Even the gurus of ethical leadership can stray. My last two blog posts have mentioned Bill George's new book, True North. George, former CEO of medical device maker Medtronic and professor in the Harvard Business School, writes about “authentic leadership” and reports findings from interviews with 125 “authentic leaders”. His own True North Web site states the following:

As the world becomes ever more dangerous and our problems more complex and dire, we long for truly distinguished leaders, men and women who deserve our respect and loyalty. Instead, we have suffered far too much bad leadership in recent years. The business media have exposed one scandal after another—criminally greedy CEOs, boards that do little more than rubber-stamp executive whims, companies willing to trade customers’ lives for profits, and corrupt and partisan political leaders…True North is about a very different kind of leader, the kind that we can be proud to follow. In this ambitious and important book, one of America’s most respected corporate leaders and his talented younger collaborator show that ethically grounded leadership is not only possible, it is often the most effective leadership of all. It is an optimistic message that falls on grateful ears.

I resonate with this notion that truly great leaders find and stay on an ethical path. But this journey is precarious, as it has been for Bill George. During his watch, Medtronic dealt with potentially life threatening product recalls and legal findings that they engaged in patent infringement. I don’t know what George knew and when he knew it; that’s not my concern. What is my concern is the difficulty of people throughout an organization staying on the ethical path and making it known when someone or some project has veered off. It will happen again and again, and we must be ever vigilant. A course in business school or a book on business ethics is not enough. There must be a continuous organization-wide conversation about ethics in everyday decisions. As Edward B. Goldman, health systems attorney for The University of Michigan, has said to me, there are ethical actions that are illegal and there are legal actions that are unethical. Companies might be complying with the law but doing something that is unethical. And what was ethical in the past, given new information, is unethical today. Right and wrong are not static. To know the difference and have the courage to do the right thing takes constant examination of one’s own and the organization’s behavior.

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