Collaborative Leadership Blog

Can We Cure Our Ethical Cancer?

Our country is suffering from an ethical cancer—unethical conduct that seems to have metastasized into every part of our societal body. Hundreds, if not thousands of leaders, in almost every sector of our society, including the military, have committed sexual abuse, mostly against women. Mass murder of school children, whether in Sandy Hook or Parkland, or everyday citizens in Chicago or Las Vegas, has made our schools, churches, social clubs, shopping malls, and athletic events targets for the deranged. And our politicians are still doing nothing about it. Corruption scandals in some of the country’s largest corporations, like Uber, Wells Fargo, and Facebook, have leaders who have placed corporate greed and their business models over the ethical treatment of the public. Discrimination against people of color, whether it is police shootings of unarmed black men or against lawful immigrants has accelerated the politics of hate. From the White House and Wall Street to Main Street, the unethical choices leaders are making cause this cancer to spread.

The question is whether there is a cure.

I would like to think that prescriptions with high dosages of values and principles could cure this cancer—but this is only one part of the solution. I would like to think that the rigorous application of codes of ethics would reduce the spread of this disease—but this is only a part of the cure. I would like to think we could train away the ethics disease—but, while it helps, it alone is not the answer. I would even like to think that leadership development could imbue the next generation with the right values and behaviors—again this is only one element in the puzzle. I would even like to think that putting all of these pieces together would create a cocktail of drugs that would cure our ethical cancer—but I would be wrong.

Sadly, I don’t have the answer. No pithy set of 5 ways of dealing with this disease would be right or true. I am increasingly worried, though, that if we don’t put on the brakes right now, and start holding people accountable through laws, regulations, zero tolerance policies, and set clear boundaries for what is unethical behavior in the home, school and at work, that this cancer could eat us up from within—we have a Level 4 cancer that is worthy of attention from the Centers for Disease Control.

I do believe the answer is within each of us. It is about our character, our values, principles, and fundamental beliefs about what is right and wrong and what is the truth and what is a lie. It is about being crystal clear about what is moral and immoral behavior. It is about taking a stand when we see behavior that is dishonest, disrespectful, or hateful. But, as a society, we appear to have fallen asleep at the wheel, and it feels like we’re headed for a cliff. It’s time to wake up and act–in our homes, our workplaces, and our communities. We must teach our children and our workforces to behave ethically, insist on ethical conduct in our schools, our businesses, and in our politics. As the students at Parkland have taught us, Enough is Enough. It’s time for each of us to act.   ____________________________________

*Dr. Edward Marshall is an Adjunct Professor in Management at the Fuqua School of Business, Duke University; he is an ICF certified executive coach, Lifetime Top 15 Trust Thought Leader, and author of Building Trust at the Speed of Change. You can contact him at or (919)265-9616