Each of us sees the world through a value structure whether we formally acknowledge it or not. This is true – if you recall when you were in school you learned about stories and discussed the meaning and value of the message – narrative analysis based on good and bad. There was a good character, a hero or protagonist, and an evil or bad one who caused trouble. But what is good and what is bad? There are universal ‘goods’ and univerisal ‘bads’. Think about that…. Is there an objective standard? Well yes, because otherwise how could we even do science? Some things are just true: 2 + 2 always equals 4 – there is objective truth! Don’t let anyone try to convince you otherwise! There is fake news confusing citizens – we need leaders to be clear about what is ethical and what is true.
What is good?
We might be able to articulate this without too much difficulty considering our upbringing and experiences with amateur literary analysis. In terms of leadership, an ethical leader, a good leader, acts as if people are intrinsically worthwhile. Good leadership is always based on trust and relationship. People are worthwhile intrinsically – not only because of what they can do but because they are.
When you think about the question – ‘what is good?’, does morality come into play? Does a belief in the transcendent?
Each of us has some idea about what is good. But it’s harder to answer this next question – what is your purpose in life? I would suggest the two should be connected! That is, what is good be connected to your purpose. This connection will give you meaning and we all need meaning. And, problems need solutions. There are opportunities in this! Find a way to connect your purpose and solve a problem and you will have a meaningful career.
- What really motivates you? Is it power? Making a difference/ leaving a legacy?
- What can you be responsible for? It will be difficult and it will be worthwhile.
Aim at something – discipline yourself toward achieving it and you will have purpose and meaning. But what should you aim at? What compels you forward? What grips your interest? What serves those you love and also brings good to others? What do you yearn for? What really matters to you? Do not be afraid to go for it! Fulfilling your responsibility leads to joy – not necessarily happiness all the time but joy – even in suffering.
The topic of ethics and leadership must include some discussion of making decisions. How can we bear it responsibly? Here is some advice in terms of ethical decision making.
- Don’t lead by black and white rules – always consider the context – mercy over justice.
- Surround yourself with good people/not always those who agree with you.
- Surround yourself with good resources – books and other sources of wisdom.
- Investigate the context – don’t rush the decision.
- Put yourself in order first – don’t blame others for your situation.
- Embrace some solitude and stillness in your life- attend to your conscience.
- Don’t betray yourself by going against what you know is good.
- If you are uncomfortable with a direction of a decision – even if you don’t know why, STOP, reconsider. Confront your discomfort.
- Don’t be a bystander – be as courageous as you can.
- Do not be afraid of self-correction.
- Be still, give yourself time.
- Go somewhere beautiful – for fresh ideas and inspiration.
- Ask someone you admire and think of as an example of a good person.
- Consider if the proposed decision merely exalts the individual or if it benefits others and creates greater unity?
- What do your professional ethics say? Review these especially when others are saying the situation is an exception.
Being an ethical leader isn’t always easy. Brazilian philosopher and poet Rubem Alves (2016) uses the analogy of popcorn to teach about personal transformation – I really like it. The hard corn becomes soft corn only through heat – can you stand the heat that is required to be an ethical leader? I know from experience that difficulties can teach us and refine us. Like a candle has to burn to give light, so ethical leaders sometimes have to live through challenging crucibles to give light.
I was partially inspired by Jordan B. Peterson’s Beyond Order: 12 more rules for life when I wrote this and want to give him due credit.