President Obama & Business Ethics
Some of you may recall that, along with this humble blogger, President Barack Obama (back then he was merely “President Elect”) was included on Ethisphere Magazine’s list of the 100 Most Influential People in Business Ethics (2008), earlier this month.
The rationale provided by Ethisphere:
Obama has made ethics a cornerstone of his administration, which in turn has already caused a priority on ethics to trickle down into public and private companies. Many businesses have already responded directly or indirectly by shifting their overall business strategy.
It’s not clear how much influence Obama could have had in 2008, when he was merely a presidential candidate. It’s clearer that he has a chance to exert a fair bit of influence in 2009, and beyond. Just how much influence he can have on the way business is conducted, and the mechanisms by which he can do so, is an interesting question, one I’m not sure I’m qualified to answer.
But I’ll point out that we could begin to answer the question by noting that the there are two categories of ways in which the President (be it Obama or anyone else) can influence business ethics.
1) Leadership. The President, in a very real way, gets to set the tone for other leaders, including leaders in commerce. He gets to lead by example, and, in Obama’s case, lead through the persuasive force of his very considerable oratory skills. Just how potent such example-setting and persuasion are or can be is an open question.
2) Legislation. Now, I’ve been at pains before to point out that law & ethics are not the same thing. But ethical constraint often (and perhaps most critically) comes into play in what HLA Hart called “the penumbra of the law” — the grey zone along the law’s edges. Change the law, and you change the penumbra, the area within which companies and executives have to exercise ethical judgment.
Time will tell whether Obama exerts the kind of positive influence on business ethics with which Ethisphere has already credited him. Americans of all political leanings, and people around the world, should wish him luck.