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.