Too many leaders today do not see much as necessarily bad or good, and they simply go through their life without realizing there is so much more out there to be done and seen, just like the people in Plato's Cave. They have blinders on -- some of which are part of society, and some of which are self-inflicted. If only they would break out of the chains which enslave them in that Cave they could climb up into the light where they could truly see, and they would be aware of all the beauty and wonder in this world.
Unfortunately, the people in the Cave choose not to make an attempt at going outside, and because they do not strive to see more and to learn more, they do not teach the children to see more and to learn more. The cycle simply perpetuates, and this is the case with most leaders today, as well. They do not strive to do more, and they do not encourage those who work for them to do more, so people remain just where they were, instead of moving forward and accomplishing as much as they can and that they are capable of. If only one person would have believed the man who came back to the Cave and said "Guess what I saw outside? You have to see what's really there!" If only one person would have gone out there with him and taken a look, perhaps they would have told others, and others would have come, and the chains could have finally been broken for everyone (Nails, 2006). The true leader of today should be that 'one person,' but too often he or she is not.
Modern Leadership and Business Ethics
In business, ethics become somewhat clearer than they are when they are simply discussed in a general sense. Addressed here will be information about business ethics, because most of the leadership roles that society values are conducted within the confines of the business world. This also serves as a good example of how leadership generally works today and what people view as being valuable. There are specific rules and regulations that are to be followed where ethics are used in the business world. Because of this some of the more unethical behaviors become much more obvious, where they might have blended into the background of personal life and not been spotted quite as quickly and easily.
Business ethics has two specific aims. Those aims are: (1) to study ethics within a business itself, and (2) to study ethics in a business as it relates to society overall (Lacroix, 1979). This particular approach to ethics is sometimes called total 'political correctness,' which is almost impossible for the average person to conform to on anything like a daily basis. What is politically correct seems to change quite often, as well, so what was acceptable previously might not be acceptable tomorrow or next month. It can leave a leader looking unethical and impolite when he or she meant no harm.
Political correctness has been vastly removed from most of the academic disciplines but it remains strongly entrenched in ethics, and it can make the concept seem very stilted and completely unnatural. There are many things that cannot be said, and people are afraid to speak out, for fear they say something which might offend someone else. While that does keep a lot of individuals out of serious trouble, others are increasingly frustrated and uncomfortable with the idea that they have to be constantly vigilant against the wrong word or an improper phrase. It keeps them from leading in the most effective and appropriate way, because they are continually guarding themselves to avoid even the slightest hint of offense to someone else.
Elements of Ethical Dilemmas
There are six elements that cause most of the ethical dilemmas in business (Donaldson and Gini, 1984). Four of these apply almost exclusively to business, but two of them can also be applied to the life of an average person. Those two are worth mentioning here.
The first of these is the information dilemma. In this dilemma, people try to decide how much information they want or need to give out, and what they can say in order to make themselves look really good without actually lying to the person asking the question. Most people use this in their job interviews, on first dates, and in other meetings that are awkward and in which they want to appear more accomplished or better at something than they really are but do not want to completely lie, so that they do not have to fear getting caught in that lie later on in their dealings with a particular person or company.
The second element is a person's relationships with others. How someone treats other people and whether he or she deals with those people fairly is an important ethical concept. Unfortunately, there are many differing opinions about what is 'fair' and what is not, making this element difficult to narrow down to any kinds of specifics.
Ethics and Decision-Making
Ethics become extremely important when one enters the decision-making process. It can be as simple as deciding whether to tell a car dealer that the trade-in's windshield wipers do not work, to lying on an application for a job or a loan. Decisions made at these points in life, as well as quite a few others, are often somewhat unethical in the strictest sense. The person may really want that new car, or that new job, but lying will generally come back to cause a lot of problems later on. Generally, the larger the lie the larger the problem when it is discovered. Take, for example, the recent case of Bernie Madoff, who lied to his investors about having their money. Many people lost everything they had -- their life savings, and in some cases millions of dollars. It could not possibly be argued that it was an honest mistake on the part of Mr. Madoff. One person's account? Possibly. But all of those accounts, and for that period of time? Completely implausible.
The argument about what is ethical for a person, a position of power, or a society overall is an argument of value, just as it was in Plato's time and just as it will be in the future. If the value of what one stands to receive is high enough to have an extreme level of value, than the unethical behavior is justified to the person committing the unethical behavior. While most people rationalize things out in this way, the truth is that unethical behavior is never justified, no matter what the outcome will be or how much a person stands to gain, and that is especially true in a leadership position where others are place their trust in a person and expecting him or her to take care of them, be honest with them, and keep them safe from harm.
While ethics is always difficult to define, the old adage that one should do to others as one would want done to oneself is still true. A person must put himself or herself on the other side of the scenario. If it seems to be unfair from that position, than it probably is unfair, and it should be avoided -- but many people never bother to take this step. These people likely know that what they are doing or about to do is wrong, but they decide to allow what is about to happen continue. They assume that there will be no repercussions, and they assume that they are too clever to get caught. They will not get hurt, so what does it matter? For some of these people, the damage that they do is never tied to them. For most, however, there is a time of reckoning where their leadership -- and the lack of ethics, morals, and values which surrounded it -- comes back to haunt them. Mr. Madoff could certainly confirm this opinion from his jail cell, if asked.
Employees are people, not just pawns in an organization, and they should be treated as though they are valued. If they are downsized, asked to move to Mexico for cheaper labor, asked to take a pay cut, fired for no reason, or otherwise ethically mistreated they are only seen by their leader as a commodity to be used, much like raw materials that are used in the production of a product. They are not, at that point, treated as though they have any autonomy or any intrinsic value, and they generally feel that the company for which they work does not have any respect for them or interest in who they are as human beings (Anderson 1998). Often times, and sadly, they would be correct in that assumption.
There are some, such as Kenneth Keller, who argue that business should be only…