Navigating your way through complexity in a rapidly changing, information-saturated world

The pace of change has increased, the growth in complexity has multiplied, and information has proliferated at an unprecedented pace.  We are in extraordinary times.  And unprecedented times call for unique and disciplined approaches if we are to survive and thrive. In this next of a series of articles, I unpack a set of recommendations for strategies, processes, attitudes, habits, and disciplines to build into your lives and businesses to help us survive and thrive in these unprecedented times.

We need to make sure that we are building into our lives and businesses the proper infrastructure to help us survive and thrive – both personally as well as organizationally.

It’s like building a sailboat designed for treacherous seas – we need to create the proper sails that propel us forward, and, at the same time, build in the proper keels that keep us on track.  This dynamic tension between the forces that propel us forward and those that hold us back is what allows us to live a life of balance and fulfillment and guides our businesses to realize the potential they have.

So far, we have examined these sails:

We’ve also looked at these keels:

In this article, we’ll look at the next Keel: Adherence to an unmoving set of ethics.

While we all use that word – ethics – frequently, our understanding of it varies significantly:

Some years ago, sociologist Raymond Baumhart asked business people, “What does ethics mean to you?” Among their replies were the following:

“Ethics has to do with what my feelings tell me is right or wrong.”
“Ethics has to do with my religious beliefs.”
“Being ethical is doing what the law requires.”
“Ethics consists of the standards of behavior our society accepts.”
“I don’t know what the word means.”(1)

In this article, I’m going to define ethics and then dig deeply into its role as a keel to help guide us through these turbulent times.

Ethics – Definition

One dictionary definition emphasizes moral principles that govern a person’s behavior.

An article published by the Markklula Center for Applied Ethics adds these insights:  Ethics is based on well-founded standards of right and wrong that prescribe what humans ought to do, usually in terms of rights, obligations, benefits to society, fairness, or specific virtues.2

So, let’s start with this definition:  Ethics is a set of moral principles—primarily standards for right and wrong –which govern a person’s behavior.

Ethics has little to do with what is legal.  Anyone who has been involved in a lawsuit soon recognizes that what is legal has no relationship to what is ethical. While there may be commonly accepted ethical principles in communities, ethics manifest in the behavior of individuals.  One can hold an ethical principle that contradicts a community standard.  In the US, for example, abortion is legal, although a large segment of the population considers it unethical.

While it can be said that communities, families, and countries are characterized in part by their ethics, for this article, we’re going to consider ethics on the personal scale – the principles which guide an individual’s behavior, regardless of the group or community to which that individual belongs.

Because ethical principles guide our behavior, they act as a powerful keel, keeping us from being tossed about by the winds of convenience and passing attractions.  They hold our baser inclinations in check and prevent us from burning relationship bridges.  They empower us to say “no” to reckless and hurtful behaviors and to say ‘yes’ to the opportunities to fulfill the principles that we say we hold.

To function fully as a keel, holding us down and preventing us from being tossed about, we need to address three issues:

1. The Principles

Do we hold intentional, defendable ethical principles?  Are we at peace with the principles we hold?

2. Clarity in those principles

For many of us, or ethical principles are vague and unformed, which muddies their ability to slice through the more ambiguous of the choices in front of us.   Can we expound our principles with clarity? While we all have adhered to some ethical principles, they are generally vague concepts that we have latched onto over the years.

3. Commitment to them.

Have we fully committed to them, so that they are “unmoving?”  Or are they just ideas that we verbally accede to, but don’t hold them strongly enough to actually influence our behavior?

Few of us have thought about them deeply and intentionally selected them.  Few of us have articulated them, and few of us consistently commit to them. Our turbulent times demand a more intentional approach.  It’s one thing to loosely hold a set of vague ethical principles, and it is altogether another to “Adhere to an unmoving set of ethics.”

Why we need an unmoving set of ethical principles

In our rapidly moving world, we find ourselves faced with increasing demand for decisions. One strategy to manage the overwhelming number of decisions we have to make is to think deeply about certain recurring situations, and then make one-time decisions that can apply to multiple scenarios.  Then, when a decision scenario presents itself, you can confidently rely on the decision you have already made.

That’s one of the things that an ‘unmoving set of ethics” does for you. Here’s an example.  You decide that one of the principles in your ethical set is the principle of ‘honesty.’  One way you define that is with the prescription:  I will tell the truth in every situation, I will not exaggerate, nor diminish it. You have made the decision.  You are ready for any application.

In a conversation with one of your supervisors, you are asked if you had everything you needed for the proposal to which you were assigned.  It would be easy to fudge a bit to cover for one of your colleagues who was late with his portion.  But, since you already made the decision, to be honest, you reply with an honest “No.”  You don’t have to debate the answer, you don’t have to stress over it because you have already framed your answer.

The net result for you is less stress, more confidence, and a reputation as an ethical person.

On a deeper level, our adherence to a set of ethics interacts with our spirituality.  When asked which was the greatest commandment, Jesus replied: ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’  ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Matthew 22:37& 38 (NASB)

Ultimately, we express our love through our actions.  And we determine many of those actions based on the ethical standards we adhere to.  If we hold tight to our ethical principles, we treat others the way we would want to be treated, and those actions allow us to feel more closely connected to our spirituality. It is difficult, for example, to feel like you are in a good place, spiritually, when you are consistently violating those ethical principles.

So, our adherence to ethical principles impacts our spirituality and enhances our sense of self-worth. We feel like we are more valuable and capable people when we act ethically, and we feel much less so when we don’t.

On an organizational level, when a company delineates and then holds to a set of ethical principles, the employees feel like they are attached to something bigger and more valuable than just a money-making enterprise.

Taking your ethics to a higher level

It is far more common for a company to intentionally select, articulate and hold a set of ethical principles than it is for an individual.  Typically, the owner will engage in a period of deep thought, either individually or with a small group of trusted advisors, and create a ‘values statement’ which captures the ethical principles the business holds most dear.

In 1994, as my consulting/speaking practice was beginning to gather headway, I thought it best to do just that.  Here’s what resulted:


Profit:  We will earn a better than average profit as this allows us the flexibility to do other things.

Integrity: We will be honest in everything we do, never overpromise, and zealously work to fulfill our commitments.

Value: We will strive to provide our clients more value than they expect.

Personable: We will be pleasant and easy to work with.

Knowledgeable:  Understanding that we are in the business of “selling knowledge,” we will be on the cutting edge of new knowledge.

Open-minded:  We will constantly be open to new or different ideas, methods, and concepts from all sources, especially our clients.

Learning:  We will value individual and organizational learning (the ability to continually take in new information, acquire new insights, and change in positive ways as a result of that information) as our primary competitive advantage.

Humility:  We will constantly be aware that the resources we use and the clients we serve are gifts from God, entrusted to our temporary stewardship.

Quality:  In everything we do, we will strive to do it as well as the very best companies in the world like ours do it.

Three Simple Steps

1. Make the description of a set of ethics an intentional process, for which you invest significant deep thinking. If you have a set of advisors, you may want to bring them into the process. Regardless, it requires dedicated time in which you immerse yourself into the project.  Engage with these questions:

What are the primary moral principles by which I will lead my life?

What are the primary moral principles by which I want my employees to be guided? 

You’ll probably create a long list.  Then, reduce it to the most important, and focus on them.

2. Write them down.

The process of putting them down on paper requires precision. That means that you must carefully consider the principles, prioritize them to identify the most important, and precisely describe them so that other people can understand them.

3. Publish them and require your employee’s adherence to them.

That doesn’t mean that you buy an ad in the local newspaper. But it does mean that you post them in conspicuous places, provide a copy to every new hire, post them on your website, etc.

Committing to “an unmoving set of ethics” is our final keel.  While I’m sure we could continue the process of identifying and articulating those habits, attitudes, and behaviors that propel us forward and hold us back, the set we’ve described in this series is sufficient to make a difference in your life and your business.  We have examined these sails:

  • An acceptance of personal responsibility.
  • An attitude of openness
  • A propensity to take risks.
  • A focus on strengths.
  • The discipline of continuous, self-directed learning.
  • The habit of continuously prioritizing & focusing

We’ve also looked at these keels:

  • An articulated vision or purpose
  • The discipline of regular reflecting and planning.
  • The discipline of rational thinking.
  • An examined spirituality.
  • An unmoving set of ethics.

These sails and keels will help guide you and your organization through these turbulent times, enabling you to survive and thrive by navigating your way through complexity in a rapidly changing, information-saturated world.

1 What is Ethics?  Velasquez, Andre, Shanks, and Meyer,



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