by Rosemary Bray

Having a code of ethics does not 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, which is knowing right from wrong; and discipline, which is having the moral willpower to do what is right.

A 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 what is right.

Ethics Is Easier Said Than Done

Consistently doing the right thing is easier said than done. For one thing, it is not always easy knowing 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 is so, we all must have been absent that day. There are many situations where ethical values clash and there is no clear or simple right thing to do.

But even if we always knew what was 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 limit our options, and can be a competitive disadvantage. So when there’s a gap between what we want to do (our desires) and what we should do (our ethical duties), we often rationalize or compromise. Thus, even basically good people lie occasionally, cheat just a little, and justify moral shortcuts. No one is perfect. It’s human nature.

But 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 constantly getting better. And one doesn’t have to be sick to get better. An orthodontic team member once told me this good saying: “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 orthodontic 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 the following: conscience, courage, consideration, compassion, confidence, and control.

First, 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.

Second, 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.

Third, 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 you can avoid undesired consequences.

Fourth, 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 our orthodontic profession.

Fifth, be confident in your capacity to overcome with integrity and dignity whatever difficulties come your way. Don’t underestimate your resiliency. Resolve to persist until you prevail.

Sixth, control strong emotions, appetites, and urges that tempt you to compromise your principles or 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. At the end of the day, all you will really have left will be your name and your 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 gifts, skills, and opportunities you offer as an owner, as a 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 even a good substitute.

Next, learn to be kind but not weak. We must not mistake weakness for kindness. Kindness is a certain type of strength. We must be kind enough to tell someone the truth. We must be kind enough and considerate enough to tell it like it is and not deal in delusion.

Then, learn to be bold but not a 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, discover the first sign of trouble. You’ve got to seize the moment.

The next step is to learn to be humble but not timid. Some people mistake timidity for humility. But humility is a virtue; timidity is a disease. It can be cured, but it is a problem. Humility is almost a God-like word. It suggests a sense of awe, a sense of wonder, 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.

Here’s a good tip: Learn to be proud but not arrogant. It takes pride to build your ambitions. It takes pride in your community. It takes pride in a cause, in accomplishment. But the key to becoming a good leader is to be proud without being arrogant. Do you know the worst kind of arrogance? Arrogance from ignorance. If someone is smart and arrogant, we can tolerate that. But if someone is ignorant and arrogant, that’s just too much to take.

The next step is learning to develop humor without folly. In leadership, we learn that it’s OK to be witty but not silly, fun but not foolish.

Next, deal in realities. Save yourself the agony of delusion. Just accept life as it is. The whole drama of life is unique. Leadership is also unique. The skills that work well for one leader may not work for another. However, the fundamental skills of leadership can be adopted to work well for just about everyone: at work, in the community, and at home.

Six Core Ethical Values

1) Trustworthiness: When others trust us, they feel we don’t need monitoring to ensure that we’ll meet our obligations. They hold us in higher esteem. That’s satisfying. At the same time, we must constantly live up to the expectations of others 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 a 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, thus, 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: Fairness involves issues of equality, impartiality, proportionality, openness, and due process. Most 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 to daily life can be difficult. Fairness is a tricky concept, probably more subject to  debate and interpretation than any other ethical value.

5) Caring: Caring is the heart of ethics and ethical decision-making. It is scarcely possible to be truly ethical and yet unconcerned with the welfare of others. That is because ethics is ultimately about good relations with other people. A person who really cares feels an emotional response to both the pain and pleasure of others.

6) Citizenship: This value includes civic virtues and duties that prescribe how we ought to behave as part of a community. The good citizen knows the laws and obeys them, yes, but that’s not all. She volunteers and stays informed on the issues of the day, the better to execute her duties as a member of a self-governing, democratic society. She does more than her 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. The good citizen gives more than she takes.

Three Important Questions to Ask When You Are Faced With an Ethical Dilemma

1) Will this harm anyone (physically, emotionally, or otherwise)?

2) Will this cause any future repercussions?

3) How will this make me feel about myself?

Two Very Difficult Things to Do in Life

1) Make a good name for yourself.

2) Keep it.

Rosemary Bray is a speaker and consultant. She was a founding member of the Pacific Coast Treatment Coordinators Study Group and the San Diego Dental Office Managers Study Club. She is a visiting clinical instructor in the orthodontic department of the University of the Pacific School of Dentistry in San Francisco. She is on the Board of Directors of the American Association of Orthodontists Foundation (AAOF). She can be reached at (760) 268-0760 or via email at [email protected].