Socrates and Plato both taught the following:

  • If one knows what is right, then one will do what is right.
  • Virtue is the knowledge of deeply ingrained habits that guide one’s actions.
  • The goal of a moral life is to cultivate the very best character one can.

If we use this as a “gauge” for leadership today, what would this tell us? Maybe that many leaders fail to deeply examine the morality of their actions and decisions, and the leaders who exemplify this “gauge” are few far and few between.

It could also tell us that too much other stuff gets in the way. Or that morals are not on people’s radar and have nothing to do with business. All of these mindsets are dangerous to an organization’s company culture and are a reflection of leadership.

  1. Do leaders personally know what is “right?” If so, according to what standard, for what reason and for what result? Leaders need to take time to discern their ethics, and in what ways they bring them to the workplace. Why do they need to take the time? Because if they do or don’t, there is always a price to pay.
  2. What are company leaders’ deeply ingrained habits? The only way to judge this is to observe the leader’s actions and their effect on the people around them. Habits become second nature in which the leader doesn’t even have to think about them. It’s an automatic consideration, behavior and an integral part of one’s decision making. The real issue is, are they positive or negative habits?
  3. The goal of the ethical life is to cultivate character. What are the keys to character development? Character can be built on three concepts:
    • Who you are: the virtues one has acquired, especially honesty and integrity.
    • What you represent: one’s ability to recognize moral issues and choose the “good.”
    • How you act when no one is watching: This denotes the degree of moral internalization.

These need to be an integral part of all ethical leadership development programs. One of the critical issues in keeping the ethics gauge pointed in the right direction is continuous, practical and interactive ethics training. However, bland training seems to be the norm and can no longer be acceptable.

Bland training is training that is a “one-shot” deal and does not provide skills to help change behavior, but instead settles for knowledge transfer (i.e., “let’s get everyone in a room and tell them what they need to know” attitude.)

It should be evident that this type of training does not work. It may fulfill a requirement but has little to do with attitude and behavior change. There is very little substance. It should make you wonder how much money is poured into this kind of training without a quantifying return on investment (ROI).

To ensure training that isn’t bland, learning leaders must start with these questions:

  1. What needs to be done?
  2. Why does it need to be done?
  3. How and who should do it and why?

Effective ethics training is an ongoing process with simple, practical training requirements that always provide knowledge transfer. When fully utilized, this transfer helps to change behaviors. The result of any values-based training is to assist people in making better choices and thereby making a decision to change their attitudes and behavior.

Effective ethics training is all about the transmission and application of wisdom, not just knowledge.  Knowledge is the “stuff”(information), and wisdom (practical use of knowledge) is what you do with it. Bland training is solely knowledge-based, with very limited behavioral application.

A critical issue to focus on, are the ethical challenges for leadership in the years to come. Here are some questions to ask yourself as a modern leader:

  1. What does it mean to you to be ethical? You need to define it, not just for yourself but for your people. You need to embrace it and consistently promote and live it.
  2. What guides you ethically? List the values that you internalize and prioritize them in order of personal preference.
  3. Have you made it a priority to help your people think ethically about their work? This is not just a training activity, but embracing a process of thinking that encompasses and is a significant part of all training initiatives.
  4. How well are your leaders and employees trained in ethics and ethical leadership? The process needs people trained in ethical thinking and moral reasoning. This process needs to be viewed and embraced as:
    • An investment, not an expense.
    • A proactive approach to creating an environment of trust.
    • A process that will be continuous, all-inclusive and open to discussion to focus on not just the common good but the greater good as well.

More specifically, what would your employees’ answers be as you dig deeper into designing and developing your ethics training options and content?

  • Is continuous training for all employees provided on ethical decision-making techniques?
  • Do your mid-level management leaders receive additional ethics training than non-managerial employees?
  • How does your company express and reinforce its moral commitment to ethics to all employees?
  • What support systems are in place to help employees deal with ethical issues?
  • Are employees encouraged to question their leaders when asked to do something they consider wrong?

This all, as you can imagine, doesn’t happen overnight. It takes commitment, creative planning and a practical approach to training and education in ethics, as well as moral reasoning to create an ethical gauge for the entire organization.