Mindfulness and Leadership Ethics



Leadership, like life, is largely a matter of paying attention” -James Autry


Examples of unethical behavior are unnervingly plentiful.

One-third of all software packages are pirated, 75% of college students admit to some sort of academic dishonesty and tax fraud costs the U.S. a quarter of a trillion dollars every year.


And It’s Your Default

The vast majority of us see ourselves as ethical but we are usually are not able to fully grasp our biases and, as a result, cannot routinely respond ethically. In fact, our mind’s default is to make judgments that are self-serving and immediate.

So, if acting ethically is not the norm, we must make training available to move that default switch to the other side. It requires time and action (i.e., practice) to construct non-judgmental opinions, one of the cornerstones of mindful leadership.


Mindfully Flipping the Switch

We know that, by practicing mindfulness, leaders are better able to demonstrate emotional acceptance and an ability to manage emotions that are uncomfortable.

Mindful leaders will take as much information as possible into account prior to making decisions because they are less threatened by ideas that others might perceive as harmful to themselves (e.g., conflict of interest).

Story #1: The founder of McDonalds donated $250,00 to Richard Nixon’s campaign in 1972. In exchange, legislation was passed that let McDonalds (and similar companies) pay teenagers 20% less than the minimum wage.

Practicing mindfulness improves self-awareness. Self-awareness correlates with honesty, which reduces unethical decision-making by making us more aware of ethical issues, biases and our own potential internal conflicts.

We also know that our self-identity routinely influences our behavior.

However, by practicing mindful leadership skills, we become better able to control our behavior and build a more ethical conscience.

Just being exposed to those who demonstrate self-control, we can improve our own self-regulatory behaviors. That’s important because one of the functions of mindful leadership is to catalyze ethical decision-making in others. Like most learning opportunities, this is best achieved by demonstrating our awareness and ethical behavior through our actions for others to replicate.

Story #2: CitiBank bought a $50 million private jet on the heels of accepting a $45 million federal bailout, funded by taxpayers. To top it off, CitiBank’s CEO perjured himself in front of Congress by claiming his annual salary was “only” $1 million when it was actually $11 million.

Mindful leaders are less willing to behave unethically primarily because they understand the link between their behavior and their own self-image, upon which they place more importance than most. However, they are not concerned with others’ perception of how ethical they are.

Instead, mindfulness practitioners are less likely to purchase products from businesses engaged in unethical practices for the purpose of demonstrating their ethical compass to others. Mindfulness teaches, instead, to focus on the internal rather than the external rewards.

In other words, the greater the desire to act ethically, the lower the desire to be perceived by others as ethical.

It becomes more important for a mindful leader to be authentic than to merely project an authentic image in order to manipulate the perceptions of others.

In one fascinating study (Ruedy and Schweitzer, 2010), research was conducted to look at the relationship between mindfulness and cheating. The researchers found that “mindfulness did influence the extent to which participants cheated”.

Put another way, those who practice mindfulness still cheat but a) don’t do it as often, and b) only do so up to the point where their own self-image might be threatened. A “forgiveness factor”, if you will.

Another way to look at these results is to say that

those who practice mindful leadership become more aware of what constitutes unethical behavior, thereby reducing the risk of committing infractions.

This awareness is important since unethical decision-making usually starts with something small and metastasizes into larger offenses with time and opportunity.

Story #3: According to the World Health Organization, children living in developing countries who consumed Nestle’s infant formula had 5-10 times the mortality rate than those babies who were breastfed. The company gave free formula to poor mothers long enough so that they were unable to lactate any more, making their babies dependent on the Nestle formula. Additionally, the formula required clean water that was not accessible to most mothers in the region.

This is obviously a matter of self-control or, in the language of emotional intelligence, self-regulation. Through mindfulness, the mind practices self-regulation by bringing awareness back to the present moment. Without nourishing that reservoir of self-control, unethical decision-making is more likely to follow.

For comprehensive training modules on leadership development topics such as this, please visit our Solutions page.


Next Steps

More and more, business schools are expanding their business ethics curricula to include how our minds influence decision-making.

These offerings are beginning to include mindful leadership skills help students learn to manage distractions and develop awareness of the slippery slope of unethical choices.

It is also clear that businesses and other organizations can positively influence the ethics of decision-makers by offering broad-based training in mindful leadership skills or, minimally, by supporting efforts to learn ways to cope with distractions in order to stay focused in advance of making critical decisions.

Mindfulness training should include not only how to manage distractions but also practicing the delay of gratification, developing the ability to resist temptation, and how to bring our awareness back to the present moment.

Ideally, this would become part of every organization’s leadership training and continuing education efforts so that ethical decision-making becomes a standard component of the work culture.

The cultivation of mindful leadership can make the difference between aspiring to be an ethical decision-maker and actually being one.


Mindful Follow-Up Questions

  1. How often are leaders in your organization faced with making ethical decisions?
  2. When screening candidates for potential leadership positions, what tools does your organization use to differentiate those who have the ability to self-regulate?
  3. What training is available to you and your leadership colleagues that can help you learn how to make more ethical decisions?
  4. What behaviors can you start practicing today that can help you bring awareness to ethical dilemmas in your organization?
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