If you told me that you were on the Mount Everest of cynicism when it came to business ethics, I would have a hard time blaming you. The papers are full of leaders who have defaulted on their obligation to display even a modicum of ethical leadership.  If you told me that “Business Ethics” was an oxymoron, I would be embarrassed to try to mount a counter argument. Hundreds of business people feel that their only obligation to corporate ethics is to improve their company’s stock price. If you told me that “greed was good” and the only thing that counts is the bottom line, how could I find a pragmatic argument. People all over the country cheered at this line from the movie Wall Street. If you trotted out the roll call of current business and professional leaders who are on trial, in jail or out on bail, I would have to display great forbearance while you read the roll call, no doubt it would try my patience to listen to all of the names on your list.   Would I dare cite anyone as an exemplar of business ethics? No doubt, you would find a flaw in their personality or business practices. You might even counsel me to “wait” a week until they have a chance to get caught.  Oh, does cynicism overwhelm me?

How can I with a straight face teach “Business Ethics” at a university? Where do I find the system of ethics that can survive the empirical challenges to its validity?  Does any system of ethics hold sway in the daily lives of business people? Can there be any foundation for a system of ethical behavior that is not built on the sands of relativity?  Woe to the world if we leave ethics out, but are part-time ethics helping us to build a better nation?  Are we expecting our leaders to be saints?  Should we expect that all leaders are really sinners? Do we need to cut everyone more slack and tolerate a little hypocrisy and crookedness at least once in a while? Should we not have a system that expects and overlooks a modest amount of fraud, malfeasance and chicanery?

You may have noticed that though I stare at today’s newspaper and its current headlines ring with the latest business leader to go to jail, I have not mentioned any names. This is not due to my graciousness or forgiveness, but simply that the papers and reporters will have announced these transgressions until we are all sick of hearing the stories and minute details. “Sexual escapades results in CEO being fired.”  “COO caught sending millions to private off shore accounts.”  “Noted financial adviser defrauds investors of millions in assets.”  “Company executives hid negative results of tests showing harm to consumers.”   The headlines beat us down each day with their litany of “Bad” news by “Bad” people.  Are we all monsters are in bed with monsters?  It might appear so.

Never, never, never though give up.  Cynicism is the death of idealism and idealism is the hope of the future. The world and all of us will be and can be better tomorrow. Whoever promised any of us a perfect world?  Whoever promised that most of us would not be subject to mistakes, stupidity and errors of judgment? Progress never has and never will be a straight line. We take one step back, and two steps forward. Sometimes you take two steps back and only one forward. It is the sum totals of the steps that count and the direction that you are going.

My case for teaching ethics and indeed expecting and demanding ethical behavior in our leaders rests on my assumption that we can and will build a better world tomorrow. And if not tomorrow, then the day after tomorrow or the day after that!  I previously outlined the six traits of great strategic leaders. Some of you might argue with my picks based on their ruthlessness and outright brutality. However, I noted from the start that ethics was not a characteristic or attribute required to be on this list. That is the unfortunate direction that history has chosen in the past. Leaders who were successful regardless of the ethics of their actions have been followed and immortalized.  We need a new metric of strategic leadership that puts as much emphasis on the morality and ethics of behavior as on the results.

Dr. Deming was one of the most ethical business leaders I have ever known. His 14 principles were a manifesto of ethics for corporate leadership.  Principle number 8 “Drive out Fear” is a testament to his beliefs in how workers should be treated. Even as I sit here, hundreds of workers will be given their termination notices with little or no warning. Honest loyal workers who have devoted many years of their lives to helping their companies become successful will be treated as common criminals.  Each of us knows someone who on a Friday, perhaps late in the day, received their pink slip and under guard by a supervisor or security agent was escorted out the door. How can we treat people like this and say we believe in ethical behavior. Too many companies have never thought about what ethical behavior really is or means. 

We do not spend nearly enough time on ethical behavior in organizations. If I trained one hour a week for the Olympics, you would laugh and say I don’t have a chance in the world of making the team. Most organizations spend less than one hour a month dealing with, discussing, understanding or sorting out the implications of ethical behavior for their organizations. How can we have ethical behavior if we don’t know it, don’t practice it and don’t reward it? Show me a company that rewards employees for ethical behavior?  My case for ethics is that we treat it like a sideshow or appetizer. It needs to be a main dish. It needs equal time with the other training for leadership and it needs to be more than just theoretical. Most of my students think ethics is a nice idea, but not practical when the hard times come. Profits are still the main driver of organizational theory and not business ethics. Ethics is not even in the back seat, it is mostly in the trunk.  We cannot afford to continue with the present relegation of efforts as a secondary function in organizations.

Yes, you can still make a profit without ethics, yes, you may still make a list of great business leaders, but at what cost to humanity do we continue to ignore the repercussions. How many of us want our children to grow up with no ethics? How many of want a generation of future leaders who base everything on the bottom line? How many of us want our children to live in a world where profits are more important than ethics? As someone once told me, you are either part of the problem or part of the solution. Ask yourself today, are you helping us out of the ethical problems facing our nation and businesses or are you part of the problem?