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Six Guidelines to Teach Ethics to Students

Did you know that students today are more curious about becoming a leader than previous student populations, according to a Universum Global Study? That’s right. Generation Z showed a greater interest in leadership than the previous three generations. Some of the greatest differences were in developing nations. Many U.S. high school students see themselves as “activists” and “entrepreneurs.”

My concern today, is students’ disconnect between ethics and leadership.

A few years ago, Growing Leaders surveyed 17,000 public high school students across our home state of Georgia. One of our findings was that students saw no connection between ethics and success. By this I mean they didn’t feel ethics were necessary to be successful. Instead, success was doing whatever you needed to do to reach a goal.

And why shouldn’t they think this way?

When they observe adult leaders on Wall Street, in politics or in Hollywood, it seems everyone has become a pragmatist: just do what you have to do to get ahead. Do what you must do to get re-elected. Do what you feel you have to do to close the sale. Even if that means compromising your morals and values. The bottom line? Many students enjoy the idea of influencing others—but not the idea of moral boundaries. Besides, imposing one’s values on others seems judgmental and intrusive.

The Connection Between Ethics and Leadership

Our job must be to help students see the connection between being ethical and being a leader. Our personal leadership is not separate from our personal values. Values always surface. If someone is unethical, they cannot isolate that reality from their public duty. If they are immoral they can’t claim to be moral when it comes to leading others. If a CEO will cheat his company, he is also apt to cheat on his taxes. If a politician cheats on his wife he will also cheat on his country.

In his book, Achilles in Vietnam, Jonathan Shay writes about his interviews with Vietnam veterans, following the war. Shay is a psychiatrist, specializing in veterans with chronic post-traumatic stress syndrome. The book unveils his stunning discovery that many vets were not victims of PTSD because of bombs or bullets. Do you know what he found? A huge percentage of soldiers suffered PTSD because of their unethical commanding officers during battle. Those vets suspected their leader was acting in his own interests instead of on behalf of the troop. In a high stakes environment, those soldiers didn’t know if their leader had their back. This is why leadership cannot be separated from ethics. Students must understand:

Leadership operates on the basis of trust.

Six Guidelines to Teach Ethics to Your Student Leaders

To the degree your followers do not trust you, they will not follow you. In fact they will distance themselves from anyone they believe is untrustworthy. So, how do we instill ethical leadership into Generation Z students, who are pluralistic; diverse; and who don’t want to appear judgmental? I believe the following guidelines are helpful. Whether you work with high school students or university students, I encourage you to host a conversation about the essential moral boundaries for all their decisions:

1. It keeps others in mind not just me.
It prioritizes the best interest of the community not merely my own interests.

2. It keeps the future in mind not just today.
It benefits the future of our civilization not just my needs today.

3. It keeps truth in mind not just expediency.
It values honesty among all parties, where we’re transparent and forthright.

4. It keeps respect in mind not just results.
It communicates respect for others not just my special interests or goals.

5. It keeps justice in mind not just pleasure.
It is based on what is equitable for all parties, where people sense it is fair.

6. It keeps honor in mind not just gain.
It fosters trust among all parties not suspicion. It represents the high road.

Have you ever done an exercise with your student leaders where they create a list like the one above? When doing this, you nudge them to think about shared values the team embraces. It will also furnish guidelines for every moral choice ahead.


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Six Guidelines to Teach Ethics to Students