a dilemma at all. They can’t make you do the right thing but they can sure point you in that direction. 

 

What ethical level are you at? What will you do to get to the next level? Who is going to help you?


Answer those questions and then get a move on. Real ethical dilemmas don’t wait and neither should you

The Ethics of Leadership

Here is one irrefutable fact about leadership: an organization and the bulk of the people who work in it will seldom be more ethical than the organization’s leadership. 

 

When key leaders in an organization demonstrate less than ethical behavior it gives permission for the entire organization to behave the same way. (Think Wells Fargo for a current example) 

 

Truly ethical leaders know that ethics are not a part time kind of thing. They don’t talk about business ethics or personal ethics, they simply talk and demonstrate ethics at all times. They know that you either are ethical all the time or you are not ethical. There is no in between.

 

Ethical leaders always do what’s right. There may be some dispute about exactly what “right” is but they do what they believe is right. They do it regardless of the consequences. They don’t seek popularity, they practice ethics.

 

Ethical leaders show respect for their people. They listen to them, truly listen without prejudging what they might say. They value differing points of view and when they must overrule or choose an opposing viewpoint they do so with respect and compassion. 

 

Ethical leaders know that they primarily lead by example whether they intend to or not. They understand that their people will do what the leader does far faster than they will do what the leader says. They set an ethical example in everything they do and hold high expectations that everyone in their organization will do the same.

 

Ethical leaders do not accept unethical behavior from anyone in their organization. They don’t overlook violations in an attempt to avoid confrontations. They are consistent when applying policies even when it’s inconvenient for them. 

 

Ethical leaders hold themselves accountable. They allow everyone in their organization to hold them accountable as well. They are transparent and open with their actions and in their communications. Their actions match their words…always. 


The term “ethical leader” is actually redundant. The fact is, if you’re not ethical then you may hold a position of leadership but you most certainly are not an Authentic Leader.


Are You the “Right” Kind of Leader?

One of the many challenges of leadership is this little gem: doing what’s right and doing what’s popular are very often two different things. 

 

Authentic leaders do what’s right. They do what’s right even when it isn’t easy and they do what’s right even when it isn’t popular.  They lead by principle not by poll. They gather facts and information and then they decide. Once they decide they act. It’s pretty much always in that order.

 

There are many people in leadership positions who don’t actually lead. Instead they put a finger in the air to determine which way the wind is blowing and then they go with the flow. These imitation leaders have a need to be liked and that need is so strong that they refuse to risk upsetting anyone by doing what needs to be done. 

 

So sadly, right often loses out to popular or easy.

 

If you want to be a leader then buck up and trade-up from popular to respected. Do the right thing whether it’s popular or not! 

 

If you’re not sure what’s “right” then consult with trusted resources, ask your mentor, ask other Authentic Leaders what they have done in similar situations. Determine what’s right and once you do then act. 

 

Here’s the thing for those of you who still worry about your popularity: doing the easy thing may make you popular in the short-term but doing the right thing, while it may take some time, will make you a leader in the long-term. 


Leading isn’t always fun, it isn’t always easy and leaders aren’t always popular but true leadership is always rewarding. Reward yourself, always do the right thing.

Ethical Leadership

This is a short post and while it might be short it is most certainly NOT sweet. Sorry about that but this is not a topic any of us can afford to sugarcoat. 

In a perfect world “ethics” and “leadership” would be redundant. You would never need to see the words “leadership” and “ethical” together because when you saw one the other would just be assumed. Unfortunately, we do not live in a perfect world.

In business, in politics, in nonprofit organizations, and even in some religious organizations, ethics is anything but a given.

No organization will have higher ethical standards than the organization’s leaders. Leaders are the model for the type of behavior that will be accepted in an organization. Leaders who merely pay lip service to the importance of ethics should expect limited attention to ethics from their people.

Leaders who want to develop high ethical standards within their organization should make certain that their people understand that ethics are more than a training program. Almost every strategy session and planning meeting should include a discussion of any potential ethical implications. Open communication and shared responsibility for an organization’s ethical behavior will create an environment of trust where people can feel safe when speaking about ethics. When ethics can be openly discussed then they become more than a class or a manual, ethics become a way of life for the organization and it’s people.

There can be no exceptions when ethics are involved. Ethical leaders don’t allow excuses; they know that when excuses come through the door ethics go out the window. Ethical standards are either absolute or there are no ethical standards. Everyone, absolutely everyone, in an organization must be held accountable. Senior leaders and high profile managers set the tone for an organization’s ethics, if the tone they set is one of allowable exceptions then exceptions may become so common that no one takes ethics seriously.

Ethical leaders understand that the influences their people experience are constantly changing and as a result they must remain on guard for any and all ethical traps that their people could fall into. When ethics become ingrained into everyday actions those “traps” are far less dangerous. 

Ethical organizations are a product of ethical leadership. If you’re concerned about the ethics of your organization then look in the mirror, the odds are you’ll find at least part of the problem looking right back at you.