Ethics Going Down the Drain?

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

I have to say that the Hillary Clinton email debacle in the news brings back faded memories of losing money in the World Com scandal. What they have in common is an age-old question about leadership and ethics. How can we teach future generations to make good ethical choices when we have leaders who are hypocrites? Where are those servant leaders who lead by example? Who walk the walk and talk the talk?

Are ethics going down the drain?

Good Leaders Trustworthy

For ten years I coordinated a youth leadership program in Rutherford County, Tennessee. We spent a lot of time talking about what makes a good leader. Students wanted to follow leaders who were good examples. Honesty, trustworthiness, and fairness were three of the key words that students used to describe good leaders year after year. Trust once lost, these students said, was hard to give again. 

The real question here is, can a leader lead a group of people and live within the rules under which their followers have to live? Before I presented this question to my students, I did a lot of reading on the subject. Most of the great philosophers have asked this same question, with pretty resounding agreement that the answer is “not really.” Some say “not really” because of the demands of government and leadership (like having to choose who lives or dies in a war). Some say "not really" because of the corruption of power.

Ethical Choices Darker Shade of Grey

One of the questions I asked my students to ponder was if power corrupted, and, if faced with absolute power, would they be corrupted. Being raised good Bible-belt Christian children, they said “no.” And yet, when one of their instructors asked them some of those grey-area questions about life, over the years of the program I saw more and more kids making choices on the darker side of grey. I fear this because we are raising good kids in an environment where there are so many examples of unethical leadership in the news. Have kids today lost the desire to make ethical choices because they see leaders make bad choices with no repercussions? 

When I was a child, I was given a framework of ethical choices. I went to a religious school, and had parents with a strong sense of right and wrong. While I have made mostly good choices, I have found myself over the years doing things that I found morally wrong just to be accepted. Or to keep a job. Friends were more important. A paycheck was more important. And I wasn’t going to get into trouble. After all, everyone else was doing what I was doing. 

Now I cringe.  

In today’s 50 shades of grey ethical environment, yesterday’s “no” is becoming today’s “it depends.” We are on shaky ground here.

Historical Backlash

Along with a lack of solid ethical standards, we also have no interest in history. Yet, what is happening now, is very reminiscent of issues faced every millennium. Amazingly, every thousand years, or so, mankind comes to a place of great social upheaval that rocks our being. The laxity of moral standards always seems to be a symptom.

These massive social shifts have brought about great changes, such as the beginning of civilization, the founding of the major faiths of the world, and the Renaissance. If we are in a period of world social upheaval, how do we prepare the next generation to make the best choices for mankind without strong ethical standards?

While I do not have an answer, I feel that when in a position of authority I need to be very aware of my choices, because those I stand before will follow my lead more than my words. 

Lee Rennick is a freelance writer, former Vice-President of Marketing and past Executive Director of the Business Education Foundation of Rutherford County, TN. She shares her interests and knowledge about working, learning and living at During her ten years as the coordinator of State Farm Summer Business Camp and Youth Leadership Rutherford she made sure her students learned a few things about ethics, which started lots of interesting and appreciated conversations between participants and their parents at the dinner table. 
Photo from MorgueFile: Water running down a drain (grietgriet)

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