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. 

 

Do Ethics Matter?

I don’t like starting posts with a disclaimer but for this post I think I have to. So here is the disclaimer: I am not as ethical as I think I am. Just for the record it’s highly likely that you aren’t as ethical as you think you are either. 

My personal battle to always be ethical is never-ending but at least I try…. or at least I try to convince myself that I try. I also sometimes try to convince myself that something that I think might not be ethical actually is. That way I don’t have to feel bad when I do it. More people than not are just like me in that regard.

Despite all that “baggage” I’m going to now write about the importance of ethics. 

There are really three levels of ethics to consider. The first is known as “pre conventional.” At this level a person acts almost solely in their own best interests. This causes them to follow rules only to avoid punishment or to receive rewards. At this level a person will willingly break moral or legal laws if they feel there is no chance of being caught.

The second level of ethics is the “conventional” level. At this level a person conforms to the expectations of others in society. They are very likely to try hard to uphold all morale and legal laws. 

The highest level of ethics is call the “principled” level. At this level a person lives by an internal set of morals, values and ethics. They uphold these morales, values and ethics regardless of any consequences or majority opinion. 

Researchers say that about 75% of people operate at the conventional level and that fewer than 20% of people live at the principled level. The other 5% appear to be running for President of the United States…oh geez, did I really just write that. 😉

The 75% of people at the conventional level clearly know right from wrong. They struggle with ethics because instead of finding ways to always do the right thing they invest too much of their time trying to justify why the wrong thing they want to do is actually the right thing to do. 

They convince themselves “it’s okay” and then they do it. Then they work their butts off trying to make sure nobody finds out what they did. Here’s a clue for those of us who one day hope to fully live at the principled level: if you wouldn’t want anyone to know that you did “it” then you also know that “it” isn’t ethical. 

If you invest even one moment trying to hide your actions from view then your actions were almost certainly unethical. 

Many of the people at the conventional level slip into the pre conventional level because they are willing, at times anyway, to trade their integrity and ethics for the appearance of success. 

That is a very very poor trade. 

We make it because in the moment that we make the trade it seems “worth it,” but in the moments after the trade the person we really are, the one who lives at the conventional level, feels almost immediate regret. That trade, it turns out, is NEVER really worth it.

Staying ethical can be a challenge for a whole lot of people but it’s vital that we never stop trying. When we slip down a notch we must regroup and try harder next time. We must try harder because ethics really do matter. They matter because without them society becomes unruly, unmanageable, and unsustainable.

We cannot let that happen so our goal should always be the principled level of ethics. We should never compromise on our ethics because a successful, happy life is not built on a compromising our principles, it is built on living them. 

Live your principles, no matter the cost and you’ll live the life you deserve.