Have you ever thought about how little we generally think about ethics? In a world that many people feel is getting worse – one that has arguably lost its moral compass, we suspect and hope that this will change. When we see the Donald Trumps of our time go largely unchallenged, despite advocating positions that many find abhorrent, one senses that it is time for a stronger stand to be made.
A visit to the website of the Australian Ethics Centre leads to a fantastic video telling us that “Ethics is at the Centre of Being Human”. It goes on to list a range of areas to which ethics are central. Birth, Right-to-Life, Identity, Love, Sex, Desire, Happiness, Belief, Gender, Bias, War... the list is diverse and fascinating.
Ethics refers to the set of moral values and principles that guide our actions and enable us to distinguish between right and wrong. The act of reflecting and developing congruence across our values, emotions, thoughts and actions is critical if we are to lead effectively.
In the Imagination Age, I believe the rise of ethical leaders will become a significant factor in what will make organisations successful (or not!). Younger workers in particular are motivated to seek out businesses that align with their values.
As anthropologist Michael Hendersen writes, this generation is looking for “Leaders worth following, Work worth doing & Cultures worth belonging to”. This may be the dynamic that forces us all to pay more attention and ‘walk’ the ethics ‘talk’.
HOW ETHICS FITS INTO OUR LEADERSHIP MODEL
Ethics is one of the 16 pillars of the . It sits within the competency of Performance. As I unpack in the ‘Performance’ post, the 4 pillars are:
The 3 Elements of Ethics
Ethics refers to the set of moral values and principles that guide a person’s actions and enable him/her to differentiate between right and wrong.
Values seem very straight forward, yet it is telling how we can find our core beliefs challenged and distorted as leaders. This is most obvious on the public stage, where we see politicians contort and reverse their positions, often in clear contradiction to values they have previously claimed to be fundamental.
Similarly there are notorious failures such as Enron, where values such as honesty and integrity were jettisoned in the pursuit of profit. Neuroscientific studies suggest that the effect of greed on the brain is similar to that of drugs such as cocaine.
Whilst it is easy to point at others, it is instructive to ask of ourselves, “am I living my values?” It seems that incongruence with our values will, sooner or later, derail us.
As Mahatma Gandi observed:
Your beliefs become your thoughts,
Your thoughts become your words,
Your words become your actions,
Your actions become your habits,
Your habits become your values,
Your values become your destiny.
Judgment is the ability to perceive, understand, evaluate and make considered decisions. Poor judgment is associated with suboptimal functioning of the Pre-Frontal Cortex – the part of our brain that is associated with higher order thinking and processing. Good judgment is naturally fundamental to good leadership.
In addition to potential problems with our PFC, it’s likely that our judgment is affected by stress and fatigue. As leaders, we are tasked with making decision after decision and it can be exhausting. In our rush to just get through the volume of ‘stuff’ it’s easy for our judgment to err – often without us realising (although others probably will).
Some solutions are to check in with ourselves – to ask ourselves honestly, “am I making good decisions here, or just quick ones?” It’s also good to give permission to our peers and reports (why not?) to positively challenge us. Done well, this helps to share the load, remind us to refresh and refuel (why hard decisions so often seem so much easier the next morning) and ultimately to make more right calls, more often.
As American author Will Rogers wryly observed:
Good judgment comes from experience, and a lot of that comes from bad judgment.
It’s well known the majority of our understanding comes not from what we hear, but what we see, feel and intuit. For this reason, it’s vital that we are congruent. Congruency implies that we say what we really mean, live what we believe and demonstrate consistency in our body language, tone of voice, facial expressions, attitudes and actions.
That’s a long list. Both as leaders and as individuals it is easy for us to be incongruent – a little, or a lot. Unsurprisingly, mastering this is one of the keys to great leadership. When leaders genuinely model, demonstrate and embrace the values and behaviours that they espouse, they are likely to positively impact and inspire those around them to achieve extraordinary things.
Ethics then are both essential and – for many leaders, difficult to navigate. That noted, perhaps, we may over-think the complexities. As Mark Twain put it neatly:
When in doubt, tell the truth.