Ethics is the glue that keeps a family, organization or a society together and functioning. In a survey asking people to identify the most important trait in any personal or commercial relationship, ethics was far and away judged to be the most important.
Ethics is the judgment of the conduct of individuals, leaders and organizations in light of standards of conduct, obligations and duties established by society. Passing society’s test of high ethics does not assure success, but a clear lack of ethics is viewed as a death sentence for any relationship. Ethics even invades the world of criminality by calling for “honesty among thieves.”
Ethics is considered so essential to the effective functioning of society that every attempt is made to drum it into the psyche of every member of society from a very young age. Indeed, it should be, because any society that fails to impose and enforce clear standards of conduct, obligations and duties will soon disintegrate into chaos. (Just look at what happened in Russia after the fall of Communism.) One only has to look at the damage that can be done to a society when even a few individuals, leaders or organizations violate the rules of ethics.
However, for leaders and organizations to really stand out in society and to attain uncommon levels of achievement and success they must rise above society’s minimum levels of ethics and become ethical leaders. That’s because merely having ethics and being an ethical leader are two distinct and different concepts.
Let me explain what I mean.
Simply put, having strong ethics means doing the right things that are required to be done. Being an ethical leader means doing the right things that are not required to be done.
It is amazing how many individuals, leaders and organizations have justified pride in claiming they act with high ethics and at the same time have absolutely no concept of what it means to be an ethical leader.
Possessing strong ethics means acting in compliance with society’s standard requirements of activity; which basically means not lying, cheating and stealing. On the other hand, those who are ethical leaders view ethics as the minimum, not maximum standard, and often go beyond de minimis to raise their personal standards of activity.
Here are some examples of what I mean.
Every year Fortune magazine surveys and then rates the top 100 companies to work for. This study is so popular that publications all over the U.S. now make an effort to identify and rate the best local companies to work for.
An analysis of the companies that achieve the Best Place to Work list share a common trait. Each company has developed a cultural environment that, not surprisingy, goes well beyond the standard of ethics an employer is expected to offer an employee. This activity is not limited to simple salary and benefits but reaches to the very heart of a motivating relationship between an employer and employee to create a place where people really want to work and contribute.
Leaders and companies that exhibit traits of ethical leadership operate in a constant, consistent, respectful, parallel and open manner. They are willing to share the success of the organization with those who helped achieve it. Ethics does not require that they do this, but they do it anyway.
It is no coincidence that companies that operate under the aegis of ethical leadership consistently perform better than those that don’t. It does not mean that competing companies are managed by leaders without ethics, but only that those with ethical leadership traits are able to outperform on every business level. At the same time, it has been shown that when companies fall from the list of best companies to work for (either on a national or local basis) they also experience a decline in performance. Clearly history and has shown that the two go hand in hand.
If it is true that the application of ethical leadership by individuals and organizations does more for growth and success than simply complying with the requirement of ethics, why is it that more individuals and organizations do not practice it?
The reason is simple. While much effort is made to teach ethics, there is virtually no effort to teach ethical leadership. Those who believe in and practice ethical leadership – going beyond what is simply required to do, to do what is not required – often admit that no one taught them the concept of ethical leadership, but that they simply “stumbled” into the process. They often try to explain what they do by saying they are “just trying to do the right thing.”
Ethics is a mandatory course in virtually every college in America; companies brag about how they are committed to ethics, teach their employees about ethics and practice ethics in their business dealing, but nowhere are classes and teaching in ethical leadership offered.
Ethics classes in essence are designed to teach individuals what not to do. What is needed are classes that teach individuals how to recognize and do the right thing which is the core of ethical leadership. Everyone talks about doing the right thing, but very little effort is made to teach how to know what the right thing to do is.
And the moral of the story is …
The current difficult business climate illustrates that we are in a new world. A world that is much different and challenging than many political and business leaders seem to understand. Simply meeting the minimum levels of ethics is no longer enough. If we want to continue to grow, develop and succeed in this new world of business and leadership then we must begin to understand, teach and implement the concept of ethical leadership in all we do. Going beyond the minimum expectations of ethics to offer ethical leadership is not a waste of time, effort or money – it is a necessity.
The same level of effort that has been made to teach ethics to all members of our society should be applied to teach the concept and application of ethical leadership. After all, it is the right thing to do.