One of the hallmarks of leadership is the idiom, “monkey see, monkey do”. If a leader chooses to behave like a monkey and leaves much to be desired, it is unlikely his team will want to behave like saints.
Conversely, if a leader behaves like a saint, it is downright embarrassing if team mates behave like monkeys, and based on herd mentality or group dynamics, most people would conform to the same “saintly” behavior, or simply leave.
When many corporations and non-profits alike talk about ethics, they seem to imply legal compliance more than anything else. Frequently, you would hear commercial and non-profit organizations say something to the effect, “we believe in the highest ethical practices because we comply with all legal requirements.”
Ethics is much more
However, in case executives of these organizations have not checked the dictionary recently, ethics is also known as “moral philosophy” or “moral principles”, and NOT legal compliance.
Although one may argue that conforming to moral principles imply ethical practices, and that the law upholds moral practices, and therefore they are the same, it is not so. Why not? This is because to be moral (and therefore ethical), you have an intrinsic belief system that is right. You do not have to force yourself to comply or conform. On the other hand, to comply with the law simply means that you follow the rule of law to the letter. There is an intrinsic and psychological difference between the two.
For example, it may be legal to sue someone who tells some ugly truth about you based on the rule of law, but ethically, that is never advocated by ancient wisdom. In ancient Chinese wisdom, there is a saying, “all things harmonious ends in prosperity”. Therein lies the difference between legal compliance and ethics.
Laws can have flaws
Taken to the extreme, the law may not always make a clear distinction between what is right or wrong, but rather, what can be proven in court. For example, if a murderer can be proven “innocent” in a court of law by alibi, evidence, or persuasive counsel, he may get away scot-free. However, ethically, the murderer is 100% wrong, no mistake about it.
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Seamus Phan has 35 years of professional experience. Polymath Problem-Solver & Strategist – Leadership, Cybersecurity, Branding, Crisis, Scientist, Artist, Author, Aviation, and Theologian. Some articles are reproduced at McGallen & Bolden, where he is CTO and Head of Content. Connect on LinkedIn. ©1984-2023.