Meeting the Ethical Challenges of Leadership in a Global Society



Meeting the Ethical Challenges of Leadership in a Global Society

One may also observe in one’s travels to distant countries the feelings of recognition and affiliation that link every human being to every other human being.

—Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle

Human beings draw close to one another by their common nature, but habits and customs keep them apart.

—Confucian saying

What’s Ahead

In this chapter, we examine the moral complexities posed by cultural differences. Ethical global leaders acknowledge the dark side of globalization and recognize the difficulty of making moral choices in cross-cultural settings. To master these challenges, they understand the relationship between cultural values and ethical decisions, address attitudinal obstacles, seek moral common ground, and develop strategies for solving ethical dilemmas in cross-cultural settings.

The Dark Side of Globalization

Globalization may be the most important trend of the twenty-first century. We now live in a global economy shaped by multinational corporations, international travel, the Internet, immigration, and satellite communication systems. Greater cultural diversity is one product of globalization. Not only is there more contact between countries, there is greater cultural diversity within nations. For example, nonwhites account for most of the population growth in the United States, and nineteen of the nation’s twenty-five largest counties have majority minority populations. By 2044, whites will be in the minority. In other industrialized nations, many new workers are immigrants. Italy and Germany will need hundreds of thousands of new immigrants each year to maintain their working-age populations to 2050.1

Supporters of globalization point to its benefits. Free trade produces new wealth by opening up international markets, they argue. At the same time, the costs of goods and services drop. The greater flow of information and people puts pressure on repressive governments to reform.2

Critics of globalization paint a much bleaker picture. They note that global capitalism encourages greed rather than concern for others. Ethical and spiritual values have been overshadowed by the profit motive. Local cultural traditions and the environment are being destroyed in the name of economic growth. The gap between the rich and the poor keeps growing.3

Debate over whether the benefits of globalization outweigh its costs is not likely to end anytime soon. This much is clear, however: As leaders, we need to give serious consideration to the dark side of the global society in order to help prevent ethical abuse. With that in mind, let’s take a closer look at how leaders cast the shadows outlined in Chapter 1 in a global environment.

The Global Shadow of Power

In the modern world, a leader’s power is no longer limited by national boundaries. Increasing interdependence brought about by the integration of markets, communication systems, computers, and financial institutions means that the actions of one leader or nation can have a dramatic impact on the rest of the world. Take the Chinese financial crisis, for instance. When China’s leaders revised the nation’s financial projections downward and devalued its currency in 2015, stock markets around the world suffered significant declines, resulting in $5 trillion in losses.4

Ethical leadership in the multinational context must take into account the potential far-ranging consequences of every choice. Shadows fall when leaders forget this fact. For example, the U.S. government refused for decades to increase mileage requirements for trucks and automobiles, which contributed to global warming. Saudi Arabia’s unwillingness to ban terrorist groups contributed to the World Trade Center and Bali bombings. Apple, Intel, and other electronics manufacturers were accused of funding mass rape, murder, and slave labor in the Congo through their purchase of “conflict minerals” mined in the region. Now they must disclose whether they use Congolese titanium, tantalum, tungsten, and gold in their products.5

Concentration of power is a by-product of globalization that increases the likelihood of abuse. The United States is a case in point. Critics accuse the world’s only superpower of throwing its political and military weight around. Corporations also wield great influence in the global marketplace. Multinational companies have more economic clout than many nations. According to one estimate, 44 of the world’s 100 largest economies are corporations.6

The Global Shadow of Privilege

As noted earlier, globalization appears to be increasing, not decreasing, the gap between the haves and the have-nots both within and between nations. Oxfam reports that the richest 1% of the world’s population owns almost half of the world’s wealth; the 85 richest people in the world own as much as the bottom half (3.5 billion people). Seven out of ten people live in nations where economic inequality has increased over the past thirty years.7 The only good news is that there has been a decline in the number of people in absolute poverty (those earning less than $1.25 a day), largely because of China’s economic growth.8 So far, leaders of wealthy nations have been more interested in promoting the sale of their goods than in opening up their markets to poorer countries. Privileged nations also consume more, which leads to environmental damage in the form of logging, oil drilling, and mineral extraction. This damage has a disproportionate impact on the disadvantaged. Whereas the wealthy can move to cleaner areas, the poor cannot. Instead, poor citizens must deal with the loss of hunting and fishing grounds, clean air, and safe water.

First World Problems and related books and websites humorously highlight the differences between the haves and the have-nots by describing some of the issues faced by those living in the developed world. While those in so-called third world nations have to worry about malnutrition, poverty, disease, and lack of medical care, “First Worlders” are concerned about “problems” such as these:9

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