In a recent discussion with a friend of ours, (Dr Wayne Applewhite of “Just Leadership” ) the question of “ethics” arose. In some research which Wayne is conducting it appeared that the problem of ethics was of concern to a number of Leaders.

I wrote a somewhat light-hearted look at the problems of ethics last year which raised a variety of questions and I thought I might revisit the topic – but I found it has got even more confusing. I am not going to even attempt to answer the questions, I am merely going to pose some more for your consideration. It should be an interesting exercise.

We all know that one aspect of Leadership which is extolled is that of ‘Leadership Values’. Without even thinking about it the combination of ‘Vision and Values’ just rolls off the tongue. But what are these values that we so glibly refer to? And if recent corporate history is to go by, how can some company executives act so unethically?

Well, let’s start at the beginning. What is ethical behaviour? What is that ‘something’ that tells us that this action is a ‘good thing’ while that is ‘bad’? Is it conscience? And if so where did it come from?

To some, moral principles are bound up with religious teaching, I believe that most religions and spiritual pathways have a credo which is a variant of “Do unto others as you would have them do to you” In fact Charles Kingsley’s Mrs Do-As-You-Would-Be-Done-By (from the Water Babies) was a successful teacher of ethics for a lot of Victorian children; And even the modern pagans respect the “And it harm none, do as you will” principle.

Others of course will turn to the philosophers for a decision of what does or does not constitute “rightful behaviour” – and like all philosophy there is a point of view that will coincide with what you what it to say!

For instance Kant tells us that our decisions arise from a rational consideration of the problem, that we make our decision consciously and from ‘justified principles’. Hume on the other hand prefers a more intuitive morality, which we exercise subconsciously and emotionally. Rawls, however discards the emotion, accepts the intuition and declares we make ethical decisions ‘built on principles’.

But, as I asked last October – what are principles, and where do they come from?

Psychologists tell us that our children learn their basic principles firstly from us; their parents, their carers, the family and friends; that it is by listening to what we say and watching what we do that they come to learn what is morally right. The way in which we conduct ourselves in our daily lives is a living school for behaviour; both what is acceptable and what is not. They will learn from our example and also from the values that we demonstrate and strive for. They will also learn that sometimes that what we say is not necessarily what we do, and thereby learn about expediency and compromise!

Lessons in what is acceptable behaviour continue in school – but ‘acceptable behaviour’ can be legislated for and will change with social changes. Behaviours which were acceptable in my school days are now outlawed as being ‘racist’ or‘ anti-social’ or even ‘politically incorrect’. The extreme difference between Gen X and Gen Y attitudes has been put down to the false ‘legislated’ behaviour patterns of the 90’s – and that Gen Y has little ‘moral conscience’ but a high knowledge of rights.

So the next question I pose is “Can legislated behaviour create a true personal ethical standard?”

Immanuel Kant also said that if people were capable of always acting ethically (whatever that meant) there would be no need for us to learn ethics. Or I suppose legislate for it. But we are not ‘Beings of Goodwill’ who do what is right all the time – so legislated behaviour is necessary; but … the question still stands.

One who believes that business ethical standards must be legislated for is the current nominee for the Governorship of Pennsylvania, Ted Knox, He is ‘rolling out’ a platform of proposed ethical government reforms. So once again ‘ethical’ behaviour is being imposed from external sources rather than being an outcome of personal principles.

Then there are those who have attacked the very existence of capitalism as being the reason for unethical behaviour. The principle that profit becomes more important than people is, they explain, at the heart of the problems facing western corporations.

Some companies go so far as to post their Mission statement incorporating their values on the website – being open and honest. Bayer do, – but read it carefully, and consider the implications of the abstract terminology. What exactly does “a passion for our shareholders’ mean – profit or integrity?

I don’t believe that making money is wrong, we all do it to a greater or lesser degree, and none of us could ever say that a little bit more wouldn’t hurt!- but it is the way in which some businesses conduct themselves and the concept that profitability justifies certain actions that brings up the question of ethical behaviour.

Can we say that the leaders of these types of companies engage in ethical behaviour? Would they demonstrate a positive example of corporate values?

I have this saying on my wall as a laminated poster and I have no idea where it came from but to me it encapsulates everything I believe through instinct, through training and through experience about quality leadership

Leaders know what they value. The best leaders exhibit both their values and their ethics in their leadership style and actions. Your leadership ethics and values should be visible because you live them in your actions every single day.”

From which it seems obvious that if we watch what leaders do, and if it matches with what leaders say then at least we will know what their values are – whether we agree with those values or not.

Which I think says it all.


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