Evolving Ideas on Ethics – Mary T. O’Sullivan

By Mary T. O’Sullivan, MSOL, contributing writer on business leadership

“The first step in the evolution of ethics is a sense of solidarity with other human beings.” – Albert Schweitzer

Rather than evolving ideas about ethics in leadership, thoughts on practicing leadership have been reinforced through many years of observation, perception, and experience. All we need to do is to look around to see that there are abundant opportunities to do the right thing, rather than the expedient thing, the easiest thing, or the politically correct thing. We’ve learned that standing firm on personal ethical principles, taught at home, in school and in church may cause some initial discomfort, but garners more respect when the appeal to people’s inner core beliefs is made. If we can act from a parental point of view and ask ourselves, “If I were advising my children, how would I suggest they act?” –  then we know we have made the right choice.

We’ve also learned that principles aren’t flexible, we either have them or we don’t, but actions must always be ethical, whether we have a strong moral set of values or not. As a wise leader once said, “we can’t teach values, but we can teach behavior”. So, expectations can be set forth, and metrics can be established, and acceptable behavior can be modeled and measured.

We’ve learned that when we failed as leaders, we have failed to live up to our own internal moral compass; we allowed our principles of right and wrong, good and bad to be compromised, confused, and “flexible”. We’ve learned “looking the other way” leads to trouble for all involved; that hubris is also a path to failed leadership; and pride indeed comes before the fall.

How sad for “leaders” to fail because they didn’t do the right thing; failed to live by their own as well as the company’s values and principles; and failed their families, friends, and thousands of employees.

The importance of ethical leadership as portrayed in a Harvard Business Review article regarding the 2010 BP spill reflects the concept of the importance of accountability in a “true leader”.” A true leader faces facts, presents a situation fully to all stakeholders, and models accountability. A leader does not attempt to minimize the extent of a problem or promise action faster than can be delivered. A true leader sets appropriate expectations and delivers. He or she does not duck responsibility by shifting the bulk of the blame to someone else.

Noted researchers and credible authorities on leadership state, “The highest principle of leadership is integrity. When integrity ceases to be a leader’s top priority, when a compromise of ethics is rationalized away as necessary for the “greater good,” when achieving results becomes more important than the means to their achievement — that is the moment when a leader steps onto the slippery slope of failure.”

Furthermore, in Hamlet Act 1, scene 3, 78–82, the advice Polonius gives his son, Laertes is reflective of looking inward for moral guidance:

This above all: to thine own self be true, And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then / be false to any man.”   William Shakespeare

Or to quote a more mundane adage, “The path to hell is paved with good intentions.”

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Mary T. O’Sullivan, Master of Science, Organizational Leadership, International Coaching Federation Professional Certified Coach, Society of Human Resource Management, “Senior Certified Professional. Graduate Certificate in Executive and Professional Career Coaching, University of Texas at Dallas. Member, Beta Gamma Sigma, the International Honor Society. Advanced Studies in Education from Montclair University, SUNY Oswego and Syracuse University. Mary is also a certified Six Sigma Specialist, Contract Specialist, IPT Leader and holds a Certificate in Essentials of Human Resource Management from SHRM.

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