Are you an ethical leader? Can an architect be unethical? How about a sausage maker? 8 questions to ask

It feels like social values are crumbling. South of the border, we see more division than vision. The melting pot is bubbling over and threatening to crack. Locally, hateful messages were spray-painted on the roof of a local church. There is a new meanness in the air. My stomach turns every time I watch the news and frankly, it’s difficult to write anything that does not seem grossly insufficient.

Leaders across all sectors and at all levels urgently need to denounce hatred and re-establish norms of basic civility, at the very least. Norms in any organization – from a company to a federal cabinet- are not vague “do the right thing” statements. They are not group think. They are behaviours that reflect the ethics of the organization. Acceptable behaviours are modelled and transgressions are punished.

This is not “soft stuff, ” unaddressed ethical transgressions erode trust, productivity and social cohesion. Could there be anything more important?

Ethical practice needs to be at the centre of decision-making to establish norms, to serve as a tool for value-creation and risk management, and so everyone in the organization can live with integrity.

See 10 ethical decision rules to bullet-proof business

A recent visit to The Evidence Room at the Royal Ontario Museum reminded me that

The door to the Auschwitz gas chamber was designed to swing out because a crush of bodies would prevent it from swinging inward. There is no door handle inside the gas chamber. No one would leave alive.

no profession is exempt from an ethical duty. Featuring “reconstructions of three key components of the Auschwitz gas chambers—a gas column, gas-tight door, and gas-tight hatch—and over 60 plaster casts of architectural evidence, such as blueprints, contractors’ bills and photographs,”* the installation shows that Auschwitz was carefully planned as a Nazi death site for a million Jews.

Not intended for more innocuous purposes, as some Holocaust deniers claimed, Auschwitz was deliberate, architectural murder. The construction of Auschwitz was “the greatest crime ever committed by architects,” according to historical architect Robert Jan van Pelt who presented evidence at the Irving v Penguin books libel trial  in 2000.

The greatest crime ever committed by architects”
— Dr. Robert Jan van Pelt, exhibition principal and University Professor, University of Waterloo School of Architecture 

Casts of architectural drawings and blueprints show the deadly purpose of Auschwitz at The Evidence Room exhibit.

While most businesses today are not planning mass genocide, all organizations can examine their leadership behaviours, their motives, their practices and question who benefits from their actions and who is hurt by them.

From “undisclosed meat ” in sausage to growing C-Suite scandals, leaders would be wise to ask themselves the following 8 questions and to act on any shortcomings.

  1. What am I really building?
  2. Is it for the greater good in the long-term?
  3. Am I modelling integrity, honesty and civility?
  4. Are my actions kind?
  5. Would I be willing to see others in a similar position take the same actions towards me?
  6. Do my actions respect the rights of others?
  7. Do I deal decisively and harshly with people who violate ethical norms to send a clear signal it won’t be tolerated?
  8. What have I done stop injustice?

As always, thank you for reading. I recognize that I am woefully short of doing justice to The Evidence Room exhibit and the trial behind it. I hope it piques your interest enough to find out more.

I welcome your comments and wish you a happy, peaceful and positive end to your summer.


* From the ROM website:


Published by Dominique O'Rourke

Public Affairs professional, City Councillor, MA Leadership graduate, problem solver and lifelong learner.

2 thoughts on “Are you an ethical leader? Can an architect be unethical? How about a sausage maker? 8 questions to ask

  1. I would think more important questions to ask might be things like:

    -Have I created “plausible deniability” to shield myself from the decisions of people lower in the decision-making hierarchy?

    -Have I placed a lot of pressure on people underneath me to “get results”, so much that they feel that they need to “cut corners” in order to get the results I demand?

    -Have I insisted on reducing complex, multi-faceted issues to simple metrics (ie: “the bottom line”), thereby removing any unpleasant “externalities” from the decision-making criteria?

    -Have I created functional silos that mean that no one who gets negatively impacted by my decisions will get a chance to express their concerns to someone who really can make changes to decisions?

    I remember years ago a situation where a manage had forced her staff to use dangerous materials improperly because her manager was a gruff old Scotsman who had totally terrified her so much that she was afraid to ever “talk back” or “negotiate” with him. She just did what she was told. He was horrified to see what she had been asking her staff to work with once I pointed out what was going on. Just being unapproachable, gruff, and, staying away from someone can lead to employees being put into a dangerous, life-threatening situation.

    1. Have you ever read about the O Ring and the space shuttle? NASA created an environment where people we unable to express doubt. The results was a horrific explosion and loss of life. Introspection and the hard questions matter. Thanks for reading and for commenting.

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