Corner Office-Values Added

Corner Office-Values Added

The case for instilling a conscience in our future leaders.

My graduate school statistics professor said that it’s the mark of a deeply intelligent person to be moved by statistics. Let’s see if you are moved by these:

69 percent of high school students admitted in a 2008 survey to cheating in school; at the same time, 93 percent of high school students said they were satisfied with their own ethics and character.

56 percent of graduate students (mostly MBAs) reported that they cheated during 2005, according to a 2006 survey.

45 percent of law students admitted to cheating, according to that same survey.

• In 2009, the Josephson Institute, a Los Angeles–based organization that advocates for more ethical behavior in all aspects of society, released a study which concluded that young adults are five times more likely to lie and cheat than adults. What’s more, these young people believe that cheating and lying are necessary to succeed. The same report concluded that kids who cheat in high school are two to three times more likely to be dishonest later in life.

Unmoved? Keep in mind that these lying, cheating youth are the future leaders and professionals of our society. If students lack ethics in high school and college, then there should be little surprise that they lack ethics in their careers and other aspects of their lives.

As the statistics illustrate, this ethics deficit doesn’t suddenly appear at the onset of our careers. It begins in the “seed factory” where we are all formed and learn our core values—homes, schools, communities, and religious and cultural organizations.

It’s not as though most of us don’t care. A recent national election-day poll indicated 56 percent of voters believe that America’s problems are “primarily moral and social,” while only 36 percent thought that the nation’s problems are “primarily economic.” But how many candidates discussed the issue of moral decay and the threat that it poses to our society versus discussing the economy?

Business leaders have been wondering what happened to “business ethics”—as though there were a set of ethical standards and behaviors that apply only to business. But unethical behavior and failed leadership are symptoms of a much larger societal problem that transcends the business community, and we as a society must tackle it. We can’t wait for the government to fix it—in a democracy, government is not them, it is us.

Gandhi offered this guidance: “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” We need to help “create a conscience” in our youth so that cheating, dishonesty, bullying, and abuse are eradicated from our schools and society. Otherwise, the future of capitalism and our democratic form of government are in peril.

In his 1988 book The Death of Ethics in America, Cal Thomas wrote, “If we want to produce people to share the values of a democratic culture, they must be taught those values and not be left to acquire them by chance.” This means that we have to focus our educational system on values.

That is why I have helped start the Minnesota Ethics Initiative, which seeks to organize more than 200 other civic, business, religious, and educational leaders to forge community-based ways to promote ethical leadership among our youth. We are beginning with programs aimed at teaching values in schools.

One of my cofounders is Hank Shea, a former assistant U.S. Attorney who prosecuted some of the highest-profile white-collar crime cases in Minnesota’s history, including three executives at the Buca restaurant chain charged with embezzlement in 2006. He currently is a fellow at the Holloran Center for Ethical Leadership at the University of St. Thomas School of Law. The other is Sara Paul, whose 17-year K–12 education career includes being named Nasdaq Teacher of the Year in 2000, as well as receiving a 2006 Ethics in Education Award from the WEM Foundation in Minneapolis.

A few business leaders have told me that they think it’s not their job to worry about the value systems of our youth. It’s someone else’s job—specifically, the teachers whose salaries are paid by the taxes their businesses pay. That’s their contribution to society, they think.

My answer is this: That’s what we’ve been doing for the past 40 years. How’s that working for you?

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