Wednesday, September 24, 2008

How Leaders Apply Ethics Every Day

Would you describe yourself as an ethical leader? If so, what values drive your ethics? How do you apply those values in your everyday decision-making? This article will address these questions in a very practical manner.

Whether you think about values or not, they drive your behavior. As professor Joel Urbany and his colleagues remind us, the Nobel prize-winning research of Daniel Kahneman found that failure to evaluate values trade-offs is one of the major traps in decision-making. (1) For example, Professor Joel Urbany invites you to consider that the athlete's decision to use steroids is really a values-based choice between short-term achievement and honesty or integrity.

Ethics refers to the rules or standards governing how human beings ought to act in various situations. There are several approaches leaders can take when deciding what standards to use when developing their ethical platform. However, the virtue or value approach is what leaders find most useful. It states that there are specific values that, when practice consistently, improve leadership performance. My research has found that the following five values are the ones best linked to leadership success:

- Honesty -- Being truthful, frank, and free from deceit.

- Integrity -- Being whole, undivided, and completeness.

- Humility -- Being modest in your estimate of your importance.

- Equity -- Being fair and impartial.

- Authenticity -- Being genuine, uncorrupted from the original.

How well do you use these values in your day-to-day decision-making? Is there a simple and effective way to make values count in your everyday decisions? Professor Urbany and his colleagues created a decision mapping process to answer these questions. The table below is my variation of his map:


Choice Options. When making a decision involving values, the first step is to assume that you have at least two choices. Our athlete can choose to take steroids or not.

Short-term Consequences. What are the pluses and minuses you might experience immediately from each choice? If our athlete takes steroids, he may experience enhanced performance but he could also be caught cheating. If he doesn't take steroids, he'll probably feel better about himself but he may not make the team.

Long-term Consequences. What are the pluses and minuses you might experience over the long haul from each choice? Leaders have also found it helpful to ask about the long-term, unintended consequences that might be experienced from each choice. The long-term consequences of our athlete using steroids include the prestige of winning. However, there is considerable evidence that the negative side effects of steroid use are severe. The long-term consequences of not taking steroids include better health, but with less money.

Values/Goals. Every decision is a means to the end. The values/goals column asks you to identify the values and goals behind the decision. Notice that the consideration of values occurs at the end your analysis.

The “confirmation bias” is one of the decision-making traps leaders fall into when making the value decisions. This occurs because we have a tendency to focus on the positive consequences of our initially preferred choice and the negative consequences of the other. We see only what we want to see, thus confirming our bias. Apply the value mapping process to help you remove this bias. How surprised will you be when you find you are living your values in your everyday decisions?

Keep stretching,


1. Joel Urbany and colleagues; How to Make Values Count in Everyday Decisions, ‘MIT Sloan Management Review,’ Summer 2008, 75 - 80.

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