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Online Edition — February 2003

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Parents, Schools, and Values
Looking Toward the Future

Ask the PowerPhrase® Expert


AQP Connections
The Help Desk
Articles in Brief
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Out of Context
Book Nook
February 2003 News for a Change—Home Page

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Book Nook


Reclaiming the Ethical High Ground: Developing Organizations of Character
by John Di Frances
Reliance Books, Wales, WI, 2002
ISBN: 0-9709908-1-2
Hardcover, 160 pages.
Price $24.95

Overall Rating: * * * Snail Mail It


Building Moral Intelligence: The Seven Essential Virtues That Teach Kids to Do the Right Thing
by Michele Borba
Jossey-Bass, 2001
ISBN: 0-7879-5357-1
Hardcover, 336 pages.
Price $24.95

Overall Rating: * * * * * Pick It Up Today


How is ethical behavior instilled into the life of a person or a group of people? What does it take to turn moral principles into everyday actions? These are the underlying questions addressed by two very different books—one focusing on the formal organization, and the other on the family.

Our first book this month, Reclaiming the Ethical High Ground by John Di Frances, is a relatively short book targeted at leaders. The author defines “ethical high ground” as “a place where the air is clear and the view of surrounding activity is unobstructed…a vantage point from which one can see above the smoke, noise, and clutter…to make wise decisions.” (p. 21) He uses the military strategy of taking the high ground as part of an extended metaphor for ethical behavior—giving examples and extrapolating tactics and benefits.

Di Frances builds the case for change on the moral wreckage of companies that have taken the phrase “greed is good” at face value. He contrasts this with organizations “of character” and places the responsibility for developing this character directly on the shoulders of leaders: "An organization’s leaders must first clearly set the standards for all to know and then model them for all to see. It’s that simple, and also that difficult.” (p. 94) In the last chapter, he identifies the keys to maintaining high ethical standards:

  • Moral clarity—a commitment to uncompromising ethical standards, a reconstruction of the organization to reflect those standards, and a celebration of ethical behavior taken in the face of temptation.
  • Strategic clarity—10 “intangible imperatives” (ethical outcomes) to be added to the usual mix of tangible organizational goals.
  • Moral imperative—ethical leadership from the top of the organization.

Unfortunately for the reader, the list of intangible imperatives is not fleshed out with practical definitions, specific examples, or ideas for action. This renders the book ultimately unsatisfying—an ethical appetizer rather than the main course.

If a leader doesn’t already possess the character and ethical qualities to “reclaim the ethical high ground,” how are they to be obtained? Di Frances doesn’t think much of business school efforts to instill ethical principles in students, claiming “they have in general shown little interest in seriously addressing the issue of ethics in business.” (p. 100) Rather, he says: “How are leaders trained? Ideally it begins in early childhood by loving parents who clearly understand, model, and teach good character. This emphasis on instilling moral virtue should then be reinforced by churches, schools and the community at large.” (p. 99)

This brings us to our second book, Building Moral Intelligence by Michele Borba. Although targeted at parents and teachers, every adult concerned about where our society seems to be headed should read this book.

Borba identifies seven virtues that she sees as essential to ethical behavior: empathy, conscience, self-control, respect, kindness, tolerance, and fairness. (See the sidebar for her definitions of these virtues.) A full chapter is devoted to each virtue, providing a wealth of detail: definitions, self-tests, real-life stories, discussion questions, stages of moral development, practical ways to enhance each virtue, and much more. For each virtue, the reader is given specific examples of both positive and negative behavior—as well as a better understanding of obstacles to youthful learning of the positive behaviors. Additionally, at the end of the book there are 22 pages of resource materials (books, videos, and Web sites targeted to each of the seven virtues and identified for appropriate ages), a book discussion guide, 12 pages of notes and citations, and an index.

She states that the most powerful method for teaching moral intelligence is to model the desired behaviors. To this end, she gives many examples of each virtue—putting up a mirror through which we can recognize our own lapses of behavior; discovering alternate behaviors to practice until they become automatic; and identifying the desired future state for ourselves, our families, and all others with whom we have contact. Borba challenges us to honestly ask ourselves this question at the end of each day, “If I were the only example my child has from whom to learn right from wrong, what would she have learned today?” (p. 63) This is a worthy question for all of us to ask, whether or not we regularly interact with children.

She points out the importance of what she calls the “core virtues”—empathy, conscience, and self-control. Without them “kids become time bombs just waiting to explode. Lacking an ability to feel for others, an inner voice to guide them to do right, and the strength to control their destructive impulses, they are left defenseless against toxic influences coming their way. And of the trio, many experts feel self-control is the one most sorely lacking.” p. 83) As children without these essential virtues grow to adulthood, their inability to act ethically becomes a concern for organizational leaders, who may themselves have some of the same deficiencies.

For adults without a solid personal grounding in ethical principles—such as those from dysfunctional families—the book helps build the foundation necessary for leading others to these virtues and provides tools for teaching ethical behavior to children, or to people of any age. For leaders struggling to refocus organizational behavior, the book can also be a useful source for ethics training or creating an ethical code of conduct.

Building Moral Intelligence is a book that I highly recommend. It will stick in your mind and your heart long after you have finished reading it.

CHRISTINE ROBINSON has more than 25 years of leadership experience in quality systems for the process industries. She has a master’s degree in quality, values, and leadership from Marian College. An avid reader, she spends a significant amount of her time with her nose in books and her body at the library.

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