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There's No Such Thing as "Business" Ethics

  • Published Aug 28, 2003
There's No Such Thing as "Business" Ethics

"One of our problems is that ethics is never a business issue or a social issue or a political issue. It is always a personal issue."  - John C. Maxwell

Do you consider yourself an ordinary American, someone who will never face an ethical challenge that could become Page 1 news across the U.S.? If so, your thinking may have once been shared by Cynthia Cooper of WorldCom, FBI agent Coleen Rowley, and Sherron Watkins of Enron. These three "ordinary" Americans made fateful decisions to do the right thing in the face of apparent wrongdoing. The result: Selection by Time Magazine as "Persons of the Year" for 2002.

The honor won by these courageous women vividly demonstrates that any of us can suddenly be faced with a wrenching ethical dilemma. Will you do the right thing? In a complex world of complicated issues, will you even know what the right thing is? 

You will if you've read There's No Such Thing As 'Business' Ethics: There's Only One Rule For Making Decisions (Warner Books), by acclaimed leadership expert and best-selling author John C. Maxwell.

The key to Maxwell's construct of ethics is implied by his book's title. It emerged from a conversation in which Maxwell was asked if he'd care to write a book about business ethics. He responded, "There's no such thing as business ethics. There's only ethics." The upshot of that assertion for anyone seeking to know how to deal with ethical issues that arise in any realm-at work, at home, at church, or anywhere else-is this slim, approachable, and entertaining volume.

In There's No Such Thing As 'Business' Ethics, Maxwell recounts the "ethical chaos" expressed recently in the high-profile corporate scandals involving top executives of Enron, Adelphia, Tyco, and WorldCom. People make unethical choices, Maxwell asserts, for any of three reasons:

(1.) We do what's most convenient-the easy thing rather than the right thing.
(2.) We do what we must to win. "Few people set out with the desire to be dishonest, but nobody wants to lose."
(3.) We rationalize our choices with relativism. "Everyone has his own standards, which change from situation to situation." Maxwell laments such "situational ethics," noting that the course description for a University of Michigan class in corporate ethics states, "This course is not concerned with the personal moral issues of honesty and truthfulness.

"These temptations to make unethical choices creep into every corner of our lives, Maxwell observes: "One of our problems is that ethics is never a business issue or a social issue or a political issue. It is always a personal issue."

The fact that ethics is always personal, Maxwell contends, suggests a single, simple way that each of us "can move from 'mostly ethical' to 'always ethical' ... based on the Golden Rule." That way is "asking the question 'How would I like to be treated in this situation?'"

The beauty of the Golden Rule extends beyond its simplicity, Maxwell notes, to universality: It "cuts across cultural and religious boundaries and is embraced by people from nearly every part of the world. It's the closest thing to a universal guideline for ethics a person can find."

Given the simplicity and universality of the Golden Rule, why do so many of us so often stray from practicing it? There are five factors, Maxwell writes, that "undermine" the Golden Rule:

1. Pressure. "And with pressure comes the temptation to cut corners or bend the truth. ... No one escapes pressure."
2. Pleasure. "For decades, people in America were encouraged by the words 'If it feels good, do it.'"
3. Power. "Unfortunately, for many people, having power is like drinking salt water. The more you drink, the thirstier you get."
4. Pride. "... having an exaggerated sense of self-worth can be highly destructive. Wisdom literature is filled with warnings concerning pride and its negative impact."
5. Priorities. "Any time a person doesn't know what his priorities are, he can find himself in trouble because he is liable to make poor decisions."

For each of these factors, Maxwell suggests easy steps we can take to defeat their influence. The "golden opportunity" many of us seek in the external world, he argues, can never be seized without first doing "the groundwork on the inside." He explains each of eight steps involved in doing that: Take responsibility for your actions, develop personal
discipline, know your weaknesses, align your priorities with your values, admit wrongdoing quickly and ask forgiveness, take extra care with finances, put your family ahead of your work, and place high value on people.

The golden opportunity and the Golden Rule suggest one of the world's most enduring tales of gold-King Midas and his "golden touch." Just as Midas learned, the hard way, the pain and grief that ultimately resulted from his ability to turn everything he touched into gold, Maxwell advises that we learn a new concept of the "Midas touch," which comes
"by taking your focus off yourself and what you can gain, and instead focusing on adding value to others." Here, too, Maxwell provides simple, specific actions by which anyone can attain this truly invaluable touch.

"You can go for the gold," Maxwell notes, "or you can go for the Golden Rule." In There's No Such Thing As 'Business' Ethics, he eloquently and convincingly makes the case for the latter, and powerfully relates the specific measures by which any of us can achieve it-and revel in the joy that comes by adhering to ethics that are never compromised. 

About the Author: John C. Maxwell is a former pastor, a successful business executive, a preeminent expert on leadership, and the best-selling author of four previous books, including The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, Developing the Leader Within You, and in April 2003 Thinking for a Change (Warner). He is founder of the INJOY Group; an organization dedicated to helping people maximize their leadership potential