Setting Your Moral Compass to North – Why Talking about Ethics is not enough

Just mentioning the word ethics conjures up a number of thoughts on ethical and moral failings. While the late 20th and early 21st century is marked by an increase in discussions and scholarly debate on the subject, there appears to be an equally marked increase in moral failings. At times you cannot even so much as turn on the television or pick up a newspaper without some news on the ethical failings of an individual or organization. Why is it that we seem to know so much about ethics and yet continue to fail at adhering to such codes of conduct? Could it be that we are less moral than we once were or do moral failings only appear more prevalent simply because there is an increase in awareness through education, training and discussions?

Aristotle once suggested that we are all moral creatures and that our collective existence will condemn us to make choices of what we ought to do morally. Yet, finding north on our moral compass continues to be a challenge. The position of north on our moral compass precludes such good and positive things as truth, honesty and fairness or any other principle we may link to a positive ethical behavior. Such absolutes are meant to guide us to the proper path we would like to be morally in life. It is implied that each person carries within them core values that define what is both good and bad. We cannot live without these core principles because we can and are often tempted or influenced by life’s unseen pressures. These pressures affect how we approach moral decisions and without a strong sense of moral north we may ignore our internal alarms and act in such a way that is unethical. The stronger the sense or moral north we carry the easier it would be for us to recognize when we are doing something that we shouldn’t be doing.

Despite the fact that individuals can recognize when they’re doing something ethically wrong, organizations still find the need for formal awareness mechanisms such as codes of ethics, whistle-blower hotlines, compliance offices and a myriad of  reporting outlets that all assume that someone knows the difference between right and wrong. Perplexing is this dichotomy that we can still know right from wrong and still not always succeeds in maintaining our moral north. For example, a 2002 study by the Josephine Institute of Ethics noted that 76 percent of MBA graduates reported a willingness to commit an act of fraud to enhance the profits of their organization. It is astounding that such a high percentage of educated individuals would express a desire to do wrong despite the call to do right? How is it that we can get so far off course despite our ability to know better?

Perhaps the answer is locked in the matter of motivation. Some believe that ethical motivation is focused on an individual’s self-interest which will over-ride our ability to act morally. What this alleges is that no matter how many ethical mechanisms an organization has in place or how well a person knows the difference between right and wrong, there is still no guarantee that an individual will adhere to good moral principles. Despite the hundreds of morality tests that have been developed; countless articles that have been published; thousands of ethical standards developed by organizations; and countless individuals trained in ethics and values, we still have moral failings every day. What we find is that no one is immune from moral failings and many organizations must continue the practice of prudent business planning that assesses their vulnerability to ethical issues and their ability to take proactive steps to overcome a failure when it happens.

Knowing how to set your compass to moral north is not enough. Constant vigilance is also needed to stay the course. As did the navigators of old, we must check our internal compass on a regular basis against the moral maps of our community or organization to ensure that we are on course. The presence of personal and organizational codes of ethics is helpful to stay the course toward moral north. Periodic assessments conducted both personally and organizational wide aide in identifying potential deficits along life’s moral pathway. Yet none of this is effective without the ever vigilant presence of an absolute transparent mechanism of accountability. An individual who is left unchecked can stray off course and into the pits of moral failings. There must be a constant commitment to adherence and enforcement of moral standards coupled with our need to check and adjust our moral compass. Joanne Ciulla in her book Ethics, the Heart of Leadership reminds us that Ethics is primarily a community, collective enterprise, not a solitary one. The best possible way to set and maintain your moral compass to north is through an adherence to a defined set of core codes of conduct and an absolute pursuit of accountability and a commitment to adjustments on a regular basis. Ethical north is about constant change and commitment.

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Philip A Foster, MA is a professional life and leadership coach with Maximum Change Inc.
He works with leaders to facilitate the development of  life purpose, life balance and achievement of greater success; encouraging leaders to take active and consistent steps toward reaching goals and objectives. Specializing in Organization and Strategic Leadership.

Email | LinkedIn | Facebook | Twitter | Web | Blog | Skype: philip.a.foster | (615) 216-5667

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Paul’s Letter to Romans and its implications on being a Good Leader

It is admirable to desire being a good leader. Unfortunately the pursuit of great leadership skills become a challenge in that each person, with their diverse interpretations, holds differing perceptions of what values are. These interpretations of values help develop systems of guiding principles[1] possessed by an individual who believes others will also hold their values in the same level of esteem.[2] We find that values are nothing more than a yardstick for judging behaviors of an individual or group.[3] Moreover, these values are taught to us throughout our life. As Christians we therefore can argue that we learned the values which we grow to hold in high esteem. Likewise the Christians of Paul’s time would have also held learned values. Perhaps it is in the differences that we find the importance of sharing our values in an effort to learn as well as create alignment amongst groupings of individuals? James W. Sire reminds us that a person’s values are relative to their culture.[4] For those of us who desire to change our values, a great deal time is required to undo a life-time of training and living those values. Christians, not to mention religious leaders of Paul’s day interpreted scripture based on their own human reasoning and conveniences, not by any revelation.[5]

We all have a unique set of values and experiences that make up who we are.[6] These core values help us create standards of conduct that drive our decisions.[7] Perhaps Paul, like Jesus calls us to be custom breakers? Paul’s challenge in Romans 2:25 illustrate such, “For indeed circumcision is of value if you practice the Law; but if you are a transgressor of the Law, your circumcision has become uncircumcision.”[8] Paul was offering an intense criticism of hypocrisy in which it is easier to tell others how to live than for us to behave in the same manner.[9] This classic do as I say and not as I do was expressed in Romans 2:26-27 where Paul asserts that “if the uncircumcised man keeps the requirements of the Law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? And he who is physically uncircumcised, if he keeps the Law, will he not judge you who though having the letter of the Law and circumcision are a transgressor of the Law?”[10] Perhaps it is easier to say all the right words than it is to do all the right things?[11] A leader must seek alignment between their words and their actions.[12] For in this the character of the leader is formed and through character a leader can develop influence amongst their followers.

Leadership by its very definition is someone who is concerned with the ultimate direction of the group or organization for which they lead.[13] To change the direction of an organization requires influence which is the ability to affect an individual’s attitudes, values, beliefs or actions.[14] To hold influence over another requires an ethical responsibility to the followers with respect and dignity which requires understanding of the followers own interests, needs, and conscientious concerns.[15] It is through this respect and dignity that a follower may perceive the leaders true character.

Character is what makes an individual worth following.[16] It is in the person’s character that we find that they will do what is right regardless of the cost.[17] Jesus healed a man on the Sabbath because it was the right thing to do regardless of the time in which he did it. A more contemporary leader, Abraham Lincoln was best known as honest Abe because his reputation remained unblemished throughout his life.[18] Both Jesus and Lincoln set and responded to fundamental goals and values that moved their followers.[19] Stephen R. Covey once said that we divide things up in two main categories: The way things are, or realities and the way things should be or values.[20] He goes on to say that we seldom question their accuracy and we assume that the way we see things is the way they really are or the way that they should be.[21] Leaders, like Jesus and Lincoln, tend to be trusted because they usually lead by example and act consistently upon the values and the mission of the organization.[22] Followers will tend to naturally mimic those around them. Social Psychologist posit that we unconsciously mimic others expressions, postures, voice tones and so-forth.[23] This unconscious mimicking indicates that even at a subconscious level others have influence over us. Modern psychology predicts that influence can be both positive and negative and may come from individual or even group pressures. Such social influences include pressure to conform, maintain obedience, groupthink, prejudice and even aggression.[24] The use of such means may have a long-term effect of the attitudes of the followers. Such attitudes affect the follower’s thoughts, feelings and behaviors toward the leader and their leadership style.[25]

In Romans 3 Paul refers back to Psalm 14:1-3 in which he posits that “there is none righteous” which in essence means that no one is innocent and no one can earn their right standing before God.[26] Paul argues that we cannot earn our way into the Kingdom by simply being a member of the church or following certain guidelines. It is not enough to simply know the Law but we must also live according to the law for, as Romans 3:23 states “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; whom God displayed publically as a propitiation in His blood through faith.[27] It is through a commitment in daily living in which the Christian opens themselves to the Spirit of God and all of the possibilities are afforded.[28] Like the Pharisees before them, those that Paul was addressing may have believed that they were following the law as God intended. They would no doubt continue to stick with their beliefs that have worked for them for so long.[29] This raises a problem for the recipients because their view is essentially composed of their interpretations of the world and their activities and interpretation of the law is an artifact that reflects these interpretations.[30]

In Roman 4 Paul addresses the pride in which the Jews held over being called children of Abraham and being such felt saved simply by their faith.[31] In the case of circumcision the Christians relied on rituals as a means to earning some reward from God. Paul reminds us that ceremonies and rituals only serve as a reminder of our faith and are meant to instruct others in our belief.[32] A leader can take a great lesson from Romans 9 in that while we may have a worthy goal to honor God or even our followers; it is not achieved by mere rigid adherence and painstaking obedience to the law.[33]

As a leader it is important to understand that it is impossible to not infuse or instill our values into the organization in which we serve. A leader’s influence will affect the organization either positively or negatively whether they like it or not. The problem is not whether appropriate or not to infuse such values; the question is whether the leader has the appropriate behaviors, beliefs, attitudes, and assumptions to create success.[34] Additionally a leader must understand the differing and conflicting needs of their followers and how to address each of them.[35] Unfortunately most organizations are led by leaders who only know how to be administrators.[36] Administrators lead through an exaggerated confidence in their perceived execution skills.[37] For a leader to infuse appropriate values into the organization, leadership must begin with an understanding of a commitment to respect the followers.[38] To do so will aid the leader to always keep faith with the people they lead; never lying to their followers or breaking laws or rules in which the leader is charged to uphold.[39] Organizations can benefit greatly from a leader who understands their influence on the values of the organization. Leaders who do not understand the role they serve in will surely instill inappropriate values in those they lead. An administrator is less likely to succeed in leading an organization long-term if they focus only on the many available change methods, programs, and process to the exclusion of understanding and meeting the needs of their followers.[40]

As leaders we must understand the importance of our character, trust and individual values as it relates to our followers. We cannot simply regard our interpretations of the world as fact without consider those around us. It is through our ignorance of cultural interpretations that we find a resistance to change. This resistance is linked to a shared commitment to beliefs which encourages consistency in behaviors and discourages changes for any reason.[41] A leader’s character and trust is quickly diminished when their words do not align with their actions. To maintain the trust of our followers we must be consistent in our pursuit of consistency of word and deed. Leaders must be quick to understand that change of strategy may be needed from time to time as their interpretations of the world around them may be flawed. Openness to correction and growth is surely the sign of a good leader.


[1] Collins, J.C., & Porras, J.I. (1996, September-October). Building your company’s vision. Harvard Business Review, 74(5), p. 66.

[2] Boudon, R. (2001). The origin of values: Sociology and philosophy of beliefs. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, p. 10.

[3] Hackman, M.Z. and Johnson, C.E. (2000). Leadership. A Communication Perspective. 3rd Edition. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press, Inc., p. 233.

[4] Sire, James W. (1997). The Universe Next Door – Third Edition. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, p. 87.

[5] Ramirez-Rodriguez, Pedro (2011). Retrieved from his posting: Blackboard Dialogues for Doctorate in Strategic Leadership, Regent University, Virginia Beach, VA.

[6] Julian, Larry (2002). God is my CEO. Avon, MA: Adams Media Corporation, p. 254.

[7] Julian, (2002), p. 254.

[8] NASB, (2004), p. 1974.

[9] NASB, (2004), p. 1973.

[10] NASB, (2004), p. 1974.

[11] NASB, (2004), p. 1973.

[12] NASB, (2004), p. 1973.

[13] Hackman & Johnson, (2000), p. 12.

[14] Daft, (2002), p. 440.

[15] Northouse, Peter (2001). Leadership. Theory and Practice. 2nd Edition. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc, p. 254.

[16] Stanley, Andy (2003). The Next Generation Leader. Sisters, OR: Multnomah Publishers, Inc., p. 131.

[17] Stanley, (2003), p. 134.

[18] Phillips, Donald T. (1992). Lincoln on Leadership. New York, NY: Warner Books, Inc., p. 52.

[19] Phillips, (1992), p. 52.

[20] Covey, Stephen R. (1989). The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, Inc., p. 24.

[21] Covey, (1989), p. 24.

[22] Johnson, Mildred (2011). Retrieved from her posting: RE: Value Based Leaders and Followers. Blackboard Dialogues for Doctorate in Strategic Leadership, Regent University, Virginia Beach, VA.

[23] Myers, David G. (2007). Psychology. 8th Edition. New York, NY: Worth Publishing, p. 731.

[24] Myers, (2007), p. 732-751.

[25] Daft, (2002), p. 130.

[26] NASB, (2004), p. 1974.

[27] NASB, (2004), p. 1975.

[28] Hawthorne, G.F., Martin, R.P., and Reid, D.G. (1993). Dictionary of Paul and His Letters. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press., p. 849.

[29] Mintzberg, H., Ahlstrand, B., Lampel, J. (1998). Strategy Safari. New York, NY: First Free Press, p. 270.

[30] Mintzberg, Ahlstrand and Lampel, (2005), p. 265.

[31] NASB, (2004), p. 1976.

[32] NASB, (2004), p. 1977.

[33] NASB, (2004), p. 1988.

[34] O’Toole, James (1996). Leading Change. New York, NY: The Random House Publishing Group, p. x.

[35] O’Toole, (1996), p. xi.

[36] Hamel, Gary (2002). Leading the Revolution. New York, NY: Penguin Group, p. 22.

[37] Hamel, (2002), p. 22.

[38] O’Toole, (1996), p. 34.

[39] O’Toole, (1996), p. 35.

[40] O’Toole, (1996), p. 37.

[41] Mintzberg, et al., (2005), p. 269.

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Philip A Foster, MA is a professional life and leadership coach with Maximum Change Inc.
He works with leaders to facilitate the development of  life purpose, life balance and achievement of greater success; encouraging leaders to take active and consistent steps toward reaching goals and objectives. Specializing in Organization and Strategic Leadership.

Email | LinkedIn | Facebook | Twitter | Web | Blog | Skype: philip.a.foster | (615) 216-5667