By Linda Fisher Thornton
I have intentionally avoided using the C-word (Compliance) in most of my posts, and I decided that it was time to explain why. In this post I’ll explain why laws are not enough, and why complying with laws does not mean that we are leading ethically.
Laws Are Not Enough
Many people equate compliance with ethics. Actually, compliance with laws is the minimum standard and does not adequately represent “ethical leadership,” which is at a much higher level. Laws are the minimum threshold – below which people are punished. When we settle for this level of ethics, we are simply working toward staying out of jail – and that is not enough to make us good corporate citizens.
Why is compliance with laws not enough when it comes to leading ethically? What else is there?
Here is an example that illustrates the broader responsibilities that ethical leadership includes. Which of these two views of ethical leadership do you think is the most ethical view?
‘Ethical Business’ Means Making as Much Money as I Can Without Going to Jail
If I tend to think in a win-lose way, then I may be more likely to seek gain for myself without concern for my impact on other stakeholders.
‘Ethical Business’ Includes the Responsibility to Respect and Serve
If I tend to think in a win-win, service-focused way, then I may be more likely to seek positive solutions for others and consider my responsibilities to them more broadly.
Linda Fisher Thornton, Our Thinking is an Ethical Driver, Leading in Context Blog, December 12, 2012
Clearly, the second example demonstrates a higher level of ethical thinking and a broader sense of responsibility than the first. There are laws that say that I should not attack another person in the workplace. The ethical issues about how I need to treat others are at a much higher level than just restraint from physical violence. They include the need to respect others, demonstrate care and concern for them, and treat them with civility.
Learning Beyond Compliance
Why don’t laws (that represent the “punishment threshold”) represent ethical leadership? Settling for compliance with laws might mean that we would not physically attack each other, but we may still be disrespectful in ways that erode trust and affect the well-being of employees, customers and other stakeholders.
If we focus just on compliance in our ethics training for leaders, we are aiming too low and we will always be scrambling to catch up as laws change. How can we move beyond just complying with laws (the minimum standard) to leading ethically in organizations (optimal)? These posts provide some guidance:
Instead of focusing on teaching leaders how to stay out of jail, let’s focus on teaching leaders what we want – the optimal level of ethical leadership.
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