Ethical behavior has always been important for corporate executives. Today, however, the bar may be higher than it has ever been before. Thanks to social media, 24/7 television news, constant connectivity, and mobile technologies, leaders today operate in an atmosphere of transparency unmatched by any previous generation. Their every word and move is seen and questioned. Although executives may try to keep their ethical lapses under wraps, they have a high chance of being found out and publicly called to task.
For this reason, executives should avoid such lapses at all costs. Doing so requires a keen understanding of ethical behavior and a thoughtful approach to leadership, where executives weigh their options and wade through sometimes confusing ethical waters to arrive at the best choices—every time.
The ability to do so is not innate; rather, it is obtained through careful education and training, where executives practice weighing their options and making ethically charged decisions in the safety of the classroom. The experience offers them the practice and confidence necessary to navigate ethical dilemmas. Imparting this skill is a key goal of effective EMBA programs, such as Washington State University’s Executive Master of Business Administration Online. Weaving ethics throughout its EMBA curriculum, this program prepares students to navigate the reality of corporate leadership and ethics.
Ethics in Education
Because ethical dilemmas are inevitable, education in ethics is an essential part of any business school’s curriculum. According to Robert Föehl, a professor who teaches business law and business ethics courses, prospective students should first ensure that any school they are considering provides adequate training in this area. “After all, some business schools haven’t placed a high value on educating students to be the principled leaders that businesses need,” he points out.
Once this basic building block is in place, look for several factors that distinguish exceptional programs from ordinary ones. U.S. News & World Report identifies several qualities that make a difference.
Defining personal values. A great business school encourages students to consider and define their personal values. Doing so provides a solid grounding that is less likely to shift later when real issues arise. Leaders who are comfortable and familiar with their own moral values will be less tempted to make compromises that don’t align with their core beliefs.
Use of case studies. A good program incorporates case studies based on real-world dilemmas that business executives have faced. Students should be given the opportunity to evaluate the cases, the actions taken, and the ethics involved.
Talk it out. Courses where professors lecture on ethics theory are fine and can impart valuable information. For real “teeth,” though, nothing beats classroom conversation, where students can exchange ideas and take ideological stands that they must defend. This type of active participation forces students to evaluate ethical ideas in a deep way that listening alone cannot match.
Make it integral. Some business areas, such as accounting and finance, are particularly prone to ethical lapses. A good program incorporates ethics into every aspect of these topics and touches on these issues frequently, not just in an isolated lecture here or there.
Consider current events. In a great program, the real business world offers invaluable lessons every day. Professors should draw ethical questions out of current events and discuss them with students. Doing so provides an immediacy and relevance to the topic of ethics that theoretical cases simply cannot match.
Pick the hard cases. Some real-world cases involve grave lapses in ethics. These cases are easy to understand, and they can be helpful in illustrating large points. Potentially more useful, however, is focusing on situations that involve smaller errors in judgment, which are much more common in the business world. “Really good programs don’t just bring in cases where it’s real simple to say, ‘Oh, they were bad or they were good,'” Scott MacDonald, an MBA program director, says in the article. “You really need to make it murky, because that’s how the world is.”
Look to the law. An EMBA curriculum must include a primer in business law to ensure that students understand the legal rules on ethics in business. However, this does not mean that a class in business law is sufficient. “If a school only had a law class and considered that to be sufficient ethics training, I would consider that to be a red flag. … It would be reducing ethics to the law. It would essentially be the position that, as long as you’re acting legally, you’re acting ethically, and I think that’s a very dangerous assumption,” says management instructor Jeff Stolle.
Do good. Programs that excel in ethics often offer courses in social entrepreneurship, which is the practice of creating and maintaining profitable business ventures with a positive social impact. The core message in these courses is that doing well by doing good is not only possible, it’s a win-win proposition both ethically and financially.
How to Become an Ethical Leader
A leader’s ethical journey does not end when business school is complete. On the contrary, it is just beginning. Executives should continue to hone their ethical skills as challenging situations arise. Business News Daily lists several steps that leaders can take to improve their ethical “muscles.”
Define and align your values. Ask yourself what matters to you personally and then align those beliefs with your priorities as a leader. By behaving authentically, you will encourage your employees to do the same.
Hire people with similar values. Shared values lead to mutual respect, which is an essential factor in forming a dynamic team.
Promote open communication. Employees must be able to express their viewpoints, feel that they are listened to, and receive appropriate follow-up. An open atmosphere encourages positive behavior.
Beware of bias. Be open minded to build and maintain better relationships with your employees.
Lead by example. If your employees see you consistently making ethical choices, they will be more inclined to do the same.
Take care of yourself. If you are exhausted and frazzled, you are more likely to make mistakes. Take care of your sleep, nutrition, and personal connections so that you can be happy and effective in your work life. Ethical considerations are easier to manage when your internal house is in order.
Lead by Example
So, what does ethics really mean on a day-to-day basis? For most people, it comes down to a very simple matter of right versus wrong. In a recent article, Forbes magazine asked 20 successful leaders for their personal definition of “ethics.” Here are some of the responses received.
“Ethics is the inner voice that drowns out rationalization and focuses us on what we know we should do.” — Thomas J. Gentzel, executive director and CEO, National School Boards Association
“Doing the right, decent thing even when you have the power to do the convenient, self-serving thing.” — Elizabeth A. Schartz, employment lawyer, Thompson & Knight LLP
“Ethics means doing what’s right even when no one else is looking, and holding yourself accountable to your colleagues, your organization and most importantly your principles.” — Rob Nichols, president and CEO, American Bankers Association
“Above all else, ethics is the measure of someone’s character and credibility as a respected leader, coworker and friend.” — Richard Hunt, president and CEO, Consumer Bankers Association
For these executives and many, many others, ethics boils down to one simple thing: Do what’s right. Most of the time, profits will follow. Yes, ethical shortcuts might sometimes bring short-term gains, but what is lost is often much more costly in the long term. Learn about ethics and then live what you learn. It is the only way to guarantee success—or at least to avoid spectacular failure—in today’s increasingly transparent world.
About WSU’s Online Executive Master of Business Administration Program
Washington State University’s Carson College of Business delivers one of the top-ranked Executive MBA programs in the nation. WSU offers an EMBA curriculum designed to equip students with the tactics, knowledge, skills, strategies, and other MBA resources utilized by today’s high-profile business leaders. For more information, visit WSU’s Executive MBA Online website.
Perils of transparency – U.S. News & World Report
Ethics in education – U.S. News & World Report
How to become an ethical leader – Business News Daily
Leading by example – Forbes