Ask More of Business

Asking More Commentary: Perspectives from Mendoza College of Business

Commentary Post - Joseph Holt

Not being bad isn't good enough

July 31, 2009

Part of the privilege and responsibility of business leadership lies in the capacity to help employees experience pride and fulfillment in the work to which they devote so much of their time, talent and energy. Leaders who ask more of themselves and of others in terms of moral behavior and social impact actually do more to help themselves and their employees experience such pride and fulfillment. (They also help their customers, investors, lenders and local communities enjoy a higher level of trust in the company.)


In considering what level of ethical aspiration an individual executive or company might choose, I am reminded of a complimentary training session I was offered when I joined a local health club.  The enthusiastic young trainer said that before she could recommend the right exercise program for me, she first needed to know what my goals were.  Had I been asked that question in my lacrosse-playing youth, I would have responded with a variety of ambitious athletic goals.  But I have recently crossed the mid-century mark in life and am now content to be a jogger rather than a runner. So I replied, only half-jokingly, that my overall health goal was “to slow down deterioration.”


Joking aside, just as individuals must choose a level of aspiration in connection with physical well-being before making a sound decision with respect to their respective exercise programs, so companies must choose a level of aspiration in connection with ethical well-being before making a sound decision with respect to the design and implementation of their respective ethics and compliance programs.  Physical levels of well-being can range from a low of not being sick to a high of thriving.  A company’s aspiration with respect to ethical well-being can range from a low of just not being bad, to a high of being exemplary. 


The leaders of some recently failed companies would never have accepted “not bad” when it came to economic performance. But they accepted that minimalistic standard when it came to ethical conduct.  In the companies most worth committing oneself to, by contrast, it is abundantly clear that not being bad isn’t nearly good enough.   The leaders in those companies ask more of themselves and of those who follow them in terms of both economic and ethical performance.


The leaders of even the best companies recognize that on this side of the fall, there will always be a need to detect and deter wrongdoing.  But they view the avoidance of wrongdoing as a minimum threshold and aspire beyond that threshold to live up to the values and beliefs that define them and their organizations at their best; and they encourage the better moral instincts of those who follow them.


They recognize the truth in Richard Ellsworth’s description in “Leading With Purpose” of their capacity to elevate moral behavior by asking more of themselves and of others: “When the leader aspires to a higher level of moral behavior and demands the same of followers, a virtuous cycle of increasing aspiration occurs.”