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Learning About Ethical Leadership from College Students

By Michael Meath

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Back-to-school season wasn’t just for those that headed back to formal classrooms. We should all take this opportunity to reset our minds to learning modes. But there is certainly great value that comes from classrooms.

One of my favorite courses to teach at the Newhouse School at Syracuse University is ethics. The formal title of the course is “The Ethics of Advocacy,” and it’s open to upperclassmen who are starting to get serious about what their own careers might look like in the next few years. Most of them have had a few internships — many at very prominent firms in New York, Los Angeles, or Boston. They are at that point in their life where they really want to know how to succeed in the real world.

The course is structured around applying ethical decision-making to progressively more complex business problems. We begin by talking about our “personal frame” — our view of the world and what is right based on our upbringing, religious background, position in society, and experience. We debate consequences, alternatives, excusing conditions, and special obligations. We have great discussions.

As these 20-somethings debate how business leaders consider their decisions, they begin to understand the sometimes complex nature of doing the right thing. The big decisions are easy — don’t pollute the river with chemicals from your manufacturing process, treat your workers fairly according to labor laws, and be sure you pay your taxes. Where the real ethical dilemmas come from are myriad issues that are not defined by law; that are often not clear as to what is right or wrong. It’s at this intersection that the formulas we talk about in class help the students avoid simply acting with personal instinct, instead taking a bit of time to consider rationally all the sides of a situation before acting.

Leading these exercises with them, I am challenged myself. Their idealism of what is moral and right may surprise you — their expectations of leaders are high, and many of them have no tolerance for people who take shortcuts. I am encouraged every semester that the world is in good hands with these students who are trying to figure out how to behave and succeed.

So, the next time you are looking to learn a bit about leadership and the application of ethical decision-making, strike up a conversation with a college senior. You might just be surprised at what you hear.

Are you being heard?

Michael Meath is a senior consultant at Strategic Communications, LLC, which provides counsel for public relations, including media relations, employee relations, and community relations. Contact Meath at mmeath@stratcomllc.com

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