Ethics: Is Character Relevant to Leadership?
A re we only concerned about a leader’s character when affects us financially? The parade of scandals and setbacks at the beginning of this century might suggest that we are. We might like to think that personality will carry the leader even when their character is questionable, but in the end it catches up with us.
This scandal points out the importance of character not only in our daily lives but also as a qualification for leadership. We cannot compartmentalize our virtues and character and pull them out at will when we think they might benefit us. Effective leaders are those with stable lives—whose personal lives are congruent with their public lives. In a word, integrity. Personal integrity is what drives the ethics process.
Often we speak of business ethics as though it might be different from everyday run-of-the-mill ethics. But, ethics is ethics. To be an ethical leader means to be ethical in everything you do, in both our business and personal lives. Ethics speaks to a whole, congruent person. When people act differently at work than they do at home, you will begin to see fractures that can lead to collapses in ethical behavior. External problems of this nature, are problems of inner positions and thinking. Before someone bends the rule, before someone breaks the law, there is an identifiable behavior leading to a breakdown in integrity.
The events that unfolded through the years 2001 through 2004 should put a lid on the discussion of the relevance of character in our leaders. You may recall that this discussion reached a fevered pitch when ex-President Bill Clinton’s poor character became blatantly public. Like those in the boardrooms across America, he too reflected us. It is no doubt easier to defend his behavior and make excuses for him than it is for us to make the necessary changes in our lives to bring our attitudes and behavior into check. But bring it into check we must, if we are to move on with confidence without constantly looking over our shoulder waiting for the other shoe to drop.
"There is nothing better business leaders can do for this country right now than restore faith in the system that made it great," said US Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill. To do that, we must make character a priority in developing and choosing our leaders.
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