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.


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.