‘It is curious – curious that physical courage should be so common in the world, and moral courage so rare’ – Mark Twain. How accurately would we rate our individual level of ethical behaviour? Do our choices pass the ethics ‘acid test’?
I bought my twin boys ice cream recently. The busy vendor gave me change – an orange R200 note instead of the light brown R20 note we’d expected. We quickly let him know. In about 60 seconds my boys learned a lesson that I hope they’ll never forget: no matter how small it may seem and no matter who is watching, do what’s right every time.
In South Africa we constantly reflect on how to rebuild our national ethical foundations and raise society’s expectations of the standard of ethics leaders should meet.
Against the backdrop of the pressure the COVID-19 pandemic has put on our economic prospects, the degree to which we can entrench and display ethical leadership is key to the pace of our economy’s recovery. Trust is needed to retain talent, encourage entrepreneurship and job creation, attract foreign direct investment and drive growth.
A country’s level of ethical leadership drives society’s moral compass. Similarly, business leaders set the tone for what is expected from the people they lead by creating a clear framework that shows what is and is not acceptable and making the consequences of a misstep clear. Accountability is key to corralling our choices towards ethical outcomes.
Examples of unethical leadership abound. Where do unethical choices start?
James Freeman Clarke, author of Everyday religion, puts it well: ‘In the irresistible logic of guilt, one evil leads to another, one sin is developed out of another. There is nothing abrupt, nothing casual in the process. The road to sin is smooth, because an army of transgressions has passed over it. When such a development takes place, the community is filled with consternation. Men meet each other and say, “Have you heard what has happened? Mr A has turned out a defaulter. Mr B has been robbing his bank. How could he have done it?” Alas! he did it long ago, when he took the first step, when he diverged a very little way from the path of right. After that, every other step was easy, natural, and logical.’
Further, when we feel we’re doing what everyone else is doing, we are able to justify unethical actions that much more.
If we prioritise building and maintaining strong ethical foundations against which we can contrast every choice, we will be defined by our ethics. And, where we may get it wrong, we can ask for the benefit of the doubt, apologise, correct our course and move forward.
We make ethical decisions based on what we perceive to be right or wrong.
Here’s an ethics acid test: Would you have any issue with the decision you’re making leading the national news? If you have none, then there’s a good chance you’re acting ethically.
Of course, under pressure, the fine line between honesty and dishonesty is easily blurred. Sometimes, staying the course means asking others to guide us through our possibly flawed perceptions of right or wrong. I rely on trusted mentors and on the Bible to help me to set and reset my ethical compass.
Proverbs 15:22 says, ‘Plans fail where there is no counsel, but with many advisors they succeed.’