The Ethical Leader

“The right to do something does not mean that doing it is right.”
William Safire, Journalist

The other day I was flying back home from a speech I’d given at a large association meeting. I couldn’t help but overhear … well, actually I was eavesdropping … the two men behind me. They kept going on about keeping a certain transaction “quiet” for a while. And they said something about their “deal” not being “totally honest,” but it would sure look good on the annual report.

It hit me. I was hearing the kind of stuff that makes the headlines in newspapers day after day — just another example of unethical leadership. In fact, I talked about that in great detail on the Joey Reynolds show, one of the largest talk radio shows in the U.S. He knew I had written and spoken extensively on leadership, and Joey wanted to explore some of the key determinants of GREAT leadership.

Of course, when most people talk about leadership, they talk about charisma, vision, teamwork, communication skills, and the like. But very few people talk about ETHICS or even think about ethical leadership. After all, how many people ever took a course on “ethical leadership?” Hardly anyone.

But I would submit that GREAT leaders can only be called GREAT if they’re also GOOD. They’re ethical.

So let’s explore — in brief — what it means to be an “ethical leader.”

=> 1. An Ethical Definition

I could get all fancy on you when it comes to defining ethics. After all, I took a bunch of philosophy classes at the university.

Personally, I prefer the simple definition given by William Penn, the founder of the State of Pennsylvania. He said, “Right is right, even if everyone is against it; and wrong is wrong, even if everyone is for it.”

In other words, Penn didn’t leave room for little white lies, exaggerations, rationalizations, justifications, or distortions of the truth. And he didn’t hold focus groups or take popularity polls to figure out what was right. He just said, “Right is right.” And ethical behavior is all about doing what is right.

=> 2. Importance Of Ethical Leadership

Now you may wonder, “What’s the big deal? What’s wrong with being a little unethical once in a while? Why are ethics so important?”

They’re important if you want a world, a company, or even a family that is filled with goodness, kindness, fairness, and justice. The great English statesman Edmund Burke said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” And two hundred years later, President Dwight Eisenhower noted, “A people that values its privileges above it’s principles soon loses both.”

I would even submit that there is no way you can feel good about your success or yourself if you come by it unethically. As Dan Zandra, the CEO of Compendium, Inc. states, “Live your life so that your children can tell their children that you not only stood for something wonderful — you ACTED on it.”

=> 3. The Battle for Ethical Leadership

The trouble is … most people “believe” in ethics. Most people think they “should” lead ethically and do what is right. But it’s easier said than done. There will always be lots of people pushing them in the other direction.

Pontius Pilate knew that pressure in the political world of the first century. Dramatist Lillian Hellman felt that in show business. She said, “I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashions.” And General Douglas MacArthur saw that in the military arena. He said, “It’s the age-old struggle — the roar of the crowd on one side and the voice of your conscience on the other.”

In other words, it may not always be easy or popular to be ethical. So be it.

Follow Theodore Hesburgh’s advice, the former president of the University of Notre Dame. He said, “My basic principle is that you don’t make decisions because they are easy; you don’t make them because they are cheap; you don’t make them because they’re popular; you make them because THEY’RE RIGHT.” In this “Tuesday Tip,” I can’t give you complete, specific step-by-step ethical guidelines to be used in every situation. Space does not permit. But let me give you three principles to follow.

=> 4. Foundational Ethical Principles

First, watch your thoughts. Don’t even think such things as “just this one time” or “no one would ever know.” Your THOUGHTS turn into ethical or unethical BEHAVIOR.

Frank Outlaw says it this way:

“Watch your thoughts; they become words.
Watch your words; they become actions.
Watch your actions; they become habits.
Watch your habits; they become character.
Watch your character; it becomes your destiny.”

Second, forget your feelings. It doesn’t matter if you don’t “feel” like doing something. Novelist and missionary Pearl S. Buck said, “You cannot make yourself feel something you do not feel, but you can make yourself do right in spite of your feelings.”

Third, do more than just enough. Consultant Michael Josephson said it very well. He said, “An ethical person ought to do more than he’s required to do and less than he’s allowed to do.”

Action:  How would others judge you if they were asked about your ethics? Would you like their answer? Or would you squirm a little bit as they appraised your “ethical” or “unethical” leadership?

If you could rejoice in their answer, congratulations. You’ve got one piece of the GREAT LEADERSHIP puzzle nailed down. If you wouldn’t like their answer, you’ve got some very important work to do … or you’ll never be a great leader in your team, your company, or your family.