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What Are Business Ethics and What Does It Mean to Be an Ethical Leader?

Updated: Feb 24, 2023

Article co-created with podcast participants and the AcornOak Tribe.

Pass the Mic Podcast Series is an unscripted group discussion born out of AcornOak’s belief in the power of many voices.

Each episode begins with one expert - an open-minded and passionate individual who has spent a great deal of time investigating and researching a certain topic. During our hour, a small group of 4 to 6 people will explore complex and difficult concepts with curiosity, uncertain beliefs and the willingness to objectively listen and learn from the shared insights of others.

Our sixth episode discusses ethics with an attempt to answer the following question: What are ethics in business and what does it mean to be an Ethical Leader?

Starting the Conversation

As the podcast host, Virginie Glaenzer, paved the way for this conversation and the group conversation was led by Jonathan Cook.

Welcoming Our Guests

We were honored to welcome our panel of special guests eager to discuss the role of individuals and organizations in evolving our commercial practices to support ethical business behavior.

Jonathan Cook, Commercial culture researcher and consultant. Jonathan specializes in using immersive methods to uncover and explore the deep cultural patterns, emotional motivations, narrative structures, and ritual experiences that enable enduring value in an increasingly disconnected commercial culture. He hosts This Human Business, a podcast exploring the place for human experience in a world of commerce increasingly characterized by automation, algorithms, and artificial intelligence.

Catherine Havasi, CEO/Co-Founder, Luminoso. Catherine has been researching language and learning for nearly fifteen years. In addition to her role as CEO Luminoso, she is a research scientist in artificial intelligence and computational linguistics at the MIT Media Lab. She co-founded the Open Mind Common Sense project, which uses information about the world to understand natural language text and make computers easier to use.

John Hagel, Co-chairman for Deloitte LLP's Center for the Edge. With 30 years of experience as a management consultant, author, speaker and entrepreneur, John helps executives to anticipate and address emerging business opportunities and challenges. He has served as senior vice president of strategy at Atari, Inc., and is the founder of two Silicon Valley startups. He is also a blogger and author of a series of best-selling business books.

Mia Dand, CEO of Mia is a data-driven marketing leader who guides large organizations on responsible innovation at scale with new and emerging technologies like Artificial Intelligence (AI). She is the author of “100 Brilliant Women in AI Ethics,” a definitive guide to help conference organizers and brands recruit more talented women in this space. She is also the organizer for SF AI, Berkeley AI, & SF AR/VR meetup groups with over 3.5K members in the San Francisco Bay Area and hosts monthly AI Ethics chats on Twitter (@MiaD).

Listen to the tour de table of our participants.

Key Shared Insights & Perspectives

AI and Ethics

The use of Artificial Intelligence-enabled technologies raises many ethical questions which means we need to create a culture of ethical awareness around AI.

Catherine points out that AI developers lack awareness about ethics because it is not emphasized as part of their academic curriculum and training which leads to a lack of diversity of perspectives and limited understanding of the impacts of AI on society.

Consumers must also be educated to understand privacy issues and the possible uses of the information they are giving away when they use their devices or agree to allow access on apps and governments should be there to protect them from questionable (or predatory) practices.

She is hopeful that free, online courses like Elements of AI will help the public make more informed choices. Listen to Catherine share her perspective.

Business and Ethics

What is ethical business behavior? John Hagel admits the answer is very much up for debate. He sees a dramatic shift from the capital-intense, supply-driven economy that caused a focus on cost-savings and shareholder value to the new demand-driven global economy where business profits will depend on helping people keep pace in our rapidly changing world. He’s optimistic when he states:

We often talk about ethics versus profits, but I think, in the future, ethics will be essential for profits.”

Listen to John share his perspective.

Ethics and Trust

Since companies are under pressure to grow, changing their core values will require raising awareness and educating the public so they demand more from the businesses their dollars support. But who should help us determine which practices are ethical, when we can’t trust ourselves due to our lack of education and awareness? Jonathan reminds us that:

“if we don’t have real facts, we can’t have agreement over what is ethical.”

He asserts that we need effective investigative journalism to foster communication about our shared values and inform leaders who help us make decisions when there is ambiguity.

The panel agreed that journalists have been the “warriors” asking critical questions to uncover the facts, but ironically, they have lost our trust because their business model doesn’t always support in-depth and accurate reporting. Listen to Jonathan share his perspective.

Individual Take-aways

As we came to the end of the hour, our group closed the discussion in the same way we started, with a tour de table. Each participant had the opportunity to reflect on what they heard and share their take-aways from the conversation.

Listen to the last 10 minutes of the episode.

Final Thoughts to Consider

There is an urgency to revisit our education systems and practices to include ethics.

1- What Is an Ethical Business?

In business, the focus is on profit and loss, but in ethics, the important distinction is between right and wrong.

Doing the right thing often requires financial sacrifice and conversely, making a profit often requires ethical sacrifices.

Anybody who has worked in a business environment has experienced these obvious conflicts in their own departments and with their own leadership.

When asked to describe an ethical business, the panel used words like: transparent, trustworthy, human-centric, and evolving.

2- How Can We Become Ethical Leaders?

Morality and ethics require consciousness, a combination of our ability to feel and our ability to think. So morality has to be grounded in subjective experience.

Leaders must question the status quo, actively listen to the the ideas of others, and focus on the human impact when making decisions and solving problems.

How can we resolve the conflict between profits and doing the right thing and expand our consciousness to become moral business leaders?

An answer to this ethical dilemma emerges when we ask:

  • Who are we as individuals?

  • What is this company about?

  • What are we here to do?

So we want to end this by wishing for everybody in the world, and especially in business_ because they have so much power _ time to reflect.

Time to summon the clarity required to create more opportunities for us to come together to question our ethics and explore their ambiguities.

If this short summary resonated with you, go to YouTube to view the entire discussion or listen on iTune, Spotify, Spreaker or SoundCloud.

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