Developing a code of ethics will help your practice—and make you happier with yourself

Having a code of ethics doesn’t make people ethical. It doesn’t make bad people good. Nor does it make people with bad judgment wise. Most of the very bad behavior we’ve seen in recent years would not have been prevented by an ethics code.

There are two aspects to ethics: discernment—knowing right from wrong—and discipline—having the moral will­power to do what is right.

A moral code can help define what is right and provide a basis for imposing sanctions on those who do not follow it. But unless it reinforces an established ethical culture, it will not do much to ensure that people do the right thing.

Easier Said Than Done

Consistently doing the right thing is easier said than done. For one thing, it is not always easy to know what is right. We want to believe that ethics is simple and that everything we needed to know we learned in kindergarten. But if that was so, we all must have been absent that day. There are many situations in which ethical values clash and there is no clear or simple right thing to do.

Even if we always know what is right, consistently doing it is not easy. Some­times we just can’t get everything we want by being honest and following all the rules.

Ethics limits our options, and behaving ethically can put us at a competitive disadvantage. So when there’s a gap between what we want to do (our desires) and what we should do (our ethics), we often rationalize or compromise. Thus, even basically good people lie occasionally, cheat a little, and justify moral shortcuts. No one is perfect—it’s human nature.

It’s also human nature to strive for moral perfection and to care about our character. That’s the part of our nature we need to strengthen. A healthy and realistic goal is not to be perfect but to be consistently improving—and we don’t have to be sick to get better. A practice team member once told me: “Don’t be a prisoner of perfection. Rather, be a student of excellence.”

Yes, it often takes moral willpower to do the right thing when it costs more than we want to pay, but that’s what character is all about. For all our cynicism about the growing hole in our moral ozone layer, there are lots of good people who resist temptations every day.

The Six C’s of Character

As you consider your goals for your practice, I hope you’ll think about working on your team’s character. After all, the best road to a better life is to be a better person, and all of us can be better.

One of the best ways to do this is to focus on the “six C’s of character.” They are: conscience, courage, consideration, compassion, confidence, and control.

1) Resolve to be a person of conscience. Listen to the inner voice that helps you know right from wrong and urges you to do what is good and noble.

2) Be courageous. Resolve to confront the challenges and choices of your life forthrightly. Make the tough decisions that need to be made and, above all, maintain your integrity by doing what you know is right even when it costs more than you want to pay.

3) Be considerate. Be more deliberative, thoughtful, and attentive to how your words and actions will affect others, and reflect on your character. Think ahead so that you can avoid undesired consequences.

4) Be compassionate. Demonstrate a genuine concern for the well-being of others. Be kind and charitable. Strive to understand more and judge less. Compassion is a paramount part of the medical profession.

5) Be confident of your capacity to overcome with integrity and dignity whatever difficulties come your way. Don’t underestimate your resiliency. Resolve to persist until you prevail.

6) Control strong emotions, appetites, and urges that tempt you to compromise your principles or to sacrifice long-term goals for short-term indulgences.

Remember, your character is your destiny. Do the right thing, for the right reason, at the right time. When all is said and done, what you have left is your name and reputation. Invest wisely.

The Great Leadership Challenge

If you want to be a leader who attracts quality people, the key is to become a person of quality yourself. Leadership is the ability to attract someone to the teachings, skills, and opportunities you offer as a practice owner or practice manager, or as a parent. What’s important in leadership is refining your skills. All great leaders keep working on themselves until they become effective. Here are some specifics:

• Learn to be strong but not impolite. It is an extra step you must take to become a powerful, capable leader with a wide reach. Some people mistake rudeness for strength. It’s not a good substitute.

• Learn to be kind but not weak. We must not mistake kindness, which is a type of strength, for weakness. We must be kind enough to tell someone the truth. We must also be kind and considerate enough to tell it like it is and not deal in delusion.

• Learn to be bold, but don’t be bully. To build your influence, you’ve got to walk in front of your group. You’ve got to take the first arrow, tackle the first problem, be aware of the first sign of trouble—in short, seize the moment.

• Learn to be humble but not timid. Some people mistake humility, a virtue, for timidity, a disease. Timidity can be cured, but it is a problem. Humility is almost godlike. It suggests a sense of awe and wonder, and an awareness of the human spirit. Humility is grasping the distance between us and the stars, yet having the feeling that we’re part of the stars.

• Learn to be proud but not arrogant. It takes pride to build your ambitions—pride in your community, in a cause, and in accomplishment. Good leaders are proud without being arrogant. The worst kind of arrogance is derived from ignorance. If someone is intelligent or knowledgeable but arrogant, we can tolerate that. But we can’t tolerate someone who is both ignorant and arrogant.

• Learn to develop humor without folly. As leaders, we learn that it’s OK to be witty but not silly, funny but not foolish.

• Deal in realities. Save yourself the agony of delusion. Just accept life as it is. Leadership, like life, is unique. The skills that work well for one leader may not work for another. However, the fundamental skills of leadership can be adapted to work well for just about everyone—at work, in the community, and at home.

Six Core Ethical Values

A strong leader must possess six core ethical values:

1) Trustworthiness. When others trust us, they don’t need to monitor us to ensure that we’ll meet our obligations. They hold us in high esteem, and that’s satisfying. At the same time, we must constantly live up to others’ expectations and refrain from even small lies or self-serving behavior that can quickly destroy our relationships.

2) Respect. People are not things, and everyone has the right to be treated with dignity. We certainly have no ethical duty to hold all people in high esteem, but we should treat everyone with respect, regardless of who they are and what they have done. Respect prohibits violence, humiliation, manipulation, and exploitation. It reflects notions such as courtesy, decency, dignity, autonomy, tolerance, and acceptance.

3) Responsibility. Being responsible means being in charge of our choices and, therefore, our lives. It means being accountable for what we do and who we are. Our capacity to reason and our freedom to choose make us morally answerable for whether we honor or degrade the ethical principles that give life meaning and purpose. Ethical people show responsibility by being accountable, pursuing excellence, and exercising self-restraint. They exhibit the ability to respond to expectations.

4) Fairness. The attributes of equality, impartiality, proportionality, openness, and due process are all components of fairness. Most people would agree that it is unfair to handle similar matters inconsistently. Most would also agree that it is unfair to impose punishment that is not commensurate with the offense. The concept seems simple, yet applying it in daily life can be difficult. Fairness is a tricky concept, probably more subject to debate and interpretation than any other ethical value.

5) Caring. This is the heart of ethics and ethical decision-making. It is impossible to be truly ethical and yet unconcerned with the welfare of others. This is because ethics is ultimately about good relations with others. A person who really cares has emotional responses to the pain and pleasure of others.

6) Citizenship. This value includes civic virtues and duties that prescribe how we should behave as part of a community. Yes, good citizens know the laws and obey them, but that’s not all. They volunteer to help and stay informed on the issues of the day, the better to be members of a self-governing, democratic society. They do more than their fair share to make society work, now and for future generations. Such a commitment to the public sphere can have many expressions, such as recycling, using public transportation, and cleaning up litter. Good citizens give more than they take.

Question Yourself

I will conclude with three important questions to ask yourself when you are faced with an ethical dilemma:

• Will my decision harm anyone—physically, emotionally, or otherwise?

• Will it cause any future repercussions?

• How will it make me feel about myself?

Keep in mind that two of the most difficult things to do in life are to make a good name for yourself and to keep it. PSP

Rosemary Bray, a lecturer and consultant to the medical industry, often conducts team retreats. She can be reached at (760) 268-0760 or