Ethics Can’t Be Taught, But They Can Be Modeled

Excerpt from “The Dividends of Decency” By Donald Lee Sheppard (Figure 1 Publishing, April 2018).

The question of whether ethics can be taught has been well researched by many scholars and psychologists. The consensus seems to be that yes, it can be taught, though how to teach ethics is a more complicated matter. On the one hand, ethics are an extension of a person’s conscience and moral behavior and, therefore, are learned through personal experiences and influences. However, research by foremost psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg found that ethics can be taught simply through instruction. So how can business leaders go about teaching ethics to employees? What is a leader’s role within an organization when it comes to ensuring employees are behaving in an ethical manner?

The fact is, ethical business practices begin with leadership and have a trickle-down effect on everyone within an organization. Don’t believe me? Take a look at some of the biggest scandals of our time, involving Enron, Washington Mutual, and Lehman Brothers —companies that all collapsed under the weight of corruption that had been sanctioned by top leaders.

With corruption costing more than $2 trillion per year, and unethical business practices causing poor employee performance, higher rates of employee turnover, and rampant employee fraud, businesses cannot afford to have leaders set a bad example. If those at the top don’t embrace values-based leadership, no one else in the company can be expected to either.

Here are four primary “areas of action” that represent both general and specific steps that can be taken by business leaders to create the type of ethical organization that will thrive in today’s global economy. The impact and influence of these actionable steps cannot be overstated. When corporate leaders internalize them, they can have a radically positive power over everything a business and its employees do.

Action 1: Don’t Preach It—Practice It. This goes to the heart of the difference between simply instructing employees to be ethical and showing them how to be ethical through modeling the behavior. It’s not enough to identify values important to you and your organization; you also have to live those values by actively ingraining them into the culture and daily business practices of every employee. It starts at the top. Behind every ethical business is values-based leadership.

Action 2: Be Courageous. Standing up in defense of your own values and scruples may be difficult in some situations. But if your values are strong enough and run deeply enough within you, what other choice do you have? Acting in a manner that is consistent with your ethics will both define you personally and strengthen your organization in the long run. The best leaders draw on their moral courage when unpopular but necessary action is called for. If you don’t have that level of courage, I would question your qualifications for the job.

Action 3: Keep Your Perspective. Yes, as a leader you may need to work within an environment of conflicting systems, values and personalities. This doesn’t mean you must join others in a race to the bottom where ethics are concerned. There may be no more childish phrase than, “Everyone else was doing it!” Your values belong to both you and your business. You cannot give up or dilute one set without weakening the other. Leaders must set, maintain, and, if possible, elevate the status—moral, financial, and reputational—of the entity they are managing. Lose that perspective, and you risk losing everything.

Action 4: Develop Social Intelligence. Ethical behavior goes beyond keeping rules in mind. The rules are important to follow, but simple compliance will take you only so far. Following and acting on your principles rather than just sticking to the rules or the letter of the law is far more effective for your business. When you are aware not only of moral standards to follow but of the motives and feelings of others and how they are affected by your actions, then ethics become as natural as breathing.

Fortunately, American business does not suffer from the same prevalent corruption commonly found in countries such as Russia or Sudan. But future seismic shifts in business will not only test the principles and values of American corporations, they also will lead to a new breed of partnerships, in which trust and ethics will matter even more than today. To ensure ethical business practices, companies must promote individuals who exhibit genuine leadership qualities, versus those who are strictly good at ruling over others. How can we distinguish a leader from a ruler?

The difference between the two is significant. As the following comparisons suggest, leaders demonstrate integrity and decency. Rulers exhibit neither.

Leaders listen and speak. Rulers command and control.

Leaders motivate. Rulers terrify.

Leaders become involved. Rulers remain remote.

Leaders correct. Rulers scold.

Leaders teach and learn. Rulers expect and ignore.

Bosses or managers who scold and terrify their staff and insist on controlling every activity do not always engage in illegal or immoral activities. But it’s clearly difficult to visualize that kind of behavior from someone who serves as a model of integrity. Creating an ethical business starts with hiring and promoting the right people to fill leadership positions. No amount of ethics training will do a better job of teaching employees how they are expected to behave within an organization. When an organization’s leadership embraces ethical business practices, others surely will follow suit.

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Excerpt from “The Dividends of Decency” By Donald Lee Sheppard (Figure 1 Publishing, April 2018). For more information, visit:

Donald Lee Sheppard emerged from humble beginnings in a Northern Ontario mining town to become a leader in employee benefits consulting and communications. During his career, he rapidly rose through the ranks of companies such as Manulife, William M. Mercer, and Johnson & Higgins. Later, Sheppard built and sold his own employee communications consulting firm, Sheppard Associates. Currently the CEO of Sheppard Properties, LLC, he is actively involved in a host of charitable ventures. He pedaled coast-to-coast in a cross-country cycling fundraiser and has had a significant positive impact on youth soccer in America, receiving several awards for outstanding community service. Learn more about Sheppard at, and connect with him on Twitter at @DonSheppard2012, LinkedIn, and Facebook.