Hilary Jane Grosskopf
Jun 20 · 12 min read

How does an understanding and practice of ethics make you a better leader?

Many people ask me about the tattoo I have on my right arm. The tattoo is a pair of open hands. “Wow, that’s unique.” or “That’s cute!” most people say, “What does that mean?” My simple answer: The pair of hands on my arm is an illustration I did for my second book, Awake Ethics. The whole answer: There is a story, a few profound reasons, and an active message behind this cute pair of hands.

Awake Ethics, was inspired by a gap I found while working in the business world. Early in my career, I had pretty cool jobs in the corporate world of retail. I was fortunate to lead projects and teams. I did a lot of cross-functional work and worked with international partners. My experience as a leader helped me grow both personally and professionally. However, the biggest challenges of leading a team, working in a business environment, and trying to grow professionally resulted from what I found to be lack of understanding and appreciation of ethics in the workplace. Surrounded by unethical behavior at work everyday, I had trouble navigating my professional and personal actions in ways that felt connected and meaningful. I found that my actions were often not in alignment with my core intentions or true interests for myself, others, or the world.

Luckily, along my journey, I found yoga. A system of ten ethical principles from yoga philosophy helped me to rewire my approach to interactions, relationships, leadership, and personal growth both at work and in life. Once I started studying this system in depth and adopted it in daily practice, I was able to move forward in more alignment with my values and beliefs. I enjoyed lower stress and exciting growth. I cultivated better relationships and my team made progress individually and collectively. This system helped me to embrace opportunities I would not have had otherwise. In my second book, Awake Ethics, I adapted this set of principles for modern leaders so that others could learn and practice these ethical principles everyday.

So, my general motivation around ethics and my mission is clear. But now let’s address the big question…

Why would I want to be reminded of ethics every single day… for the rest of my life?

Here are three reasons that truly understanding and appreciating ethics will improve your personal and professional life, now and forever.

#1: Ethics remind us to strive for universal awareness before acting

Companies, especially corporations, are very siloed and narrow-minded in the way they approach decisions. When making decisions, everyone is encouraged to ask, “What will provide the best outcome for the company?”

First: The Outdated Approach to Business

As a leader, I saw many times that when people asked this question first and then acted according to this goal, it actually didn’t result in the best outcome. What is best for the company usually translates to: What is best for the financial health of the company? Or: What is best for profit? The answer to this question usually resulted in scenarios like these:

  • People staying at work for 10+ hours and compromising their health to achieve a deadline
  • People making a decision to reduce the quality of a product or service in the interest of achieving higher margins
  • People making decisions to let go of a team member prematurely without explanation
  • People making a decision to compromise the environment to increase revenue
  • People making a decision to launch a product that encourages addictive behavior rather holistic or health-focused results

These are just a few examples of what company-centric decision-making results in. Company-centric decision making is often profit-centric decision making. Businesses exist to make a profit, however, for businesses to move forward and exist in this next phase of the 21st century, profit alone is not enough. We live in an interconnected world where impacts beyond profit matter — they must. This is where ethics come in to help business leaders and team member navigate decisions holistically.

Now: A New Approach to Business As Usual

As a leader, I observed many decisions, large and small, that seemed to go against the laws of integrity and human-centered action. Instead of acting in the interest of the company or profit alone, I chose a different way of thinking about decisions after learning the system of 10 ethical principles from yoga philosophy. According to this ethical system interpreted for modern leaders, the central premise of any ethical decision or action is Non-harming. So, the questions I used to navigate decisions were: What will provide the best process and outcome for both the individuals and collective? What will provide the least harm and most good for myself, others, and the world?

This new approach led to very different results and opened many more opportunities for my team, myself, and the organization. When I approached the same challenging business scenarios with this premise or goal in mind, it resulted in scenarios like these:

  • People agreeing on what the true priorities are in order to optimize efforts and make time for health and personal needs
  • People returning to customer interests and values in order to preserve high-quality standards and customer satisfaction
  • People spending time mentoring team members that would become long-term assets
  • People thinking more strategically to make decisions that still lead to the ultimate objective for the business while reducing negative impacts on the environment
  • People focusing efforts on launching products that don’t only focus on profit but focus on long-term human-centered impacts

This approach to decision-making and actions, at the collective and individual levels, helped me to work and live in more alignment with my core intentions for human-centered progress. This system of ethics taught me that the decisions I make at work must be aligned with my personal system of ethics as well, which leads us to reason #2.

#2: Ethics remind us to strive for a balance of peace and progress

At work, especially in business, leaders focus on primarily on progress. We compromise peace in order to achieve progress. It’s the nature and the goal of business to compete for profit and influence, right? Competition requires progress. Attention requires progress. However, as a leader, I found that when we jeopardize peace to a certain extent, progress actually stagnates or declines.

The Downside of Progress Alone

Many teams, especially startups, have high levels of progress early on. The team is excited and motivated around a central goal and mission. There are funds to keep everyone happy and working. At a certain point, however, human needs come into play. Team dynamics come into play. Personal growth needs come into play. If the leader overlooked health, team building, and relationships, progress stagnated and a strong team quickly fell apart.

Many leaders that were great at fueling progress and working in the interest of profit failed when the realities of human needs and team dynamics surfaced. I like to use the metaphor of a skyscraper in this case: A team without a foundational understanding an appreciation of ethics is like a skyscraper built on a foundation of sand. Leaders must focus on peace in terms of individual health, personal growth, and team relationship building in order to make sustainable progress.

The Downside of Peace Alone

On the other hand, some teams, especially in older more established companies, are peaceful but not progressing. If you work in a larger or older company, you may find this to be true. Though people are comfortable and business is steady, there is no spark or motivation to make progress. Without a desire to innovate or compete, teams fall apart because the competition wins out or people leave to work for teams that offer more challenging or growth opportunities. Leaders must also provide opportunities for growth and progress.

It is ethical to progress because change is part of human nature and worldy nature. We must respond to change in order to evolve. We must respond to change in order to support ourselves and team members in reaching new potential. However, peace should not be compromised to do so.

Finding Balance is Ethical

Finding this balance between peace and progress takes time. It’s different for each leader and for each team. What I found is most helpful is to first learn how to find a balance of peace and progress in your own life. Leadership and personal growth are very related. Leaders that live and work with a balance of peace and progress themselves also have the right balance of peace and progress on their team. If you’re able to take the lead of your life by focusing on personal development, you will be ready to lead a team.

I had to work a lot on my own ways of balancing peace and progress. I used to so often feel an imbalance of peace and progress. I’d most often opt for progress over peace. I’d stay at work long hours and continue to work once I got home. I’d burnout hard after a few days and finally realize that I craved peace in form of rest, time with friends, or exercise. A few times, I did over-focus on achieving peace and I found that I craved new opportunities to learn and grow professionally.

How did I ultimately find balance? I used this ethical system of 10 princinples to find balance. The principles themselves were more for personal ethical conduct, but when I adapted them to work in a modern business environment, I found balance at work too. Really, I learned how to find balance at work and in life. Each day and each situation is different, so it’s not finding balance but learning how to find balance that is key. The only way was through cultivating self-awareness and returning to the 10 ethical principles when feeling out of alignment or when making tough decisions. This brings us to #3, how the ethical principles help to navigate specific situations.

#3: Ethics give us a navigation system for finding alignment and balance through action

Ethics are foundational, universal principles that guide our actions in human-centered ways. The 10 ethical principles help us navigate how to act toward ourselves and toward others in order to find our balance of peace and progress. The principles are like secret agent tools for responding to each scenario at work and in life. In Awake Ethics, I gave each principle a symbol or visual metaphorical representation so help us remember them.

The 10 Awake Ethics Principles

Now, let’s get more specific about how to find a balance of peace and progress given everyday situations in work and in life. I’ll focus on 3 of the 10 principles here to show how they aid in specific situations.

Control of Energy Principle

Many leaders use a negative tone or harsh language when giving constructive feedback. Some don’t even realize they are doing it. During my years of experience, I saw that this reactive quality actually didn’t provide the most good for the team member, the leader, or the organization. Team members would often leave out of fear or frustration. The team’s progress would then stagnate since the leader would have to replace the team member. By using the Control of Energy principle, leaders can remember to speak with equanimity and approach constructive opportunities with empathy in order to provide peace for team members and strengthen (not destroy) the team’s focus. Going back to our example from earlier in the discussion, many leaders compromise progress by jeopardizing peace. By focusing on this Control of Energy principle, leaders are reminded to be aware of their own actions and act in ways that provide peace for themselves and others. This fuels sustainable progress for the individuals and the collective.

More Good than Harm Principle

When working in business, I also found myself contributing toward a mission that worked in favor of profit but not human-centered progress. Many retail companies produce goods at high margins and low costs that have detrimental environmental impacts. Though reducing quality and producing clothing with cheap materials increases profits, it does not provide the most good for the environment or the customer. Could we produce higher-quality, environmentally friendly clothing that customers could still afford? Yes. Could we still make enough to live peacefully and make progress? Yes. This small shift in thinking in terms of the collective good, on all level, instead of just the company, brings us into more alignment. Leaders can use the More Good than Harm principle to think in terms of the team, the world, and themselves when considering impacts. This principle reminds us of our interconnectedness and allows us to live in alignment personally and professionally.

Non-Stealing Principle

Giving acknowledgement or opportunities to team members often seems extra when the goal is to get it done or when the goal is merely to profit. Acknowledgement is something so simple that is so often forgetten amongst the day-to-day activity. Some leaders actually steal acknowledgement or opportunities from team members or other leaders! I have seen leaders take acknowledgement that wasn’t just. Opportunities to learn or to network are pushed to the bottom of the priority list when a leader’s focus is on short-term monetary results alone. I have seen leaders shoot down team member requests for learning opportunities or networking opportunities. By stealing acknowledgement or opportunities from team members, leaders suffer from lack of respect, low team morale, and attrition. All of these symptoms have negative impacts on progress and even profit. When leaders learn that giving acknowledgement fuels motivation and giving opportunities strengthens the team, they fuel both peace and progress on all levels.

This principle of Non-Stealing happens to be the tattoo on my right arm. The open hands remind me of the ethical system as a whole but especially this principle, which reminds me to give opportunities and acknowledgment to others whenever I can. It reminds me to take the focus off of me and redirect it out into the world. It reminds me to practice self-care so that I can continue to contribute to the progress of the collective. When I give others acknowledgment, opportunities, and my best positive effort, I receive positive opportunities, relationships, and experiences in return. Open hands are not just giving hands but also open to receive.

Non-Stealing Principle: Open Hands

Living and working in a connected way is an active choice we must constantly have the independent ability to do. This is the opposite of living or working a silo. When I open my hands to embrace what I am offered rather than clenching my fists or forcing opportunities, I can achieve more authenticity and surrender to what progress is meant to be.

So, why do I need to have ethics physically represented on my body? Why not just remember it instead? Well, even though I don’t work in an office environment anymore, it’s easy to revert to old ways of thinking and past beliefs. It’s easy to lose the connection to ethics and the ethical mindset in the busy day-to-day activity of everyday work and life. Our society has so many competing opinions and distracting stimuli that ethics often get lost in the chaos of it all. We revert back to old ways or copy loud, auto-pilot ways of acting. My tattoo is not a commemorative one but one that is actively reminding me of what I represent. When I can constantly return to approaching each moment with an ethical mindset and an ethical framework for navigating decisions and actions, I act in alignment with my core intentions. Remember to strive for universal awareness before action, find a balance of peace and progress, and use this essential navigation system to do so.

I wear ethics on my sleeve because I represent human-centered action. Human-centered action is something each leader can choose to take each day. Human-centered action is approaching decisions and actions not in the name of profit alone, but in the name of individual and collective progress. Both approaches result in survival but the human-centered approach results in sustainable and aligned progress, joy, and connection. It’s a life-long commitment to ethical action guided by this system of 10 ethical principles. This is why I have this tattoo. Oh, and because if anyone ever needs an extra pair of hands, I can always help out!

Thanks for reading!

If you enjoyed this article, please clap to the left to others can find it.

If you’d like to learn more about this powerful system of 10 ethical principles and learn the exercises for putting the principles into action, check out the Awake Ethics guidebook. I am so honored to share that this book recently won the 2019 Indie Reader Discovery Award! You can read the IRDA review here.

Follow the Awake Leadership Publication for more articles coming soon!

Awake Leadership Solutions

Essential Systems and Inspiring Guidance for Creative Leaders

Hilary Jane Grosskopf

Written by

Systems engineer, leadership strategist, writer, and yogi. Founder of Awake Leadership Solutions. Author of the Awake Leadership and Awake Ethics guidebooks.

Awake Leadership Solutions

Essential Systems and Inspiring Guidance for Creative Leaders

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