Real ethics cannot be understood as a disconnected set of rules. Ethical behavior is wholly embedded in a person’s larger sense of self and society. What kind of a person do I want to be? How can I become that person? What do I want to accomplish in life? What do I want to leave behind? In the answers to these questions, people find compelling reasons to act ethically.
When understood as a central component of a person’s identity, instead of as a separate rule system externally forced on the person, ethics acquires a positive rather than constraining quality. It then becomes possible to see how strong ethics can help us achieve our loftiest goals. Ethical acts become part of the tool kit for solving life’s problems and expanding personal frontiers. Along with affiliated character virtues such as honesty and humility, ethical acts keep us on course in the direction that best serves the long-term interests of everyone in the picture—ourselves, our companies, as well as society and the world at large.
The key to this understanding is to focus on the big questions— who I am and what I want to accomplish in the highest sense—even amid the most severe pressures of competition and crisis in everyday business life. This is easier said than done, however, but it is a capacity that can be cultivated over time, much like any useful skill or habit. Many business leaders acquire this capacity through religious or spiritual faith. In our study, for example, we found that a majority of the business leaders interviewed were people of devout faith, even though they often avoided expressing religious views in their workplaces. Faith is one way—not the only way, but a powerful one—to keep a steady ethical compass amid temptations and pressures to compromise.
McDonald Williams, the CEO and chairman of the board at Trammel Crow Company, the huge Dallas real-estate outfit, recalled the times in his life when he wondered whether he was going to make it economically. One instance was back in the early seventies, during a severe recession. He was still a young man then, with four children and a mortgage on his home. “I’m busted,” he said, “and you talk about a moment of truth, but what came to me at that time was probably as close to an epiphany in business as I’ve ever had, and that is, ‘Wait a minute, why did you come? You came here because of the people and the values. Had those things changed? No. External business environments have changed. We’re in trouble, but the reasons I came persist, and I can make a difference in this environment.’” Williams survived the crisis of the early seventies and prospered, only to watch his company fall back into another economic downturn in the late eighties. He explained the role of his faith in keeping a steady grip on his sense of purpose and his ethical values during these difficult periods:
Values get tested on tough times, not good times. And I think that my faith helped, because once I went through that first time, I said, “Wait a minute, I’m not my net worth. I’m not my business reputation.” And I never lost sleep going through the hardest times. We had guys who weren’t going to sleep and their marriages were breaking up and they were doing things that they shouldn’t be doing. But I think faith for me gave me an internal perspective. . . .
My faith was more relevant to my business in tough times than anything else because then your values really were square in your face. Are you going to live them or not? Are you going to look beyond the moment for a longer time frame? Who are you? Are you just your job? Are you just your career? Or are you just your reputation? Or are you just your net worth? . . . I mean, they are important to me, I can’t deny that. But I think faith helped me, in that moment, have perspective.