Ethics sits within the heart of leadership. With a growing number of ethics scandals being reported, from the downfall of Theranos and a money-laundering scandal at Denmark’s Danske Bank, to the tensions between health and economic welfare exemplified by the COVID-19 crisis, the need for leaders who can model and maintain a culture of integrity has never been higher.
In Western civilization, we harken back to the teachings of Aristotle to identify the many facets of ethics, indeed, the very virtues, that leaders and stewards of business and society require. According to Aristotle, ethical virtues can be summarized as:
- Courage in the face of danger, which is not fearless, indeed, which fears shame, and seeks honor
- Temperance, or self-control
- Liberality, or judicious use of resources
- Magnanimity, or taking the high road, and doing good
Modern theorists have recast Aristotelian ethics into new paradigms. Is the ethical business leader someone who puts the interests of shareholder returns above those of the employees, customers, users, and other stakeholders of the business?
What are the duties of an ethical leader, and to whom are they owed? When are they owed? Are they to deliver results measured quarterly, or are they to pursue longer-term goals to be measured over the years or even decades?
Other lenses on leadership focus on a style. Does the ethical leader govern centrally and hierarchically from the front and in the spotlight, or does the ethical leader delegate decisions down to their lowest point and stay in the wings, letting others own their decisions?
Another paradigm of leadership is time. When is success measured? Is it today, or tomorrow, or in a century?
One of the most prescient statements of modern leadership came from Sergey Brin and Larry Page, the founders of Google, in their letter to Google’s prospective IPO investors in 2004, when they announced their unconventional dual-class voting structure, and triumvirate management team, with the supreme goal to serve end users and “don’t do evil.” Measured by almost any metric, Google has achieved success in rendering information accessible to the masses and spawning billions of new online businesses who can access its users to turn them into customers. How much of Google’s success is owed to its ethics or leadership structure? From another angle, despite whatever successes, can we say that Google is an ethical company if its algorithms, which pick the winners and losers in business and society, are for sale? Has Google become evil in some way?
Mark Zuckerberg, in his letter to Facebook’s prospective IPO investors in 2012, boldly declared that Facebook was not created to be a company, but rather, to accomplish a social mission – to make the world more open and connected. Measured by any metric, Facebook has succeeded in this mission, at least from inception to recent times. But is Facebook still an ethical company? Has it become a victim of its own success and a tool for foreign powers to manipulate our elections, and for multinational companies to exploit our private conversations for profit? Is Facebook responsible for the potential misuse of its platform by unscrupulous manipulators? Does it bear some moral responsibility or culpability for the actions of its users, from whom it derives monetary benefit?
Thanks to the freedoms of expression that we hold innate in Western civilization, we are learning more about the failures of leadership in business and politics, and not so much about their successes. Indeed, the competition among press outlets for attention has garnered more attention for failures and scandals, which draw more readers, raise more advertising revenues, and dumb down the news. Nonetheless, can we learn lessons from these ethical lapses, failures and scandals?
Certainly, we can agree that fraud is evil. So if the leader of a technology or healthcare business boldly lied about the potential of her company’s products to accomplish the mission that she set forth, she would be evil. But isn’t it the role of every leader to proselytize a disruptive and innovative product or platform that will change the very nature of our society or healthcare system? Where is the line between evangelism and fraud?
In America, we can also agree on equality of opportunity. Where Americans disagree is how to achieve this. Should affirmative actions be taken that rely on quotas to determine the racial, gender and other orientations of our leaders? How does diversity and inclusion, whether forced or natural, change the decision-making process? Is it ethical? Do diverse leadership teams make more ethical decisions? Do they make better business decisions? How are they different, if at all?
Will diverse leaders help us in the face of a global pandemic of unimaginable proportions? We are relying on technology and healthcare companies to lead us out of recession, enable liberation from government-enforced lockdowns, invent vaccines, mass produce tests for antibodies, mass produce equipment to combat illness, and track infected persons to contain the spread of a deadly virus. Leaders among nations, within governments and public and private industry will need to work together as never before.
Ethical, efficient and farsighted leadership is necessary to overcome unprecedented threats, both in magnitude and global scope. Indeed, as Henry Kissinger recently stated in an essay, “[s]ustaining the public trust is crucial to social solidarity, to the relation of societies with each other, and to international peace and stability.”
Technology and healthcare leaders will need to work together, and with governments and multi-lateral organizations, to combat and create resilience to infectious disease, climate change, and the poverty and death that could otherwise result. Technology and healthcare leaders will need to create, pivot and build new businesses to overcome these challenges. As Marc Andreesen, founder of Netscape and the eponymous venture capital firm that bears his name, said: It is time to build.
At the same time, ethical leaders will need to bring employees back to work, and customers back into the economy, as quickly as possible, and safely, to ensure that basic human needs can be met.
Finally, ethical leaders will need to work together to provide for fundamental needs like security, justice, and balancing the right to privacy with the need for safety. Pragmatic decisions will have to be made, sometimes with the best of intentions but with incomplete information. If information later shows that those decisions were not the right ones, leaders will need to have the courage to make changes, and without fear of recriminations.
This is a time for technology and healthcare leaders to shine the light and demonstrate the modern manifestation of Aristotle’s ethics. With optimism, positive energy and creativity, and a healthy dose of ethical leadership, nothing can hold us back.
Written by Louis Lehot. Have you read?
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