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by David W. Gill

Toxic Maxims

Misleading advice about business ethics from America's leadership expert.

John C. Maxwell has built a large and apparently influential movement around his messages on leadership. His book The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership was a bestseller, and his book jackets proclaim him "America's expert on leadership," adding that he speaks "in person" to more than 250,000 people each year. Precisely because he commands such an audience, Maxwell's latest little book, There's No Such Thing as "Business" Ethics, cannot simply be ignored as a harmless, lightweight compendium of folksy counsel, anecdotes, and lists (lots of lists). Woven through the book are two major points that must be challenged.

First, Maxwell boldly insists that there is no such thing as business ethics. What he means is that there is no such thing as a separate realm of ethics for business. Our values and ethics at home must be the same as at the club, in politics, in church, and in business. But Maxwell does not limit himself to the noncontroversial admonition that our core values and principles should be consistent throughout all areas of our life; he goes on to rule out any specialized focus on business ethics and to mischaracterize business ethics as an enterprise inherently bent on justifying behavior we would not tolerate in our personal lives. Not so.

Second, Maxwell insists that there is one and only one principle of sound ethics: do unto others what you would want them to do unto you. Some version of this principle, he points out, is fundamental to most of the world's religions. But rather than limiting himself to a brief reflection on what the Golden Rule can contribute to our ethics, he declares illegitimate and unnecessary all moral guidance beyond the Golden Rule.

Contra Maxwell, "business ethics" can be defined as "serious ethical reflection on matters of right and wrong, good and bad, in the business context." This definition requires no contradiction between personal ethics and business ethics. On the contrary, such a contradiction has always received its strongest ...

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