How High Is Your ELQ?

It's not enough to be ethical, writes Bob Stone. You have to teach it.
by | July 30, 2008

What's your ELQ -- your Ethical Leadership Quotient? Give yourself a point for each statement that's true for you. You need 10 points to pass.

1. I follow the law.

_ True

_ False

2. I adhere to the code of ethics of my city (or jurisdiction).

_ True

_ False

3. I practice the Golden Rule.

_ True

_ False

If your score is 3 so far, very good. One last question, worth 7 points:

I teach ethics every day to the people I work with.

_ True

_ False

"Just a minute!" you may protest. "No fair. Who says that's my job?"

Well, if it's not yours, whose job is it? If your jurisdiction is large enough, it probably offers, even requires, formal ethics training. However, if the training is anything like what I got as a federal worker, it doesn't address ethics at all. Instead, you learn about the laws covering bribery and conflicts of interest: When can a government worker accept a meal from a government contractor, or how expensive a gift can one accept from a friend who has dealings with one's agency? And so on. Ethics is never discussed.

But even if it were, an occasional ethics class taught by outside specialists wouldn't do the job. Ethics is an inside job, an everyday job. You have to teach it -- you, along with agency heads, line managers and frontline supervisors.

Perhaps, you say, you teach by example. Good, but not good enough. I once broke a Defense Department rule out of a sense of duty: The rule was not serving its intended purpose, and blind application would have been bad for national defense. So I broke it -- ethically, I'm certain. But for the people in my organization, it wasn't a learning experience: I gave no explanation -- I let my action speak for me. Unfortunately there was no way for anybody to judge the ethics of my action without knowing what was in my mind. In such a case "watch my deeds, not my words" doesn't apply.

So teaching by example isn't good enough. You need to talk about it. But for most of us that isn't easy. As one government executive explained, "We don't talk about it because we're diffident. Nobody anointed us as ethics teachers. What qualifications do we have?"

He could have been speaking for me. He could have been speaking for anyone with some sense of humility. That humility, or embarrassment, is why ethics is hardly ever on the agenda at staff meetings or policy discussions. Ethics codes may be discussed -- watch out for conflicts of interest, or be careful not to go beyond what the law allows -- but discussions that really focus on ethics are rare.

It's too bad, because talking can be transformational. Talking is undervalued in our "doing" society, but talking is not only how we teach, it's how we learn. Talking forces you to organize -- and often reorganize -- your thoughts. It can change your mind about what's ethical. In fact, asking yourself whether you could explain an action to your mother (or to your child) is one of the most powerful tests to determine if that action is ethical.

You can teach by leading your organization and your colleagues to talk about issues and examine them for their ethical content. Many issues that first appear to be tactical will turn out to be ethical: Should I argue with the boss? Should I give negative feedback to a co-worker? Should I give an unsolicited opinion? And, these discussions of ethics will raise the ethical awareness of everyone in the organization.

So talking about ethics is an effective way to teach and to learn. As we discuss these issues with the people we work with, and look at the issues through an ethical lens, we often get to a different answer. We won't really know our opinion until we express it. As J. Robert Oppenheimer explained, "What we don't understand we explain to each other."

So here's how to get to a top score on the ELQ test: Become a teacher of ethics -- and a student -- by talking about the ethical issues behind every course of action.

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