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I Asked 20 Successful Leaders What "Ethics" Means To Them

Bruce Weinstein
· Aug 22, 2022

I asked 20 leaders from a wide range of fields a simple question: "What does 'ethics' mean to you?" The answer had to be no more than one sentence.

This is what they said. 

20 Leaders Explain What “Ethics” Means To Them

“Ethics means knowing the difference between what is morally right and wrong – and then acting accordingly.”
--Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., President and CEO, Society for Human Resource Management

"Ethics is the inner voice that drowns out rationalization and focuses us on what we know we should do."
--Thomas J. Gentzel, Executive Director and CEO, National School Boards Association

“Doing and being that which I feel, believe or know to be right and good.”
--Cory Tholl, CEO, Klymit

“Ethics is doing what you said you were going to do when you said you would do it and in a way that is respectful to all stakeholders.”
--Phil Jones, Author, Exactly What to Say: The Magic Words for Influence and Impact

“Doing the right, decent thing even when you have the power to do the convenient, self-serving thing.”
--Elizabeth A. Schartz, Employment lawyer, Thompson & Knight LLP

“I prefer the ethical path in life; it's good for my soul, and there is less traffic.”
--Tony Haines, President, Small Planet Pictures

“Ethics means making decisions in the context of relationships with others.”
--George Telford, Senior Associate Director of Major Gifts, Haverford College

“That you operate from a set of values and principles from which you will not deviate; such values and principles including - but not limited to - honesty, integrity, fairness, and honoring and respecting others.”
--Bob Burg, Co-author with John David Mann of The Go-Giver series

“I have an interpretation of the Hawaiian word, kinaole: Do the right thing, at the right time, with the right spirit to our customers and clients every time.”
-Mary Kelly, PhD, Commander, US Navy, Co-author with Peter B. Stark, Why Leaders Fail and the 7 Prescriptions for Success

“Doing what you believe to be right and owning it -- regardless of outcome.”
--Vincent Talucci, CAE, Executive Director and Chief Executive Officer, International Association of Chiefs of Police

“Ethics means doing what’s right even when no one else is looking, and holding yourself accountable to your colleagues, your organization and most importantly your principles.”
--Rob Nichols, President and CEO, American Bankers Association

"Doing the right thing is the right thing to do.”
--Stephen Sandherr, Chief Executive Officer, Associated General Contractors of America

“Acting in a way that furthers our best impulses to do good.”
--B. David Joffe, Partner, Bradley Arant Boult Cummings LLP

“Ethics means doing the right thing when it is not easy, pleasant or convenient.”
--Arthur Schwartz, CAE, Deputy Executive Director & General Counsel, National Society of Professional Engineers, Executive Director, National Academy of Forensic Engineers

“For me, key ethics include the principles of honesty, integrity, fairness and empathy.”
--John Fithian, President and CEO, National Association of Theatre Owners

“Ethics means consistently acting to deliver personal performance that instills trust, confidence, and credibility, that then allows one to influence others in ways that promote the greater good of all.”
--Rosalyn Sue Edrozo, P.E., a Process Safety professional for Marathon Petroleum Corporation

“At the risk of oversimplification, to me, ethics means doing the right thing; listening to our internal alarm that goes off when we’re not doing what we know to be the right.”
--Bill Cates, Relationship Marketing Expert and Author, Beyond Referrals: How to Use the Perpetual Revenue System to Convert Referrals into High-Value Clients

“At the heart of ethics is a personal dedication to sincerely put the needs of others and the decency of the consequences of your actions before those of your own.”
--Joel Gibbs, Director, Love The Arts In Philadelphia

“Above all else, ethics is the measure of someone’s character and credibility as a respected leader, coworker and friend,”
--Richard Hunt, President and CEO, Consumer Bankers Association

“Acting in a way that does not negatively impact the well-being of anyone involved, including yourself.”
--Tony Chatman, Author, The Force Multiplier: How to Lead Teams Where Everyone Wins

"Ethics is the response to Socrates’ question, 'How should one live?' What do you value? What standards do you have for yourself and others? What is acceptable, and what is not? We often think of ethics as an abstraction—an intellectual exercise far removed from reality. That is a mistake. Ethics is practical, and it plays a part in everything we do. Life on earth is fast becoming a shared destiny. We need to ask not only: what do our ethical principles mean in my country? But also, what do they mean across countries? Most of us have the capacity to choose how we wish to live. Ethics requires us to explain what “better” looks like, and how we can improve our chances of achieving it. Global Ethics Day provides an opportunity to share ethics-inspired thoughts, ideas, and projects, and to connect around the idea that “ethics matter.”
--Joel H. Rosenthal, President of the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs
[Note: Joel got more space than the other contributors because this article was a celebration of Global Ethics Day, created by the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs

A Call to Action

Here's a team-building exercise you'll enjoy. Ask everyone on your team to write down their one-sentence answer to the question, "What does 'ethics' mean to you?" Use their responses to open a discussion about how to promote your organization's values, strengthen your relationship with colleagues and serve your clients better.

I'd love to see a sample of the responses you collect. Send them to me, and I may include some of them in a future article for Forbes (with their permission, of course)!


Thank you for reading my blog post! I hope you're having a good day.


Bruce Weinstein, Ph.D., The Ethics Guy
Forbes Contributor
Ethics Trainer and Speaker

P.S. Take my free ethics test here and find out how ethical you are! A version of this article was originally published in Forbes.

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