CEO Insider

Three Ways CEOs Can Find a Strong Moral Compass

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Are there useful moral lessons in the recent Supreme Court rulings allowing the First Amendment rights of a high school student who posted vulgar language on social media? How about social media companies’ denials of online access to those who might utilize it irresponsibly? Where are the ethics in Bill Cosby’s early release? So too, what ethics prevail in the congressional manipulations to stop further investigations of suspected, seditionist behaviors on January 6th, 2021.

These events, as well as the continuing sagas of the CEOs, politicians, celebrities and others falling from grace, remind us that sometimes what we see on the surface is not a real reflection of the dark interior. And, as these types of cases come to light and courts take over, transparency gets blurred. Through all of this, it is the public’s trust that takes another big hit.

It seems imperative amidst the clamor of the news, that CEOs remain focused on the real issues. The smoke in the room happens when we start arguing over which schoolyard bully is the least ethical—when we know all bullying lacks moral conscience. Our attention should be focused on why these characters feel that bullying, or blurring the lines, or foisting unjust behaviors on the innocent is in any way acceptable.

These well-publicized examples of corporate, political and celebrity misdeeds reflect a lack of ethics that permeate many levels of American society. The roots of this are not only in misplaced, societal priorities, but in a widespread and erroneous belief that ‘good’ people make the good decisions and ‘bad’ people make the unethical ones.

Face it. Our world highly rewards a winner defined largely by his or her title, possessions, and popularity – not a very good footing for strong or consistent ethical choice-making.

The last couple of years has been immensely challenging for CEOs but the potential for transformation and change sparked by those challenges is also immense.

How do we overcome the pressures and temptations to flout ethical behavior in favor of personal or professional gains? Here are ways to make ethical decisions while holding yourselves and others accountable:

  1. Trust your “lighthouse moments. These can be subtle or indelible experiences that make us decide a course of action and shape our future choices. They warn of danger as well. Some believe that ethical choices are relative to whom and what you know and when you know it. But this is akin to the idea that ‘ignorance of the law is an excuse.’ Ethics are far more about what we do, sometimes despite what we know. Our ethics can be beacons!
  2. Use the moral guardrails. Most drivers are cautious when navigating a winding mountain road or bridge without guardrails. Ethics aren’t iffy or gray or relative or movable; they exist under all conditions for all drivers. To say ethics are relative is like using the phrase, “sort of pregnant” or “sort of human.” Either you are or you are not. Right choice-making happens best on a pathway guided and protected by ethics that are constant and clear.
  3. Keep moral standards universal. So many of the highly publicized scandals and tragedies that could have been avoided can be traced to people disregarding our common moral standards. If our ethical choices are defined not by a universal moral code owned and practiced by everyone but by standards individuals or groups arbitrarily apply to themselves, there are no wrong choices, because all choices become right.

Universal moral principles provide solid reference points for establishing values, behaviors and ethics that create trust. And, despite popular belief that they are unattainable– we already have quite a few. Just stand at a four-way stop for a while. You’re witnessing two things. Cars stopping to obey a law and the trust between us that makes that law work.

Given the choice between laws or ethics, I’d rather live in a society of no laws and 100 percent trustworthiness than a society of all laws and no trust. Laws tell us what we can do, ethics tell us what we should do.


Written by Christopher Gilbert.

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Christopher Gilbert, PhD
Christopher Gilbert, PhD, co-founder of NobleEdge Consulting, specializes in Organization and Management Leadership Ethics. He has traveled the globe focusing on sustainability, human capacity development, and business conduct programs while working with Fortune 500 companies, government, and non-profit organizations, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation where he worked on food security programs in sub-Saharan Africa. His new book, The Noble Edge: Reclaiming an Ethical World One Choice at a Time, ISBN 978-1631954054 (e-book) $8.49, (paperback) $17.95, Morgan James Publishing, is available at Amazon and other book sellers.


Christopher Gilbert is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. You can follow him on LinkedIn.