Thirty-five years ago, syndicated columnist Cal Thomas wrote a book entitled, The Death of Ethics in America, citing (among many others) a 1987 Wall Street Journal headline, “Ethics can be nice, but they can be a handicap, some executives declare.”
In the book, Thomas was effusive about the ethical standards of the founders of a country which saw itself as having a “manifest destiny” as God’s chosen nation. He laments that two centuries of materialism, relativism, and secular humanism had left America rudderless and called for the re-establishment of ethical standards to guide leaders at all levels into wiser decision making.
Thomas’ book, while perhaps too steeped in religious terminology, zeroed in on his observation that the loss of a sense of responsibility beyond our own profit and pleasure had brought about a callousness to wrongdoing that weakened the nation Ronald Reagan once called “the shining city upon a hill.”
In its place has emerged a potpourri of assertions and demands that have fragmented the nation and left little room for respectful discussion, let alone debate, on even the most pressing matters of national survival and purpose. Let’s face it – We now see a return to mudslinging and finger pointing that obscures significant graft and mismanagement from public view.
For example, it is arguable that only a society lacking in ethical standards could produce the recent FTX customer funds scandal; and worse, when charged with fraud and conspiracy, the CEO could honestly (yet naively) say, “I don’t think I tried to do anything wrong.”
And yet despite perhaps veering off the ethical course our forefathers sought for us, in politics, academics, business and in life, on the horizon, there is optimism and tangible prospects for lasting change.
Brian Peckrill, the interim Executive Director of the William G. McGowan Charitable Fund, has overseen the Fund’s 14-year-old Fellows Program since 2021. McGowan chooses one second-year MBA candidate from each of ten participating university business programs for intensive training using a teaching method which draws from the Center for Creative Leadership’s internationally recognized leadership development methods.
Named for MCI founder William G. McGowan, the Fellows program began in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, which was blamed in part on an ethical collapse. The McGowan Fund wanted to nurture aspiring leaders who would count social impact as well as shareholder value in their decision-making.
Peckrill says the McGowan Fellows program flips the typical MBA model by devoting only 10 percent of students’ time to classroom activities and another 20 percent to coaching that focuses on teaching McGowan’s six principles of ethical leadership – character, integrity, courage, accountability, self-awareness, and empathy.
The bulk of the program consists of fieldwork via challenging stretch experiences that move the students outside of their comfort zone and press them to look at life from other perspectives. Back in January, the ten second-year MBA candidates provided outreach for a youth shelter, handing out fliers, sanitary kits, and other items valued by the homeless in the Windy City’s zero-degree weather.
The students learned first-hand that quality, career-sustaining jobs can lift even the most disadvantaged people out of homelessness. They visited youth shelters and listened to residents, learning their stories and their dreams and desires for a career and a better future.
Peckrill notes that many former Fellows are already moving into “C class” corporate and other leadership positions and bringing their ethical standards with them. When asked what other academic institutions might do to revive ethical standards for their own students, Peckrill was quite blunt.
“I don’t think just having a class focused on ethical leadership is enough. What we at McGowan believe,” he said, “is that, as students go through their life experiences, ethics should be embedded in all that they learn. Even marketing and finance courses are not immune to ethical challenges. Ethical leadership bleeds into all areas of business.”
So, he concluded, business schools seeking to teach ethics should take a holistic approach to integrating an ethical framework across the entire curriculum.
But then again, ethical leadership is bigger than just business or politics – all industries and societal sectors would benefit from the presence of individuals – especially in leadership positions – who apply an ethical framework in all their actions and decisions – which have impacts far beyond what lies right in front of them.
Peckrill explains that the hands-on approach of ‘learning by doing’ enables McGowan Fellows to better determine what is fair and just. By learning how others less fortunate live and cope with their challenges, these young future leaders learn for themselves the impact of their leadership decisions, and how to respond to the challenges they will face as they climb the ladders of success.
As the Fellows program enters its fourteenth year, Peckrill asserts that ethical leadership is critical for building a sustainable, successful society. People need to see ethical leadership as a positive and honor and celebrate ethical leadership – from the boardroom to the classroom to the workroom.
Toward that end, McGowan two years ago began honoring the “Ethical Leader of the Year Award,” announced at the annual meeting of the Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM), as a way to celebrate ethical leadership at its highest level in society. “I think,” Peckrill said at this year’s award ceremony, “that our country is crying out to celebrate and honor individuals who are ethical leaders.”
The Fund, in choosing their honoree, considers their adherence to the six principles of ethical leadership and their contributions to society, their management and leadership of people, and their establishment of ethical processes. This year’s honoree was Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian; the inaugural honoree a year ago was Prudential Financial Chairman and CEO Charles F. Lowrey.
Peckrill praises SHRM for its own commitment to ethical standards. Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., president and CEO of SHRM, agrees that, “The key to a great leader is one who builds a strong workplace culture with personal accountability and a commitment to setting an example in words, decisions, and actions.”
In the whirlwind of today’s political and social confrontations, ethical leadership may make the difference between future prosperity or societal collapse.
It only takes one moment of arrogance to start an irreversible conflict and the destruction it can bring with it.
Only ethical people with ethical leaders can accept the compromises that iconoclasts before us believed were absolutely necessary for society to persevere through trials and tribulations.