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Do Millennials and Ethics Make Good Business?

John Knights, Chairman of LeaderShape Global is the lead author of “Leading Beyond the Ego: How to Become a Transpersonal Leader”, published March 2018 by Routledge. Below John explains to CEO Today the fragile relationship between millennials and ethics in business.

Somewhere deep inside many senior leaders, there is a question about whether ethical concerns are best set to one side in times of crisis or when it comes to the crunch of making really tough decisions.

I would suggest this happens when we are more concerned with our own interests than those of all the other stakeholders of our organisation, which range from employees and customers to the community and even the planet.

Leaving aside for the moment the morality of these choices, in today’s world not being ethical just does not make business sense. Even if it may be expedient in the short term, it is not sustainable.

I remember back in the ‘80s when I was a main board director of a FTSE100 company I had to make a decision whether to go along with what I considered a fraudulent situation or, what I chose to do, leave the organisation. In those days there was nowhere to go to blow the whistle and information was much more difficult to obtain or disclose. Today it is different. We know from all the exposures of fraud, sexual harassment, etc. over the last few years that there is a much greater chance of being caught than ever before. Banking scandals alone amounted to fines of US$ 373bn between 2011 and 2016, not to mention the motor and other industries. The internet and information age has changed things for ever. This is largely good news.

However, perhaps more important in this new world of rapid change and unlimited information are the views and attitudes of the younger people in the workforce and the next generation of leaders, the so-called Millennials. For clarity, a Millennial is someone born between 1980 and 1993, so today they would 25 to 38 years old. And those younger than 25 today are the Z generation.[1]

The IBM study together with the World Economic Forum’s Global Shapers Annual Survey discovered that while previous generations wanted recognition and career opportunity above all else from their bosses, Millennials want fairness and ethical behaviour. When looking for a job, Millennial leaders rate an “opportunity to make a difference in society” top of the list, followed by “opportunities to learn” with “career advancement”only third.

The third reason why ethical behaviour is in a leader’s self-interest is that we live and operate in an age of rapid change and increasing transparency. Keeping unethical behaviour undiscovered means keeping information secret or telling lies, and that is becoming increasingly difficult.

The Advanced part of the leadership development journey detailed in Leading Beyond the Ego: How to Become a Transpersonal Leader[2] is fundamentally about how excellent leaders bring their core values to full-consciousness for every decision they make and learn to manage their ego effectively.

Our egos are driven by power, prestige, recognition and reward and it behoves us all to know which are the main drivers for us. When I was young I was more interested in power but as I get older this has changed to recognition. This is not immoral but when we are making a decision as a leader of an organisation, we need to make sure that we are not compromising the needs of our ego with our responsibility to make the best decision for our organisation – and its stakeholders.

We can also resolve any ethical dilemma by bringing our values to full consciousness in every decision we make. A practical way to do this is to develop a personal touchstone of core values that you consider whenever making a difficult decision or one that you are worried might compromise you.

My experience is that people who start on this transpersonal leadership journey in their own self interest often transform into truly ethical and caring leaders who have a keen eye on the greater good. Ethics and business do mix; by incorporating ethics you will be comfortable with your decision making, know that what you are doing is in the best interest of the business. Moreover it’s the sort of leadership that Millennials want to see, so everyone is a winner. What starts at the top with the CEO trickles down throughout the organisation.

[1] According to one of the most comprehensive global studies carried out by IBM in 2015
[2] Transpersonal Leaders operate beyond their ego, continuing personal development and learning. They are radical, ethical and authentic while emotionally intelligent and caring. And they create cultures that are performance-enhancing and sustainable.

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