Making More Ethical Choices with Christopher Gilbert, PhD

Making More Ethical Choices with Christopher Gilbert, PhD

Hi everyone. It’s Jenn DeWall, and in this week’s episode of The Leadership Habit podcast, I sat down with Dr. Christopher Gilbert to talk about how we as leaders can make more ethical choices. Now, let me tell you a little bit more about Dr. Gilbert. Dr. Christopher Gilbert is the author of the best-selling book, The Noble Edge: Reclaiming an Ethical World One Choice at a Time. His book just received the 2022 author circle non-fiction book of the year award. He is a senior international ethics consultant and keynote speaker at Noble Edge Consulting. And having spent much of his career focused on the study of human morality. Dr. Gilbert has over 30 years of experience in personal and organizational ethics development. His clientele includes the gates foundation, multiple fortune 500 companies and nonprofit organizations in the U.S., Canada, Asia, and Africa. He has also been a professor in visiting faculty of business ethics and social responsibility at five universities on four continents. I hope you enjoy our conversation as we talk about how you can make the world more ethical, one choice at a time

Full Transcript Below

Jenn DeWall:  Dr. Christopher Gilbert, welcome to The Leadership Habit. We are so happy to have you here. We’re gonna be talking about a topic that I love, and I’m not even sure why I love it, but I think it’s probably because I wish there was more of it. We’re talking about ethics today, but as we get into it, I would love to just start off with this because you’ve written a book, The Noble Edge, and I think that your book is so important and needed right now, the subtitle being reclaiming an ethical world one choice at a time. So I want to know a little bit more. What inspired you to write this book or what brought you to this book?

Meet Dr. Gilbert, Author of The Noble EdgeRecaliming an Ethical World One Choice at a Time

Christopher Gilbert:  Yeah, that’s a great question. I think part of it was that I was already teaching in graduate programs and several universities across the world business ethics and social responsibility, and that had really come out of an experience that I had when I started a small business back in the mid-eighties that was very successful. It operated for about five years. And this, by the way, is the first story in the book. And then there was a very large food service company that we all know in the United States that showed up to see if they wanted to give us some more money to expand across the country. They spent about a month with us. They got done. They sent a letter six weeks later and said, nah, we’re not interested in this food delivery stuff. We’re gonna stick with what we know.

And then we discovered two months later that they had opened up an identical operation out in the Midwest and used our menu and our vehicles and our systems. And we knew that we couldn’t sue this multi-billion dollar corporation. So we’re really stuck. Our venture capital group said, look, if they’re doing it, we’re not gonna get first-in market share wherever we go. So let’s close the place down. And I had to lay off 35, very loyal employees that had been working with us for almost five years. And I think that was one of the hardest things I had to do in my life. And at the time I didn’t think about it as business ethics. I don’t know why, but I just thought, yeah, this is a terrible thing to do what an awful thing to do. And don’t we expect this from the large companies.

But it was a little bit later that I realized, I think, and this is what gave me this flavor of ethics and all the teaching I was doing at that time after we’d lost the company, I went back into teaching and I realized, you know, I need to know more about this idea of ethics and understand why people have the capacity to make such choices and how we get around that capacity to make such choices so that we’re making better choices, more consistent, right choices. And I probably need some legitimacy and that’s when I got my PhD in ethics and have really worked in it for the last 25 years. And that’s what led to the book.

Jenn DeWall:  My gosh, that story though, like from the human perspective, I can only imagine just the anger and the frustration of kind of feeling deceived, but also the, I feel like I would probably have this trust, right? Oh, you just decided not to do this. And then the frustration that comes with, no, you weren’t being, there’s so many emotions in that. Like how did you feel during that? And then knowing that you were gonna have to touch and impact the life of 35 loyal employees? Like how the heck did you navigate that? Because that is emotionally a tough leadership place to be in.

The Ethics of Business Decisions

Christopher Gilbert:  It was very difficult, because there wasn’t a good reason other than the fact that we weren’t gonna have money to pay and keep the operation open. There, wasn’t a good reason for closing the operation down and laying them off. And so I think the idea of sitting down with each one of them– which is one of the things that we did as we were closing the operation down– sitting down with each one of them and talking about not only why it had happened, the way that it happened and, and how this other company had operated, the way that they weren’t supposed to. There was also in me an idea that I wanted to set them off on good footing, so to talk about their future. And so we did follow up after we’d laid them off and closed the operation down because we’ve gotten very close with them. We did follow ups to see if we could assist them to get into an education program or to get another job, or just to be a great reference or to talk over with them, moving to other parts of the country, which some of ’em wound up doing. So I think from my perspective, it, one of the reasons that it was easier for me to go through this experience and not just become outraged and, and figure out I’ve got some retribution or revenge to do.

Jenn DeWall:  That’s what I wanna ask about, because that seems like a very easy next step. I mean, I’m thinking you pour your blood, sweat and tears, you give some IP, or you’re talking about this idea. And then all of a sudden, I feel like it creates that place of like, well, if you’re not gonna be ethical, like why, why do I have to be ethical? Is that fair? Like I, is that the human brain, because I think that’s the tough part of like, like I wanna play this way too, then if you’re gonna hurt me,

Choosing Understanding Instead of Anger

Christopher Gilbert:  <Laugh>, I’m so glad that I went the opposite way. And then that was to try and utilize this as an experience that could get me into a position of understanding more about it, and then maybe working with other people to ensure especially corporate leaders, to ensure that they weren’t making these kinds of of mistakes. They weren’t taking these kinds of decisions lightly, until they’d really understood what they needed to weigh in it. So I think for me, turning it into a positive was one of the ways that I got out of the great morose feeling that I had about what had happened. And trust me for years, I felt very affected by this. And I think I just stuck my head into teaching, which was another way to give. And I had been doing that before we started the company.

So I think for me and maybe this is just by personality, maybe it’s about prayer, maybe whatever it is. I was able to turn this into something that’s turned out to be really important, not just to me, but I think to anybody that wants to have the same conversation, how do we make better choices than we do? And what powers do we have to reclaim an ethical world, especially in what seems to be a particularly caustic moral era? How can we ensure that we’ve got a better future for not only ourselves, but others, our children, perhaps as we move forward. And I think turning my energies that way really had a a strong effect on me feeling all right, about what had happened. I don’t think it was good, but I think it sure kickstarted me into a conversation that I think the world especially now really needs.

Jenn DeWall:  Yeah. Well, and you took a situation that I think, again, it would’ve been not to say that I would’ve wanted the retribution, but I would’ve wanted the retribution. Right. The frustration that comes with that and just feeling kind of had, and the anger that can come. But it’s really admirable the way that you were able to turn that into something. Saying let’s not fight. You know, it’s not about fighting the people that are making decisions that might be a little questionable or choices that maybe aren’t in, you know, I guess just not positive for the relationship. It’s about thinking, how can we be more, more aware and more intentional with it? I just like that you were able to take that because whew, that would’ve taken some time for me. I would’ve been like, I do not wanna shop that brand, I don’t wanna see that brand. I don’t wanna hear anything about it. Because you know, it’s only human. I would feel hurt. And we all process it differently.

The Foundation for Making More Ethical Choices

Jenn DeWall:  So your book, okay. I love, I love that subtitle of reclaiming an ethical world, one choice at a time. Now let’s talk about what is the problem with choices? <Laugh> cause This is clearly where we went, they had that choice after you had shared the business venture or idea to go out and pursue it on their own. Like, you know, what are the choices that we’re making, I guess, and how you see it, that kind of lay the foundation for understanding ethics.

Christopher Gilbert:  Yeah. You know, when I ask people what they think of ethics, and what poor ethical choices that they think about. Not about themselves, but as they look at the rest of the world. They’ll often bring up real high profile. Examples of the things that we see in the corporate world, in government, Hollywood, sports of the really high profile folks that make really terrible choices and the media picks up on it. And of course it’s splashed all over the headlines, but it really turns out. And this is part of the research. I did that. The main effect on ethics doesn’t happen so much from the large choices that happen. Because quite frankly, there are very few of those. If we look at all the choices being made in the world, it comes from the small choices that we have a tendency to make every day.

And I know this may get some people offended, but, you know, we rationalize that those choices are right. Just the same way that the people in high profile positions like a corporate CEO who’s defrauding millions and having to lay off 25,000 employees, the way that they rationalize that what they’re doing is just fine. So I realized that was really a key to having this conversation with people or in terms of writing the book was to get us to start thinking about our own radar screens, right? So here’s my ethics radar screen. How wide does it go out so that I can begin to blip things that I might not normally think of as ethical choices, right? So for instance cutting people off on the freeway, we don’t think of it as an ethical choice. We don’t even go through a machination that says, oh gosh, I’m gonna be unethical day and cut this person off. We rationalize that whatever.

Jenn DeWall:  It is, I, now I can see someone listening to this podcast might be doing that very thing!

The Ethical Out-of-Body Experience

Christopher Gilbert:  Their exactly. I do it right, but this guy’s too slow in front of me. My schedule’s more important. Oh, I’ll show this person what they did. They cut me off. We feel fine about the choice that we’re making. Now, granted that’s a small example, but if you’ve got millions of those examples happening all the time on all of our freeways, what do you get? Road rage! That’s what occurs, right? Because people are justifying their poor choices. And I said, as I said, the same way that the large profile folks in sports are in Hollywood justify their poor choices. So one of the things that happened when I was teaching my graduate students in business ethics. And then I noticed this in the corporate consulting I was doing is that people often have what I think I’ve come to call as this an ethics out-of-body experience, which is if you give them examples of people that are making poor ethical choices.

The thinking that really goes on is, oh yeah, that was an awful thing that they did. And of course I, myself would never make a choice like that. All while they’re cutting people off on the freeway, secondhand smoking, fudging on their taxes, lying to the officer who pulls them over when they’re speeding. They don’t think of that choice as unethical. Their radar screen is smaller. They don’t think of their choices on an ethical grid that way. Right. So poor people are making I should say the bad people are making poor ethical choices. It’s not me. I make the greatest ethical choices. Right. And in fact, if you’ll get, let me go on a little longer. And some of my talks I’ll often ask people, okay, you knew this was gonna be an ethics talk with you today or at you today.

How many of you came here because you’re unethical? <Laugh> Well, of course, no hands go up. Right. And I go, yeah, that’s right. Because we live by the highest standards. And I said, but how many people are glad that the person on this side or this side, or in front of ’em are here today? And of course that’s when the hands go up. Right. Because we live by the highest ethical standards. It’s really everybody else out there that probably has the problem. Right. So that’s the ethics out-of-body experience. So my ethics are fine. It’s the bad people making bad choices that really give ethics a bad name. And so this book

Jenn DeWall:  Is I have to stop you there because I oh,

Christopher Gilbert:  Yeah, yeah, yeah. Please.

Jenn DeWall:  It’s making me laugh so hard because I mean, I’m that person. Absolutely,

Christopher Gilbert:  We all are! We all live by the highest ethical standards, right?

Jenn DeWall:  Oh my gosh, there are so many ways to go with this. Like with like, do you start, oh my, do you start with, how do you get the shared kind of values when we still do have that out-of-body ethical experience that we’re operating? Like, how do you even begin to solve this? Because we all have it. I think the first step is admitting we have it <laugh>

Christopher Gilbert:  That’s rights. The first that is always the first step in any of these things, right?

Jenn DeWall:  Yes.

Making More Ethical Choices is a Journey, Not a Destination

Christopher Gilbert:  And you know, the book isn’t, accusatorial, it’s like I’m standing up above holier than now because I’m an ethics consultant with a PhD in it. I’m no more or less ethical than anybody else. As long as the other person is actually trying to be better tomorrow than they are today. This is all about a voyage. It’s not about an arrival, right? So nobody crosses the ethics goal line spikes, the morality ball and says, that’s it I’m through. I’m done. Right. <laugh> We’re always going down using this football analogy, probably too far. We’re always marching down the field, but we never actually achieve the goal, which would be to be perfect, ethical all the time. But that march, that advance, that’s what’s important. And this is really what the book is. You know, the book starts off by basically saying that I think is really important if you can keep it in your head.

So here’s something simple. People could walk away from this interview with, if you believe that there’s no right way to do the wrong thing. And I’ll say that again, there’s no right way to do the wrong thing. This book is for you, if you don’t believe that, leave the book alone. Right. But really that’s where it starts. And even that mantra, just saying that mantra, when you wake up in the morning or for a few minutes, each day, there’s no right way to do the wrong thing. It starts to adjust your thinking about any of the large or small choices that you’re making. So if you can keep that in mind out of this interview, and that’s all you get, that’s wonderful. There’s no right.

Jenn DeWall:  I mean, I’ve already got more out of this. And I do like that. We’re having a candid conversation because it’s not coming from this place of judging people because it, it is understanding our own bias, our own out-of-body experience of how we do that. We’re not, we don’t want anyone to feel the sense of shame or shame and blame right now. We want you to, you know, there’s no right way to do the wrong thing. So then what begs the question? Where do you start? How do you know, what is the right thing? Is it the social contract like of the highway. And, you know, we should be kind and let people enter, you know, the highway whenever they need to and not cut them off. Like, how do you determine what the right thing is if that can feel, or if people can justify in some way, you know, I know that’s what you’re getting at the counter, that there’s no right way to do the wrong thing, but how do you determine the right thing?

Because I know the big ones, right? The big ones, such as like scamming people out of millions of dollars, like obviously not great, not treating people, but then you also see, I, I guess the example that’s coming to mind live right now is even Keurig and K-cups. And I don’t think initially when they created K cups, they wanted to have the environmental impact that they did. I don’t think they weren’t being socially responsible. I think they were looking at a market and trying to make coffee consumption easier. I don’t think they anticipated that. So how do you determine what’s right when it’s not so black and white?

How to Start Making More Ethical Choices

Christopher Gilbert:  I’ll talk about one of the most powerful tools in the book. I think it’s probably a little early to do this, but your question’s perfect. So what are the difficulties that we have with ethics is in fact, the way that it’s taught or the way that it’s trained. One of the things I discovered in the research I was doing for my doctorate was that the people who– and this is both students and corporate executives leaders– the people who have had formal training and ethics actually make lower level moral decisions than the people who have not had formal training in ethics. So say that again, the people who’ve had formal training are actually making lower level moral choices than the people. How

Jenn DeWall:  Does that, how does that happen? <Laugh>

Christopher Gilbert:  Well, you can blame us, meaning the teachers and the consultants, the way that we’re teaching it. Because quite often someone walks out of a classroom or walks out of a training and they have all of these different perspectives on what ethics might be. It all seems a little gray and they can kind of choose one of those perspectives and feel right about the choice that we’re making, rather than having a perspective that you constantly use to determine what’s ethical or not ethical. You get this whole cereal bowl full of different choices that you can make that in fact, even though they may be mutually exclusive to one another turn out to be a way to justify whatever you’re doing, whatever you choice you’ve made as being an ethical choice.

I’ll give you a quick example. So this doesn’t seem philosophical, you know, there’s one route along ethics that talks about it’s called consequentialism, right? But really the word in there is the consequences you determine whether you’ve been ethical or not by examining the consequences of your actions. So forget what methods you use, the means that you use to get there. What you’re doing is saying, look, was there, there a good thing in the end, or was there a bad thing in the end? And of course, if you take that to an extreme, you could actually then have studies where you’re putting patients at a risk of their life to try a drug that might be good for all the other millions that will come afterwards.

Christopher Gilbert:  And so we’ve seen this in the past drug studies that have actually killed patients in the effort to try and come out with a drug that in the end actually does work for more people. Well, that’s great for the more people later on at the end, but the means that you’ve used killing those patients to determine what drug works and what drug doesn’t work. There is a famous study called the Tuskegee study were 300 black men were exposed to VD and they let it run its course so that they could determine what drugs would be effective for VD later on.

Ethical Equations, Consequences and Thinking of Others

Christopher Gilbert:  But I mean, what an awful thing to think about in terms of an ethical cost or an ethical equation. Well, if you’re using this idea of the consequences as a way to justify what you’re doing, you get to see a lot of the choices that people are making. Now, even though high profile folks in sports or businesses, it’s alright to defraud millions of people, as long as we’re keeping our employers. I mean our employees in business, we’re keeping our business in business and we’re helping our stockholders maintain their millions or billions of dollars. We can justify the means that we’re using for the ends that we achieve. Well, that’s one way to take a look at ethics, but of course, if you look at the means, the people that are used in between the beginning and the end, you’ve really got a whole different equation.

Yeah. So what I wanted to do was come up with a way of looking at ethics that was much more solid. Where I could stand on ground and know what’s ethical and what’s not ethical. Just like your question. How do I know what’s right? The powerful tool in the book is you can really look at every choice, every ethical choice that you make on one of three steps of a ladder. The first step is, you think about the consequences of the choice as it’s about me. As long as I come out ahead, or I miss getting persecuted in some way I can defend myself. Then the choice has been ethical because I wind up being at a better place. The next step is it’s about some of us, usually the people that we care about or we’re connected to, or we wanna be a part of, whether that’s a small community or a church or a boy scout group, or even a nation, you can think about it in terms of a global context.

Well, the nation is only one small part, one small group of that whole global village. So that second step is it’s about some of us I’ll, I’ll make a choice that not only serves me well, but it also serves the people that I want to be a part of, or I am a part of well, and then there’s the third choice that the highest level, highest step on that moral ladder. It’s about all of them. Every choice that I make that has an impact on others now, or in the future is an ethical choice. And if I’m beginning to take that group of stakeholders, the people will be affected into my choice group as I’m making that choice, it starts to give me a, a better path to making an ethical choice. So you move from it’s about me to it’s about some of us to it’s about all of us when you’re making those choices. And it begins to actually kind of regulate your thinking in the way that you make those choices

The Difference Between Ethics, Morality and Legality

Jenn DeWall:  Well, and it feels like it’s attached to or rooted in emotional intelligence, right? The ability to see beyond yourself, to think about the social environment and the relationships that are impacted. I love it, and I’m maybe making that because I just taught emotional intelligence for Crestcom last week. And so like, that’s the easy bridge that I’m seeing right now. But let’s level set because I know I jumped ahead without even maybe defining the purpose of ethics. Because I think oftentimes we, I, or maybe this is how I see it is like, not as an everyday expectation to be ethical so much as it’s an expectation for the leaders in an organization to be ethical. And I don’t often hear people talk about it as like, you know, just the individual, it’s the responsibility of the organization to make choices that are ethical. I don’t, if I’m not sure if that’s landing, but that’s kind of how I see it, where it’s really the expectation of it or the blame, maybe like the outcome of whatever those choices are, the consequentialism, like that’s as a result of them. Like, I don’t have to think about me. So what are, let’s talk about the foundation of maybe what ethics are, and why it’s easy to diffuse the responsibility of it.

Christopher Gilbert:  Yeah, absolutely. And maybe this is a good part to sort of talk about the difference between morality and, and ethics and legality. Because oftentimes leaders in an organization run to the legal to say that this is ethical, but I’ll start with moral morality or morals. Morals are really the things that we’ve agreed to are the right choices to be making and the basis for those right choices. Ethics are the actions that we take after we’ve examined the morality of the situation that we’re doing. So maybe one easy way to think about this is that Mor morals are in the talking ethics are in the walking. Right?

Jenn DeWall:  These, I like that. Morals are in the talking, ethics are in the walking. I like that. You’ve got good one liners!

Christopher Gilbert:  <Laugh> We use these words interchangeably, semantically speaking, but that’s really where they come from. That’s the root of them legality, which is the place I said, leaders will often wind up. What’s legal really is an enforced set of social arrangements that we know sometimes change over time, given our level of morality, right? We can look at laws in this country just 40 or 50 years ago that segregated restaurants, that segregated drinking fountains and, and these things were legal in the states that they were passed. In fact, we’re still trying to rid ourselves of this weight on our shoulders that came from that kind of era where we even legalized the differentiation or the inequity of people around us. So we know that that laws change over time, depending on where our morality is. If anybody’s thinking about this in another way, you can think about it in terms of cigarette smoking, right?

It wasn’t a, a laws that changed the way that we think about cigarettes. It’s it was really us. And what we understood now about what cigarettes could do to us that created the laws that are there now to enforce the change that’s been made and the way that we think about smoking cigarettes. And so I think the thing that we really concentrate on as we’re making different choices is that we have this. And this is one of the other messages of the book. We have this ability, this capacity, even the desire to morally progress, to move, to be more tomorrow, morally ethically, if we’re breaking the right actions, than we are today. And maybe one way again, to get this out of the philosophical is to say, you know what, in places I’ll often ask during my talks you know, we, we, I would say we’ve got an innate desire to carry forward an ever-advancing civilization.

That sounds very philosophical. We have an innate desire to carry forward an ever-advancing civilization. How can you cut through the philosophy of, it was like asking a, asking the question of someone, do you want the world to be worse than, equal to, or better than it is now for your children? Well, 98% of the people I asked that question to do you want the world to be worse than equal to now or better than it is now for your children? 98%, 98% of people say, I want it to be better for your children. And there it is, that’s that innate desire to make sure that things are better in the future than they were in the past or that they are today. And part of that is that idea of moral progression. And you were talking about emotional intelligence, making a moral choice really is on four legs of the stool, the physical, the spiritual, the intellectual, and the emotional, just like you said. And in the case of emotions, I think it’s very important to understand that ethics is also about empathy, understanding someone else’s position, not just your position in order to make a choice that has a positive impact on them as well, even if perhaps it has a negative impact on you.

Making More Ethical Decisions Day to Day

Jenn DeWall:  And that’s, I mean, that is probably the biggest piece of like getting, it’s not about you. It is not about you. If you’re really making that decision from the third step of the ladder, it’s about all of us and that we all have some level or we will have, you know, we will have to make sacrifices. We will, you know, have to do something that, oh, you know, I don’t know if that’s postponing your like instant gratification so much as it’s just really thinking about, it’s not all just about you.

So how do you apply this in a day to day framework? And I do appreciate the LA the latter and also making that differentiation between morals and ethics and, and legal. It almost makes me wanna go like what one came first, like and what one’s right. Because that, I feel like that has to be, and, and that’s gotta be the age old time of like every country in their politics, right? Like what one came first, we made this now it’s that like, how do you blend to even know which ones were results of a law that are shifting into your morals, but really maybe that law was wrong. And like, it’s, there’s just so many directions to go with this. So how do you build that awareness around the day to day choices?

Christopher Gilbert:  Yeah. Another really good question. I think the, the way to think about this, especially if you start off with the idea of law, you know, speaking about legality, you’re really talking about the low bar when it comes to ethics. I mean, that’s the place to start? The conversation is what’s going on legal or not. I said, but you know, legal changes as our own social maturity happens. And we begin to see that laws in the past don’t work like they should now, because we have a better understanding of others that are around us. So if you can put into perspective this idea that ethics are not meant to be gray you know, using the phrase, ethics are gray is like using the phrase I’m sort of pregnant. Or I sort of voted. Or I’m sort of human. We have this idea somehow that ethics, the purview of ethics is for really smart people or folks that have PhDs or religious leaders that have spent a long time in it.

And I think that’s unfortunate because we’ve actually given up our power to think that it’s so gray. We can’t come up with an answer. We’ve gotta go to some kind of an expert. And I might be shooting myself in the foot here for my consulting business, but you know, the best thing that could happen is I don’t get any more business because people are making the right choices. But we really have the ability to begin to think about ethics in a way that might be more productive for us than what’s legal or not. What’s a sin or not. What are the policies and procedures here? And am I violating some set of guidelines? I think a better way to think about ethics. And again, this a shift in the thinking about what ethics are supposed to do for us.

Ethical Guardrails and the Importance of Trust

Christopher Gilbert:  Not to be punished for things, but to think of them and not as a penalty, but rather as a privilege. So I’ll use the analogy, you know, if you think about crossing a high bridge over a river, or over this the ocean or the sound, like we’ve got here in the Northwest where I am in Seattle. You know, how fast would I go across that bridge, especially on a windy or icy day, if there were no guard rails along the side? I dunno about you, but I would probably, especially if it were windy, stop my car on one side, get out, crawl across the bridge, get into my car on the other side, do my errands, come back and do the same thing. Crawling back to my original car. When I got home, I don’t want to take the chance of going off a guardrail, this bridge on the sides, especially the one we’ve got here, which is 200 feet above the water.

And if I went, I’d probably go very, very slow and imagine all the traffic jam that had happened, it’s a privilege to have those guardrails there. And that in fact, I think is a great way to begin to think about ethics and maybe a different way that helps us think that we’ve got the opportunity or the power to make choices. Ethics are really the guardrails that we’ve got that allow us to go just as fast and just as far as we need to go, especially when there are others around us that are trying to go the same way or a slightly different way. Those guardrails are a privilege and really allow us to do the speeds that we need to be able to do, to get where we want to go. Maybe not quite as fast as I’d want to go if I were alone and there were guardrails there and I could zoom across at 100, 200 miles an hour. But there isn’t just me. There are others that are out there as well, also having to go around. And if you want to think about this too ethics is an exercise of our virtues, not an exercise of our rights. And so if you think about what makes a four way stop work? Well, there are laws that tell us, we’ve gotta stop, but I tell you what, I don’t pull up to a four way, stop and go, oh gosh revised code of Washington, number 97 dash 6 0 5, stop. And I stop you. Trust four, stop what you’re seeing.

If you think about it this way, a four way stop works because of trust. I trust you’ll stop there. You trust I’ll stop there. There may be codes in the laws that talk about having to stop. But I don’t think of those when I stop. I think about the fact that I’m supposed to stop because you trust I will, and you’re supposed to stop because I trust you will. So you really see happening at a four way stop sign are set of virtues that we have that help us make the world work. Even if we’re working at 90 degrees to each other. And you want to go one way, and I’m going another way in completely the opposite direction or 90 degrees to you, that four-way stop works because of virtues. And if you go to a world where there half of us that don’t believe in four way stops. So I’m just gonna go plowing through this because I want to do what I want to do. Well,

Jenn DeWall:  This is consensus. I love this. Like, yeah. What do you do when we don’t have consensus around this?

Christopher Gilbert:  Yeah. I’m still gonna be affected as a nonbeliever in the stop sign, because I’m sure they’re gonna be those people who don’t believe in the stop sign that is still worried about– especially if they got others in the car– still worried about who’s coming in opposite directions and whether they believe in the four way stop or not. They’re probably gonna have to stop. And actually it’s gonna take me longer to go through that stop sign, because I don’t know whether I can trust you or not to stop. I gotta wait until you go by. And if you go zooming through it, then I can go. Unless there are others behind you, but I gotta wait either way. Whereas before, if we both had this trust with each other, and I knew that you were gonna stop, I can go through it just as soon as I can.

And so it’s actually affected my life for the better, to believe in the system of trust with each other than it is to have a number of us on the road that are still gonna go blasting through it. Because even those people they’re taking a risk. And you know, I mean, they’re only two ways to do this. You either gotta stop and wait for all the traffic to be gone and go through it, or you’re gonna punch the accelerator down, close your eyes and hope that there’s not somebody who is like you not trusting. Or you know, not worrying about the trust in others. That’s still gonna come plowing through and maybe it works. And maybe it doesn’t. So even if we say to ourselves, no, I’m not gonna believe all of this because I wanna do what I want to do. It winds up affecting your life negatively and hurting your chances to do something. That you’re not part of an agreement with each other, that we’ve gotta be able to do this because we’re not always going in the same path to the same place. We sometimes are 90 degrees to each other. We’ve gotta come up with a system that works for you and works for me and helps both of us equally. So that idea, the virtue that’s really what ethics is about. It’s about exercising your virtues.

The Three Rungs of the Ethical Ladder

Jenn DeWall:  Okay. So then here’s my question. And I feel like I could ask you so many questions. Here’s my question, because I understand, you know, the theory of the, the three step moral ladder you know, the first step is about us. The second step is about some of us. And then the third is about all of us. What if you found yourself with the decision that you like, how do you assess the decision? If you know that? I mean, I guess maybe even going back to the ladder, is it, are we, are we striving for a level three all the time? Are we understanding that life is going to shift you where it’s okay to go to ladder one?

Because if you’re sick or something you need to, like, I’m not even sure if there’s interchangeability between them, or if there is a, like, what do you do in the situations where you might inherently know that you should be thinking about the benefit of all, but you ultimately do know that some people are going to suffer, I guess maybe at the front of that, that medical study or the Tuskegee study of thinking like, we know people are gonna die. Like, how do you proceed then to go forward? Like, how do you rationalize that, that when you know that you can’t make the decision from the all of us perspective, am I going too high here?

Christopher Gilbert:  So, no. I mean, they’re good questions. And of course you can’t dig into the subject unless you’re really kind of looking at those bits and pieces because it’s putting all those bits and pieces together that really begin to teach you about maybe making better choices. You know, part of what’s happening when you walk up that step louder is that you are personalizing the choices that you’re making. So maybe one way to look at this that might clear up the philosophy sides of it is to think about, well, if I made every choice and personalize it. Like, well, if this is my mother, what would I do? If this is my brother or sister, what would I do? If this is my best friend, what would I do? We’ve now gotten out of the fact that strangers or people that we don’t know, people that we-ll never meet, somehow we can affect them more negatively.

Then we would affect the people that are closest around us, that we wanna actually treat perhaps better, because we feel a different sense of responsibility. As you climb up that ladder what’s happening is you’re really beginning to personalize more and more for the people that perhaps aren’t close to you, what might impact them? In a way, of course, you’re standing in their shoes and going, well, if I’m on the other side of this in the, let’s say the Tuskegee study, if I’m on the other side of this and I’m gonna die at a minimum, I would want to be consulted with and give permission to that idea, all right, I’m gonna take ultimate sacrifice for the millions or billions of people that would be saved if I’m doing it. But at least as a stakeholder in that entire operation, I’ve been asked. And I can, if I, if I, so desire, give up my life in the study for the things that are, you know, the things that might come out of the benefit of it.

Ethical Decisions and Empathy for Others

Christopher Gilbert:  The difficulty is when we look at others and somehow they’re apart from us we can say, well, I’m different than them. They’re different than me. I don’t know them. I don’t have a responsibility. I’m not connected. We begin to make choices that aren’t personalized. We begin to make choices that if it happened to us, we’d probably go, well, God, this is me. I, this is terrible. I don’t want this to happen to me, but if it’s another person, we don’t really think of it that way. And of course, to it’s extreme. That’s what you see happening in these. Let’s say these shootings that are going on in schools, right?

The mass shootings that are happening anywhere, somehow the people that are, are, are doing the act feel somehow separate or apart from the people that are being hurt in the act, right? Because if they were in that room, they were a school child. They could empathize with the fear or the anger, or the parents later, or the tragedy of it all. They wouldn’t make the choices that they do. So climbing up that BA ladder is really about, as you said, the emotional intelligence part of it, it’s really about beginning to understand and empathize with others that are around you. Do we do that all the time? No. Is it impossible to do all the time? I think right now it is, especially in this particularly caustic, moral area era where we’ve kind of gotta look at ourselves and take care of ourselves.

And, and we don’t think of others perhaps around us. Like we should, but progress here on the earth is about being more tomorrow than you are today. And we’ve got a capacity we’re born with the capacity to advance in certain ways. Think about language, how in the world does a kid learn language? I can’t learn a language as like I did when I was a child, it just gets absorbed and we learn a French, Spanish, Japanese, Russian, Sioux. I mean, we have this capacity as a child to get this stuff into our heads and actually begin to use it. Thank God we do. Thank goodness we do. And it doesn’t change. We’ve got that same capacity to be more tomorrow than we are today, every moment of our lives. And I think the different ethics or a different way to think about right choices comes from working on and achieving that capacity. You can’t win a marathon or even run a marathon unless you practice for the marathon. It doesn’t happen overnight. Right? So there’s some work that goes into it. Thank fortunately, I think ethics isn’t as difficult as a marathon, but I don’t run marathons. So <laugh>,

Jenn DeWall:  I don’t either. Don’t worry!

Christopher Gilbert:  At any rate, we’ve got that capacity inside of us. And if you believe in that capacity, then you can begin to think about what it means to step up those three steps of the ladder. And by the way, I’m not at step three all the time I walk up and down that ladder all the time. What I think I do have is a tool that at least if I make a bad choice, I can ask myself, well, why didn’t you step up and make a choice that was about everybody in this decision? Why didn’t you just do it for you? Or why didn’t you just do it for your kids when others were hurt outside of that. And it gives me a way to begin to think ethics, aren’t gray, this isn’t iffy. This isn’t tough. This is— wait a minute. Where was I when I made that choice? And why wasn’t I another step of the ladder when I made it

What do We Owe Ourselves? What do We Owe Others?

Jenn DeWall:  That’s oh my gosh. And there’s so many different, like, even I’m thinking of examples that I’ve shared on the podcast before, even about allyship, right? And how that relates then to like advocacy for others. And I’m gonna give a really stupid example, but, and they’ve heard this. I wore jeans to an event that I did speaking. I knew I was kind of towing the line, but I was talking about human connection. But in any event, I knew I was towing the line in terms of maybe how people expected just the presence of a speaker in that setting. And someone had come up to me afterwards and they said, this meeting professional loved you. She loved like your message. It was so great, but she couldn’t hire you, because you wore jeans. Oh. And in my head, and even now as I sit here and I look and I’m like, I have a full corporate wardrobe. I spent so much time on this speech. I was actually being very intentional with my wardrobe choice for that event to support the message.

And the initial piece that I was frustrated about was, you know, I’ll take the responsibility. I knew I was towing the line. It hurt. It stinks to be like, oh my gosh, I, I poured my blood, sweat, tears into this message. And to find out that like the message got lost. But in any event, the other question that did end up coming up for me is like, what could you have maybe presented a different thing about me? Like have said like, Hey, I bet if you asked Jenn, she could probably do whatever you need to do to make your audience happy. And that’s just a small example of allyship. I am not trying to pretend that like, you know, this is not a gross, like inequity that I was dealt or anything like that. But like, it does bring in like, where are people an allyship? Like, because we hear circumstances all the time of maybe someone being treated poorly, someone not being represented in the best way. Like what’s our ethical responsibility to help expand the ethics of others. Like and how do you see allyship? Because then I wanna talk about cancel culture. Like there’s so many questions that I have as it relates to that, of like painting that bigger picture. Yeah. Am I going too far, Chris?

Christopher Gilbert:  No, no, no. Again, a really good question. And, and I think this has to do with the, an understanding that we, we do not have the responsibility to teach others unless they ask us <laugh> unless they want to be taught by us. Although all of us, I think go around and I’m not talking about parents with children, you have an innate responsibility to teach those children because they can’t teach themselves. Right. but at a certain point, we have to sort of, doff this idea that it’s my responsibility to teach you a better ethic in some way, at least directly. Certainly through my actions and my responses. I can teach you another way to look at the world that white might in fact, give you a great variety of better choices or better outcomes than the current ones that you’ve got. I’ll, I’ll go to an example that I use in my book, because I think this is part of the answer too.

The Ethical Difference Between Truthfulness and Transparency

Christopher Gilbert:  The difference between transparency and truthfulness. And the example that I use in the book, speaking of wardrobe. You know, we often go with someone that we’re shopping with. Maybe men, not as much as women, but maybe a partner. And they step into a changing room and they put something on and they walk out and you look at it and go, oh my God, that’s just hideous. I mean, what am I gonna say? And of course then comes that ultimate question. Right? Which is, well, how do I look? And you’re stuck there going well I guess I’ll come up with some coded language here. Like oh, that’s the reddest red you’ve ever worn, dear. Or boy, you’ve never had anything yellow before. How interesting to see that on you, when in your head you’re going, oh God, this is, you know, don’t, don’t buy that thing.

Don’t wear that thing. But you don’t wanna give them the transparency of it because there are emotions connected to it as well. Right? Yeah. But if you think about it, there’s a whole interchange that probably ought to happen before you’re in that circumstance. And I’m not saying that we need to analyze this far for something as simple as someone stepping into a changing room and coming out with a different wardrobe. But you might wanna actually discuss it because it’d be interesting to see the answers, what it is the person is looking for. When they ask the question, are they looking for the truth? Are they looking for transparency? Are they looking for some approval that if you, they get it from you, they’re gonna buy this and they’re gonna have it. And by the way, what do any of us know about fashion?

Right? I mean, I get what I get because I think I look good and it’s comfortable on me. But the idea here is the difference between truthfulness and transparency. I think there were far more positive outcomes that came from the reality that it probably didn’t have anything to do with what you were wearing. That was just an excuse that was used to come up with a quick answer. That takes the responsibility off my shoulders to sort of explain to you anything else was there. Especially if I walked into the room as the person thinking of hiring you and I really didn’t wanna hire you, or I had another person in mind. Or what is, what is the transparency of this answer that you were given that you weren’t hired because you were wearing jeans? Because we all know we have the capacity.

If we had better information to wear whatever it is that somebody wanted us to wear in front of their employees. Right. But you didn’t get that answer. So it’s really interesting. Someone took the easy way out and rather than being truthful and, and really providing an answer that might give you and them more opportunities, they just decided that that was the fastest way to make a response. And by the way, it probably had nothing to do with your jeans, or if it did, that was the icing on the cake to something else. They have a cousin who wants to come in and do it. They don’t have the budget that they, they thought they’d have for you to come and do it. All those things are some sort of an admission that I don’t have the capacities that I really should for making this choice. But a really easy way to, you know, to cut the mustard is, oh yeah, you’re wearing the wrong thing. Oh excuse me. <Laugh> let’s

Jenn DeWall:  I just wish I never knew. I wish I’m gonna go back to ignorance as BLIS. Like why did you even tell me that? Like, I didn’t, you know, like I wish I had actually never known that because now that’s another layer where I’m like, oh my gosh, I asked and, and all the preplanning meetings, Hey, this is what I’m gonna wear. Is this okay with this audience? Like I had done what I thought were all of the right things. And then I didn’t ask for this feedback, you know, it came up to me like two days later, like, let me tell you. And I was like, what? And I think the follow up piece that also really got into me, it was like, in that same conversation was, Hey, Jenn. And I, and I know I’m sorry, because it is different for men.

Jenn DeWall:  And I was like, that just, that makes me like so frustrated because now I, now I have to feel like I, okay. Like I just, I don’t get to wear jeans because I’m a woman? What? It’s 2022. Like I don’t understand. And so that’s where I do think I, I did this experience and it’s, I mean, I’ll be fine. I’ll be fine. It’s a big, it’s a story, right. It’s a talking point, but it did stimulate a lot of follow up thinking of like, why don’t we say that? Or why, why would I then give the follow up? And I’m sorry, Jenn, but men can do it. You just can’t. Like, I don’t even understand how I’m supposed to process that?

Ethics and Human Virtues

Christopher Gilbert:  You did exactly what I was gonna suggest that you do it, or you probably do it now. It sounds like you’re doing it before you were asking the question. What’s the best, what’s the best thing for me to have on in the group of people that I’m talking to and you got the answe. It’s too bad that maybe the person who gave you the answer that it was fine to wear jeans. Although maybe they didn’t do that directly, but it’s fine to be casual. Didn’t actually defend you <laugh> and say, oh, wait a minute, wait a minute. I’m the one that, that told her that she could do that. So don’t blame her. Let’s not make that the reason. These things happen in a world that’s concentrating on being ethical. You know, trustworthiness is the foundation of all human virtues.

I’ll ask you, ask people in some of my talks, what do you think the greatest human virtue is? And of course, often the answer is love. And that does distinguish us from the other animals on the planet. For the depth that we can feel. And for the four legs of the stool, spiritual, intellectually, emotional and physical that we bring into love. But if you think about it love itself, doesn’t work unless your partner is trustworthy, unless your partner is truthful. Now you can have a certain version of love if you’re not being truthful in that relationship. OK. But it’s not true love. And so what undergirds true love. And in fact, what undergirds, all of our virtues is truthfulness, and is trustworthiness. Right so that’s the other, I think one of the other messages in the book is how can we concentrate on this idea?

The truth is actually gonna get us a lot farther than some of the other stuff that we put in the way from our own ego or whatever the filters are gonna be with the way that we’re making choices. How much, excuse me, better a world we’d have. If we were concentrating this idea of providing trust and truthfulness, which by the way, isn’t always transparency. I’ll go back to that idea of someone stepping out of the, my partner, stepping out of the changing room. I am gonna get in trouble for this one. My partner’s stepping out of the changing room. I’ll go, oh God, that’s the ugliest color you’ve ever had on. Because there are emotions attached to this relationship too. It isn’t just simply intellectual. You know, there are emotions attached to the consequences that I have to think about. So coding the language is coding, not C O A T. But C O D I N G coding.

Coding the language might be a good thing to do because I’ve gotta think about that as emotional consequences. But if I take this example and I’m gonna Google into the same situation in the future with my partner, it might be great to have a conversation ahead of time. If you ask me, how do I look? What kind of an answer are you looking from me? I mean, what is it that you’re trying to get out of the, the answer of that, right? My permission? My attitude? Oh, you’re looking sexy in that thing? What is it that you’re asking me? You know when you ask, how does this look? Because that’ll inform the kind of answer that I’ve got. And I’m gonna guess that rarely is someone saying, well, I want a specific 100% understanding of whether you think that fashion fits me in such a way. Right? I think there are probably lots of layers to the, to the answer that you’re looking for. You say, how does this look on me, right?

So at any rate, I think it’s too bad that you didn’t have an opportunity to sort of ask these people, how does this look on me when you got up? Right? And by the way, after these talks, when I do this, I’ll have people walk up to me and sort of jokingly say, well, how does this look on me? And I sort of act like I dunno if you remember Hogan Heroes in the old days, but there was a German soldier on it that used to say, I know nothing. I know nothing. Right. So don’t ask me how you look, unless you tell me what it’s, you’re looking for.

Jenn DeWall:  I mean, Chris, I know that we have to wrap, we’re already over, like, this conversation is blown by and I’ve loved it. And thank you even for going into that, because it does, it’s like, how can we support one another, right? Like how can we actually do that? But I do appreciate the, the case that you built for the, the need for open transparency, trust, setting expectations in the beginning, Hey, how do you want me to respond in this situation that we have to have this dialogue and these conversations to help create that better understanding or that foundation of our empathy to have our awareness. You’ve had my mind rolling this entire podcast. I already know, you know, that like they and someone else, I hope that they’ve been following along on the journey, but Chris, I know that we’re at our time, what would be like anything else that you feel like we didn’t cover, or a final point that you would want to share with the audience?

Christopher Gilbert:  Yeah. If I go through what we didn’t cover will be here for hours.

Jenn DeWall:  I think I’m fine with that. Let’s talk,

Where to Find More from Christopher Gilbert, PhD

Christopher Gilbert:  You asked great questions, but you know, this is very layered. And it’s actually an active part of our lives almost at every moment that we’re actually dealing with something outside of ourselves. You know, there’s, there are very few ethics on a deserted desert island, right? Because the, you know, the question I’ve even got a cartoon in the book that talks a little bit about this. Because the question is, what am I doing that has an impact on others now? And in the future, I’d say for anybody who believes this mantra, there’s no right way to do the wrong thing. Especially in the toxic moral era that we find ourselves in picking up this book, reading this book, asking me questions, and there are different ways to get a hold of me. Or asking one another questions. I wanted to start a conversation about how we can make more consistent right choices in our lives and how we can get this idea that ethics and the purview of the rich and famous, or the purview of the highly educated or the religious leaders.

And no, it’s our purview. It’s really here. There’s really a basic way that we can use very simple tools to make really good choices. So I’d say, yeah, Amazon Barnes & Noble, Books-a-Million, there’s several ways to pick up my book, The Noble Edge, anywhere that’s out there and get ’em delivered. And I’d love to hear from people either leaving a review or just asking me directly via email or post office box or whatever. Just some questions so that we can get this dialogue going. And by the way, I so much appreciate you for actually getting this dialogue going and for having the conversation, because that’s really where we need to be. As we’re talking about making a change in the world, an ethical change, one decision at a time,

Jenn DeWall:  Oh my gosh, I have loved this conversation. Thank you so much for just sharing your time and passion and expertise and research with The Leadership Habit, audience, The Noble Edge, Reclaiming an Ethical World One Choice at a Time. Chris, thank you so much for being on the podcast today.

Christopher Gilbert:  Thank you so much, Jenn. Really appreciate it.

Jenn DeWall:  Thank you so much for listening to this week’s episode of The Leadership Habit podcast. I hope that you enjoyed my conversation with Dr. Christopher Gilbert and Hey, if you want to get in touch with him, you can get a copy of his best-selling book by heading to, or you can get it from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Indigo, and many other book providers. And remember that there’s no right way to do the wrong thing. Live the truth every day, and it will change your life. Those were words from Dr. Gilbert. And so don’t forget to connect with him for your speaking needs.

Jenn DeWall:  And of course, if you have leadership needs, if you want to develop your leaders to give them the tools that they need to succeed today in this challenging work environment, head on over to, we would love to help you develop your leaders so they can be more confident and they can build more connected teams and cultures where people actually want to work. Thank you so much for tuning in to this week’s episode! Until next time.