Last week in Spain, we learnt that, during the worst of the COVID-19 crisis, the government of Madrid awarded a facemask-supplying contract to a relative of Madrid’s regional president. Last month, we knew that the UK prime minister attended a party during lockdown, breaching the rules set by his government in the pandemic. Here and there, we can find examples of leaders behaving in, let’s say, a questionable manner. These situations are perfect to talk of ethics in power.
First, let’s define what ethics is. Ethics is the set of principles and conduct standards governing an individual or group. People develop these standards based on what family, education, culture or religion promote. In summary, ethics is what tells us what is right or wrong. This isn’t something people are born with; it’s something learnt and dependent on the context.
Universal values are not universal
This is the first time in human history in which we can talk of universal values. Concepts like dignity, equality, freedom of thought, for example, are included in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. Probably, if we ask about universal values, the average person would add honesty, sincerity and truth to the list.
Generally speaking, we all know what is right and what is wrong, but the context matters. At times, what is right in theory collides with many other things, such as personal interests, other loyalties and debts. Many times, there is a fight between what we know we should do and what we want to do, or we’ve been asked to do. Only our moral internal compass can help in these situations. In the lack of it, rules and laws, and peer pressure can work but, as we’re seeing, these aren’t flawless.
Continuous erosion of trust
For a society to grow strong, citizens must trust their leaders. The same is true for a company. Leaders establish an important part of an organization’s culture. Therefore, the way they solve these dilemmas matters because they’re setting an example.
Every time we see someone choosing their personal interests over what it should be done, it erodes our trust. Moreover, unethical behaviours produce two results: people won’t take risks and many of them will start behaving the same. Lack of trust and lack of ethical standards are not something to promote in a company if we want it to last.
Talking about ethics in power requires a discussion about responsibility. It’s not only that the leaders’ behaviours shapes the company’s culture. Everyone has the responsibility to care about the behaviours they are promoting. The same is true for societies.
People should keep their leaders accountable for their decisions, promoting what they think is right.
On the other side, leaders need to consider ethics as an essential part of their role, even when it collides with other interests. In summary, they shouldn’t be there to take advantage of their position, but to manage complexity and uncertainty. If they can’t distinguish the red lines, they simply should back off.
Ethics is not only an individual matter. Everyone has responsibility in it.