“The most important human endeavor is the striving for morality in our actions. Our inner balance and even our very existence depend on it. Only morality in our actions can give beauty and dignity to life.”
“We need timeless principles to steer by in running our organizations and building our personal careers. We need high standards — the ethics of excellence.”
Ethics are our morals in action. Ethical behavior is the system we develop framed within our moral code. Our moral code, or our morals, are a system of beliefs emergent from our values. Values are the foundation of our ‘right/wrong judgement’ which create some belief system. This is personal, an individual decision, not universally accepted.
(Shockley-Zalabak 1999, p. 438)
It may seem like I am parsing thought here, however, in the business world all the words get tossed around flippantly (interchangeably) – particularly when it comes to culture. It is important because culture is emergent, not dictated. Culture is a collection of individuals, with individual values, who act in a coherent behavioral fashion, within an organization (where the systems enable or suffocate the individual behavior). I say this because this is when “principles” comes into play. Principles encourage a specific coherence not by dictating but rather by establishing some common agreement. In other words, despite each person having their own value prioritization, the organization establishes its value prioritization (establishing not what to do, but what not to do).
Look. Here is a truth.
We don’t really like to admit it but Life, in general, more resembles a constant teetering on the edge of a slippery slope than anything else (especially with regard to ethics, i.e., “doing the right thing.”). Life, and business, constantly, relentlessly forces you to make, well, ethical choices. Now. They may not look like ethical choices, but if you look real closely you will see the face of ‘right or wrong’ staring at you wagging its finger. We don’t look that closely because it would force us to admit:
- Right & wrong is often contextual
- Right & wrong is often not a clear black or white
- Right & wrong is often measured, ultimately, in consequences not actions, yet, we are demanded to choose right or wrong and act now
You will most associate this constant teetering (also a recognition of being on the slippery slope of fading ethics) as “just this once” behavior. We don’t really like to admit it because ‘just this once’ tends to be used to explain away some of our more dubious behavior and decisions.
This ‘dubiousness’ gets couched in a variety of ways. Safety. Utility. Benefits (functional and ‘to me’). We find a lot of ways to justify our behavior, decisions and attitudes before we ladder up to ethics. As my friend Faris Yakob (see image) suggests it is almost a Maslow-ian decision model. Its not that we ignore ethics or even not care about ethics its just we prioritize a number of things before we get to ethics. This suggests ethics is not a foundation from which decisions emerge, but rather are a final, fairly wide, box in which a decision has to be checked against.
If that is true, then ethical fading is commonplace, yet, justified by ‘pragmatism’ criteria. I bring up pragmatism because, whether we admit it or not, unless you actually think about ethics, morals and values (in a non-meta philosophical way) then it becomes a little more difficult to understand how principles can play a fairly important pragmatic guardrail role. The truth is that ethics are constantly challenged, in context, by safety and utility. For example, would we steal to feed our children or lie to keep us safe.
Sound moral judgment is rooted in strong values and acted upon by our ethics. An organizational judgement, a collection of these individuals, is herded in common principles.
Principles, yes, before you despair, principles guard against ethical fading. Principles are the cornerstones of your ethical building. Without principles you have no solid ground to stand on in a world constantly trying to tip you over into a variety of holes, slippery slopes and dead-end tunnels.
‘Principle’ is defined in Nuttall’s Concise Standard Dictionary of the English Language as, “n. the source or origin of anything; a general truth or law comprehending many subordinate ones; tenet or doctrine; a settled law or rule of action; to impress with any tenet; to establish firmly in the mind.”
Principles protect, in a very fragile way, against ethical fading.
They do so in a number of ways
- They establish a foundation, or a moral filter, for ethical behavior. Maybe call them the ground rules of how you assess what is right versus wrong
- Unfortunately, the foundation is a framework not a “how to do” manual. Therefore upfront they help define exceptions to the ground rules and, yes, we will always find some exceptions. Some ‘blurring’ of the guardrails as it were.
- Unfortunately (part 2), this blurring, while not always creating ‘just this once’ behavior, it CAN create just this once behavior which is, well, the slippery slope of ethical fading. In this situation principles can actually be the solid lily pads of ‘no more’ certainty from which one can stop the slide down the slippery slope of ethical fading.
- Unfortunately (part 3), principles, while resilient, are not immortal. Facing the onslaught of ethical fading they can, well, fade and once they have made their last stand you are screwed. You are on the slope and the only question left to answer is how far down the slope you end up.
So, despite their fragility, let me talk about principles.
“The most important ingredient we put into any relationship is not what we say or what we do, but what we are. And if our words and our actions come from superficial human relations techniques (the Personality Ethic) rather than from our own inner core (the Character Ethic), others will sense that duplicity. We simply won’t be able to create and sustain the foundation necessary for effective interdependence.”
Stephen R. Covey
To me principles revolve around a discussion of soul (selling your soul ). Some people may disagree with me but, to me, soul represents the intersection of I & We. It gives us life energy (call it our subconscious passion). It what joins us together with an external shared common vision – kind of our common value proposition for Life. It creates a connective tissue for, well, acting in a humane fashion with other humans. It is within this intersection in which we seek the common ground between morals, ethics and value and arrive at a coherent principled behavior as a community or business organization.
Let me suggest 4 cornerstone principles (not ranked, just foundational):
- Inviting culture premised on affection for humanity. Lives are to be lived for others (therein lies where we gain meaning), not just for our own success and advancement. We must model lives that matter if we want to nurture into living lives that matter. We believe that we are not islands unto ourselves but social beings who need community to flourish and become our best selves. Believing you are in, and of, community.
- Commitment to character demands involving oneself into multiple traditions and frameworks for what makes up a good life (contextually expanding your view). This means accepting a responsibility to pose questions which introduce one to a variety of cultures and contextual questioning.
Believing that character takes involvement & commitment & work.
- Do good. I imagine I am suggesting that if you do good you will contribute in a meaningful way (some call this a purposeful life). We must simply follow Aristotle’s advice, or Emerson, that “the purpose of our examination is not to know what virtue is, but to become good.” The point is not merely to study the good, in a detached and academic way, but to invite oneself to develop as a person of character.
Believing that a virtuous life is not found in attitude, but behavior & actions.
- Be curious about everyone and everything. Keep your head in a swivel as context changes. Exhibit a dedication, imagination and commitment to context as the fertile ground for intellectual growth, knowledge and ethical resilience. Ethical resilience is NOT rigid ethics, but rather strongly held principles which can accommodate the nuances of cultural context (reflective of cultures surrounding the person and decision). This principle, in particular, does not dictate character, but is intended to provide a compass to help each person find their own path and to grow in their awareness of self (and others).
Believing principles are not steadfast and unmoving but rather depending on adapting to new learning.
I will note that all the Principles are solid in belief but adaptable to time, knowledge and context. This is a recognition that we, humans, are not of self but rather of something bigger – society, community, connectivity.
Yes. This suggests Principles are not simple, but complex.
This leads me to leadership.
Leadership can be of one’s own life or it can be in combination with other people. Regardless, someone must develop some skills for successful leadership – for self or for group.
The first is the mindset that leaders see leadership as a skill that needs to be continually developed and improved (active listening, giving feedback, talking to people).
The second is a recognition that certain things happen under the surface and have a significant impact on the performance of the team, such as interpersonal dynamics, the way individuals work, disputes and tension between people (typically originating from the past). Leaders have to have the skills to bring these things to the surface and resolve them.
** note: this is also true of self and inner conflict
The third is power and inclusion. Power dynamics effect any social structure (you are misguided if you don’t believe this). You have to recognize, and acknowledge, power dynamics in order to be inclusive, empathetic and create complete connections. If you elect to ignore the relationship between power and ethical behavior, i.e., how power stresses individual values prioritization and behavior toward goals, you will ignore the truth that the more power you need, the more likely ethical fading is to occur.
That said. In old structures (hierarchy) power can be directed, but in future organizations power emerges (networks evolve) and leadership is expanding potential from emergent power dynamics. This will demand a different type of character. This type of character navigates the I, we, larger We dynamics of an interconnected life, business & society.
“Character, like oxygen, is most noticeable when it is missing.”
The new powerful leadership will not lead with power, but rather principled driven energy and instead of just accumulating wealth/profits/achievements, seek to accumulate outcomes to be proud of.
These are very strange times. I would not say it’s the worst of times, but it seems to be a world that demands binary, black & white stances despite the fact navigating ambiguity and uncertainty is the path to not only success, but progress. What I can say is that holding onto something in a black and white way in a world of swirling colors, and grays, creates an ongoing sense of uncomfortableness. Maybe worse is attempting to hold onto binaries you will slide down the slippery slope of ethical fading without even noticing until its too late.
And maybe that is where I will end. You would think ethical fading would be associated with gray and the graying of morals and choices, but its not. Ethical fading occurs one black & white step at a time.
In the end.
We often speak of “principled leadership” or desiring leaders to have principles. I would argue each of us, to be successful, need to grapple with our own relationship between values, ethics and principles. Because, in the end, while we may be grounded in our values and measured by our ethical behavior what will matter will be the principles which make all of these decisions coherent to our Life – what we will, or will not, do. Yes. Refusal of “ethical fading” suggests “we are what we refuse to do” or, as Paul Chippendale stated, “we are what we refuse to adapt to.”