Ethics under pressure?

Published by The Nashville Business Journal

Pressures to excel in business come from everywhere. It’s tempting for business leaders to take unethical, and sometimes illegal, shortcuts to success. Heading down this risky path inevitably leads to disaster. Those who cheat the system and forget to follow the moral compass get caught — usually sooner rather than later.

First-rate leaders do not bend in the face of temptation to take shortcuts. They consistently embrace the highest level of ethical behavior. In my nearly five decades in business, including more than a decade as the CEO of a public company, it has never been more clear that ethical leadership is the only path to long-term success.

When business leaders fail to live up to high ethical standards, the media is there to hold us accountable. While often creating a barrage of negative news stories, this kind of oversight is essential for making us more diligent about walking the high road. Publicity has a way of inspiring leaders to strive for improvements that will keep their businesses off the front page.

Why do they do it?
Pressures to take shortcuts are often self-initiated in a quest to show results or by an ambition to get ahead. A little shortcut such as bending a rule, exaggerating a truth or making a minor adjustment seems so harmless the first time. But over a longer period the rule-benders grow, and before you know it, you are trapped in a web of deceit. And most important: It never works. Everyone gets caught—by accountants, auditors, security people, and, most likely, a co-worker with a greater sense of integrity.

Sometimes leaders become overconfident and they begin to believe they are omniscient. They begin to see in their own results a sense of infallibility and then make decisions on that basis. Over time they become more isolated because they don’t listen. Separated from reality, these leaders crash and burn fantastically when they are forced to face reality—a reality that usually results in personal crisis.

The right path
Business leaders have an obligation to their constituents — customers, employees, suppliers, stockholders — to operate in a way that is just for all. If behavior is unethical, business relationships deteriorate and ultimately sour success.

It is incumbent on business leaders to act in an ethical way and continually talk about the importance of ethics in the business world. Good leaders give direction, set the moral compass and do everything possible to ensure the success of the organization. The best leaders act personally and professionally with the highest degree of integrity because they know it is the only path to continued success.

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