A recent online forum sponsored by GlobalNet21 asked the question - “Does the lack of ethics in business or politics reflect our own lack of ethics?” “There is a growing public demand for regulating the standards of public life for those working in both the private sector and in public service”, the moderator pointed out.

And so in 2022, we must ask ourselves – “Where is the ethical leadership; where is fair play?” In years prior, it could be contended that the search for power, influence, and reputation seemed to dwarf the genuine desire to do good to and for others in America’s public square.

“If citizens”, the forum asked, “…are not very strict with the ethics driving their own actions, can they still play the blame game on others? If we truly and genuinely want to make this world a better place”, the forum posits, “…we should begin in our own neighborhoods by being better people to one another”.

In today’s intertwined world, ethical failures in one arena have impacts across the board. Conversely, ethical successes in another arena can be force multipliers, adding pressure for more ethical behavior elsewhere.

University of California, San Diego, lecturer Wade Lindenberger, who left a successful accounting and finance career to become a teacher, jumped at the chance to teach “Personal Ethics at Work.” His reason: Teaching this course provided “…the most direct way for me to achieve that goal of creating a more meaningful, lasting impact on the world.”

Lindenberger contends that corporate ethics must begin with the personal ethics of corporate officers and employees. Thus, he is convinced that, “If students … commit to an ethical path, we have an increasingly better chance of making sure companies care about ethics and want to act ethically, because those students are our future workforce and workforce leaders.”

Yet the challenges are real. While most every company has a corporate ethics program all their own, a 2018 Global Business Ethics Survey found that fewer than a quarter of U.S. employees thought their company had a “well implemented” ethics program.

There is a clear and present call to action for the private sector, one wherein embedding the principles of ethical leadership from academia to the boardroom will train a fresh generation of accountable and impactful leadership; so contended Doug Brown, William G. McGowan Charitable Fund Trustee and concurrently Senior Vice President and Chief Investment Officer for Exelon. And he’s right; business ethics are fast becoming essential in the modern-day workplace. Employees are furthermore likely to apply ethical reasoning when their company clearly demonstrates why business ethics is important.

Best of all, companies that practice a high level of business ethics can improve profitability by building trust with customers, stockholders, employees, and business partners. Companies practicing questionable ethics today may conversely experience decreases in stock price, severed business partnerships, and vocal former customers.

One of the leading proponents of business ethics in the U.S. is indeed the William G. McGowan Charitable Fund’s Fellows Program, which over a dozen years ago began granting 10,000 MBA students a year a full scholarship for their second year of MBA studies while preparing them to exercise ethical business practices in their future professional positions.

Named for MCI founder William G. McGowan, the Fellows program began in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, which was blamed in part on an ethical collapse. The McGowan Charitable Foundation wanted to nurture aspiring leaders who would count social impact as well as shareholder value in their decision-making.

The Fellows agree to participate in a symposium focused on pressing ethical questions in business and society; they receive alumni coaching in six core McGowan principles; they take part in a problem-solving social impact project that constitutes about 70% of the leadership development training.

In the McGowan program, students start their ethical leadership journey with self-exploration and then dive in together using six abiding principles: accountability, character and integrity, courage, empathy, resilience, and self-awareness.

The goal is that the Fellows all “…emerge with a new perspective on the responsibilities and potential of leadership, as well as a cohort of like-minded professionals” that includes their growing “…alumni network of change makers.” They are also charged to make ethical leadership and a commitment to social betterment key aspects of their organizations’ ethos.

Doug Brown likens the Fellows program to a wholly unique pilot with the hopes that it will encourage every MBA program to follow suit and to develop principled, values-based leadership as part and parcel of their students -- “business leaders should not be thinking of value only in terms of shareholders or customers. They need to consider the impact that their work has on a wide range of stakeholders in society.”

This business philosophy, once commonly practiced by local merchants, is based on the principle that capitalism, when practiced ethically and consciously, can be profitable while also elevating humanity by aiming at higher purposes, taking into account the broader needs of society, and building a culture of trust and accountability for all those it serves.

So, how’s the McGowan track record thus far? A random choice of one early graduate of the program found remarks from business colleagues likened to the following:

"The Fellow’s commitment to raising the bar higher for business brings us together with a hands-on approach to encourage personal growth, earnestly seeking out opportunities that we are passionate about and that also align with our development."

We must acknowledge that ethical decisions are being made every day, from the classroom to the workplace and in our private lives.

Ethics can be complicated, but when sound ethical decisions are effectively embedded, as the McGowan Fund wishes to achieve and is quickly emblemized in their alumni to present date, good things fall into place.

And that makes us optimistic for the future.

Duggan Flanakin is a policy analyst and journalist based in Austin, Texas.