Ethics in Action

There have been many books written on Ethics over the years – including The Good Life by Gomes, The Ethics of Leadership by Ciulla, and a personal favorite, Ethics 101 by John Maxwell.

Frankly, as rich as so many of these books are, we often have a tendency to read them, even have the best of intentions to integrate the principles into our personal and professional lives; yet particularly when we are under pressure, these values are put to the test and we may fall short.  We all know full well that it is better to tell the truth than to tell a fib and to be loyal rather than to cave under pressure. Most of us also fully embrace The Golden Rule: ‘of doing unto others as we would have done unto us.’ We are certainly not ignorant of the virtues of the spiritual truths, Biblical principles, and even the many current writings on these values.

Yet, how many of us are really honest with ourselves with how and when we practice our beliefs and values pertaining to ethical behavior? How many of us hold ourselves and our team mates accountable for modeling ethical behavior? What can we do to help each other hold fast to these principles? So, in addition to our own spiritual practices and support groups, what are a few additional steps we can take to truly exercise our ethical muscles?

I read a wonderful article in Talent Management several months ago which really stuck with me. I am integrating a few points I read in this article by Robert J. Thomas – as I believe he had an interesting and pragmatic perspective. One key point he made, which I thought was particularly ‘spot on,’ was that none of these observations or exercises will work unless we are ruthlessly honest with ourselves. So, keep that in mind – only read further if you are willing to look in the mirror of authentic self reflection.

Step 1:  Honestly evaluate our commitments to others.

At the end of each day – or if you are really strapped for time, do this on a Saturday morning,  think about all the commitments, approvals, obligations, and promises you made. There will be many – as so many of us say ‘yes’ or ‘I will get that to you’ or ‘I will read that and give you feedback’ without even really thinking about it. We are trying to be supportive, polite, or simply not thinking about it being a real commitment. What happens if we don’t come through? What is the cost to ourselves and to the others to whom we made these promises?  Some may say that this has nothing to do with ethics. I disagree. Again, when we say we are going to do something – regardless of how small it may seem to us – it is our word to another. Sure, sometimes we forget, get busy, and it falls off the radar; that can happen. The difference is when it does – do we follow-up, admit our mistakes, make it right, and make a commitment to ourselves to do better the next time?  This is how we learn and grow. We observe ourselves, put a practice in place to be aware of our behavior, and from here we can improve.

Step 2: Create a personal “Board of Directors” and career support system

Most of us have support systems of some sort:  spouses, families, friends, Bible study groups, civic groups, etc. However, how many of us have a pseudo ‘board of directors’ for our professional growth? Just like a corporate board, our own persona board needs to be chosen for their experience, knowledge, skill set, and unrelenting commitment to the company’s success (in this case the company is YOU). These people will care enough to shoot straight with you – even when their observations may not be what you want to hear. My suggestion is that these conversations need to be deliberate, not episodic or social in nature. They need to focus on you, your adherence to your values, your foibles, areas for improvement and honest observations. So, what’s in it for them we may ask? Well, in addition to the fulfilling nature of ‘paying it forward’ which they will undoubtedly experience when helping another; we can also offer to serve in that same capacity for someone they may want us to help. This is the cycle of leadership – and this is just one step we can each take as a matter of practice going forward.

Step 3: Establish values which will stand the tests of crisis, challenge, and temptation

Most organizations spend days (and often weeks) establishing their value system. Often, these values end up on the bulletin board or a plaque in clear view for everyone to see and read. I wonder if we would really know what the values were within these organizations without the plaque. Would the behaviors the individuals (and teams) exhibit in the organization represent those values? That is the truth serum, isn’t it? The same is true for us. We may espouse a certain set of values – yet do we live them? What values would our co-workers say we live? Are they consistent with what our families and friends would say? Are our values the same in moments of stress, crisis and potential conflict?

Imagine all the whistle blowers in the news…..do we have the ‘cohunes’ to live our values when we are really tested? Think Sherron Watkins (Enron whistle blower). Then think about Katsuaki Watanabe, the CEO of Toyota, and all the other companies who had to face the realities of product recalls in recent years. What values and strength of conviction were represented in each scenario? What will we do when our ‘Tylenol moment’ happens? Will our values and ethics remain intact when we have to face the music? Establish values, declare them, and hold ourselves accountable to them.

From my perspective, in life and leadership, exercising ethics is a non-negotiable. As Albert Schweitzer (Civilization and Ethics, 1949) offers: “Ethics are nothing but reverence for life. This is what gives us the fundamental principle of morality, namely, that good consists in maintaining, promoting, and enhancing life.”

What I also believe is that without putting ethics into action any success we may achieve will be fleeting, unstable, and unsustainable – like a house built of sand. And we all know what happens to sand castles when the tides come.

3 responses to “Ethics in Action

  1. Kristen, loved this article very much. We do compromise our values and ethical behavior at times. We should look in the mirror when taking action and honestly asking ourselves is what I am doing consistent with my values and are my motives and actions ethical. Thanks for your timely message.

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