Is There a Crisis of Integrity and Ethics?

Integrity crisisRex Tillerson, the former US Secretary of State, recently gave an address to the Virginia Military Institute, where he shared his concerns over “a growing crisis of ethics and integrity” in America.

“If our leaders seek to conceal the truth, or we as people become accepting of alternative realities that are no longer grounded in facts, then we as American citizens are on a pathway to relinquishing our freedom,” Tillerson said.

“A responsibility of every American citizen… is to preserve and protect our freedom by recognizing what truth is and is not, what a fact is and is not, and to begin by holding ourselves accountable to truthfulness and demand our pursuit of America’s future be fact-based, not based on wishful thinking, not hoped-for outcomes made in shallow promises, but with a clear-eyed view of the facts as they are and guided by the truth that will set us free to seek solutions to our most daunting challenges.”

I’ll be interested to read the thoughts of others on this, but the above, in layman’s terms, reads a little to me like, “Our leaders have become increasingly comfortable with lying to us, and we, the people, are increasingly happy to let them.”

This article isn’t a political broadcast for either the Democratic or Republican parties. You may feel strongly that one particular leader or one particular party out-untruths the other. Let’s park those sentiments for now and ask, ‘Is there a crisis of ethics and integrity in America? If so, how does that affect business and our business leaders?’

If there is a crisis, it’s coming at a time where we need ethical leadership more than ever. I spoke with an ethics lawyer earlier this week who said something that stuck with me. The silent 70%, the most prominent of which comprise the #metoomovement, the people who were treated badly but didn’t speak up, the people who saw troubling behavior but didn’t report it… they’re not silent anymore. They are more empowered now than ever. When the troubling behavior of individuals who made the wrong decisions is exposed, it will be catastrophic for them, and it will also do untold damage to the reputations of the businesses they work for.

Our ethics are, at heart, our moral values. Our sense of what it is to be a decent human being – where does this come from?

Jordan Peterson, the controversial clinician and author of one of this year’s bestselling books 12 Rules for Life advocates that religious stories have provided us with an ethical roadmap for thousands of years. These stories teach us right from wrong, and as religion and its structures – Sunday school, church on a Sunday, community leadership – weaken, our ethics and morality do too.

Patricia Churchland, author of Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us about Morality? has a different take. Churchland thinks our moral behavior comes as an extension of the human biological systems involved in caring for our partners and children. Our brains are wired to care for those closest to us, which then translates into caring for our extended social groups.

Churchland advances that although we are not born with a moral compass, our capacity for moral reasoning is there from the very start. From that start, each of us builds a code of conduct from the building blocks we encounter in life – family members, education, profession, life experiences, belief systems, etc.

Are these building blocks eroding? Are the traditional structures that have upheld our understanding of ethics and integrity starting to fail? If so, does that place a greater responsibility on our leaders than ever before, to lead by example and set ethical standards?

When Tillerson addressed the class of 2018, he also spoke at length about the importance of integrity to building trust and cooperation. He encouraged the graduating students to “look for employers who set high standards for personal conduct and who reward ethical leadership.”

If an organization has a reputation for strong ethical leadership, is that a competitive advantage?

According to David Horsager, author of The Trust Edge: How Top Leaders Gain Faster Results, Deeper Relationships, and a Stronger Bottom Line, “Leaders who inspire trust garner better output, morale, retention, innovation, loyalty, and revenue, while mistrust fosters skepticism, frustration, low productivity, lost sales, and turnover. Trust affects a leader’s impact and the company’s bottom line more than any other single thing.”

In some ways, it feels like we’ve lived through a decade of social change in the last 12 months. Many of us are doing well just to keep up. A significant minority aren’t doing well under the glare of the spotlight.

Good leaders serve as role models. They can inspire us to be better versions of ourselves. Now is the time for good leaders to open a dialogue on the moral code of the organization they lead. Now is the time for every one of us, from the ground up, to recalibrate and consider whether we’ve become too comfortable in the grey areas.

We need to ask ourselves difficult questions about the decisions we make every day at work. Are our decisions consistent with our desire to be good sons and daughters, parents, husbands and wives, members of our community?

As Tillerson questioned the collective path we are on, he also encouraged the young graduates to “Maintain and protect who you are, and remember that being a person with integrity is the most valuable asset you have.”

Let’s work together to protect that asset.

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By Dan Brown (Chief Strategic Relationship Officer, Interactive Services)

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