Mark Twain famously said, ‘It’s never wrong to do the right thing.’ Why, then, is it so common for leaders to act unethically?
We live in a world where the news of corporate failures arising from unethical leadership is not a surprise, where bribing a traffic official when breaking a ‘minor’ traffic offence is justifiable, and where using the office printer for school projects is acceptable. These items fall at different ends of the ‘ethics spectrum’ and, depending on your own ethical beliefs and moral code, could be acceptable or not.
I also find it interesting that every person has three parts to their individual ethics spectrum, these being:
- Unethical, or
- Somewhere in-between (that broad grey area)
The ‘ethical’ and ‘unethical’ elements are clear-cut and can be considered black and white; however, the ‘somewhere in-between’ element is where the final answer or outcome could be influenced, depending on factors such as your current state of mind (emotional state), the cost-benefit of making a certain decision (self-interest), or the ideas and moral standing of the type of people you associate yourself with.
Everyone has their own range of the ‘somewhere in-between’ or grey area, in some shape or form, whereas we should be striving to only make decisions that are black or white (or right or wrong). Only once we are all able to achieve this state of mind as a society will the decay caused by unethical behaviour fade.
So, the question is, why do people act unethically? As mentioned earlier, one factor could be that you’re influenced by the people you associate yourself with. One could then ask that if you remove someone from an unethical environment, could that person act ethically (or more ethically)? I think that part of the answer could be ‘yes’. However, I also believe that a greater part of this problem is the moral code instilled in us from childhood.
According to Social Learning Theory, people learn by watching others. To intensify this, we have all heard that children are like sponges and for this reason, they look up to their parents or elder family/friends as role models and will proactively imitate what we do. Going a step further: the fact that we do something in front of a child would suggest to the child that what we are doing is right (even if it is blatantly wrong). Mark Twain is quoted to have said: ‘Children are natural mimics who act like their parents despite every effort to teach them good manners.’ Showing someone right from wrong is far more powerful than teaching the theory behind it.
The final step to this conundrum is that we live in a society where wrong behaviour is not only accepted and justified but in some instances even supported.
To create a society of ethical people, we as individuals need to act ethically, not only when in the public eye but also (and perhaps more importantly) when no one else is watching.
Yusuf Bodiat CA(SA) is CFO at the Federated Employers Mutual Assurance Company (RF) (Pty) Ltd