Do leaders need an ethics coach?

Leaders need to avoid a “tick box” approach to ethically complex decisions and take their responsibility more seriously, argues corporate philosopher Julian Baggini.

by Kate Magee
Last Updated: 20 Jul 2022

Leaders are increasingly being asked to make decisions that veer into the tricky topic of ethics. Should US businesses make provisions for employees who want abortions? Should businesses pull out of Russia on ethical grounds? Is working for fossil fuel companies acceptable as the earth continues to warm?

Julian Baggini, the academic director of The Institute of Philosophy and speaker at MT’s recent Leadership Lessons conference, believes that a “box ticking” approach to such thorny topics is “a cop out”. Instead he believes leaders need to take more responsibility for making the right calls and carve out time to engage with the issues more deeply. 

"How can leaders say they have an ethical policy, unless they're prepared to grapple with the complexities of that? You’ve got to take responsibility for the standards you're seeking to follow, stand behind them and be able to defend them.

A lot of people would like to avoid this by signing up to schemes where they can just tick boxes, or show they are ethical because they've met a certain standard. That is a cop out. 

Ethics are contested and difficult. You can't just say you’re going to be an ethical company from now on and expect you're never going to make a poor decision. Just as in everyday life, no-one avoids making mistakes.

Leaders often have personal coaches for all sorts of things. If there's one simple thing I think more people should do, it’s to have a personal ethics coach. It’s not about attending seminars or reading documents. It's about having a safe space where you can talk to someone about the really difficult issues that you might not feel comfortable raising in public, because you're afraid of what people will say.

People need to make time for that and they need to prioritise it. They make time to prioritise their personal coaching for performance. So if you're serious about ethics, why don't you make time for these really serious ethical discussions?

The challenge for big businesses is how they get ethics in the bloodstream. Often they're looking in the wrong places. You want everybody involved in setting the ethics of a company - people won’t buy in if you don’t, but you’ll also hear perspectives you won't have yourself. Ethical decision making always benefits by maximising the number of perspectives feeding in. 

That said, making every decision based on an opinion poll would also be a very bad way of running things. These issues are often very, very complicated. The danger is that you jump on the latest ethical bandwagon, and you do so in ways that are crude and counterproductive. 

For example, if you asked a whole company of mainly young, environmentally-minded people, what they thought of plastics in the broadest sense, they’d probably say get rid of them. But there are some things for which plastic is actually the most sustainable solution - it seems counterintuitive, but it's true. 

The people at the top have a special responsibility to put the time and effort into finding the facts and thinking about the right response. You can't expect every member of the company to do so. Involving everyone is not a way for leadership to let themselves off the hook and just follow the latest trend."