Five Powerful Principles For Navigating Through A Crisis

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Here are five powerful principles that will help you make the right decisions in your business and your personal life as you navigate through the COVID-19 pandemic. They’re a framework, not a formula, for leading with ethical intelligence. I’ll include questions to reflect upon so that you may put these principles into practice immediately.

Principle #1: Do No Harm

What group of people immediately comes to mind when you see the phrase, “Do No Harm”? Probably healthcare workers. After all, physicians, nurses, pharmacists, dentists and clinical social workers are taught in school, “First, do no harm.”

But this principle also applies to you too, even if you’re not in healthcare. The best thing about Do No Harm is that all it takes to apply it is—nothing! It is a principle of restraint.

A simple but robust way you can apply this principle is by following your company’s guidelines, as well as those of the government, by staying home now. If you’re carrying the virus but don’t know it because you don’t have any symptoms and haven’t been tested, you will be unwittingly violating the Do No Harm principle by being out in the world. You increase the risk of passing along the infection to others.

If you aren’t infected and go to the office or the few restaurants or bars that are still open, you risk becoming infected yourself and then passing it along to your family and others.

“Every time each of us stops, or even just delays, an infection is a small victory,” notes Harvard epidemiologist Bill Hanage.

For reflection

What is one simple thing you can do today to avoid causing harm to yourself, members of your team, the people you serve and your family?

A crucial corollary: Prevent Harm

“What fears are your workers facing? How can you support them?”
– Animah Kosai

Do No Harm is a principle of restraint, but sometimes it is necessary to do something so that harm doesn’t occur. Businesses, trade associations and non-profit organizations are applying the corollary Prevent Harm by cancelling in-person meetings and scheduling virtual business meetings and virtual conferences in their place.

Although there is an energy you get from being in the same physical space as a speaker, virtual conferences are better than in-person ones in a few ways. “Virtual conferences allow for multiple voices to be heard at the same time,” says Jill Schiefelbein, a speaker who consults with businesses that want to create virtual events. “When you’re at an in-person event you sit quietly, listening to the speaker. With virtual conferences, you have the ability to chat in real-time with other attendees, share insights and ah-ha moments, and interact with the presenters.”

For reflection

Other than scheduling or participating in a virtual meeting or conference, what can you do to prevent harm to your team members or your clients?

U.K.-based consultant Animah Kosai also encourages you to ask, “What fears are your workers facing? How can you support them? How can you support your suppliers?”

Principle #2: Make Things Better

“It’s important that we also rally together to address the unmet economic needs developing around us.”Microsoft president Brad Smith

Not causing harm is the least we can expect from one another. But ethical leaders are also committed to the principle Make Things Better.

Companies like Microsoft are making things better during the pandemic by partnering with agencies and other organizations and donating $1 million toward a response fund. “As our community focuses on public health needs during the COVID-19 outbreak,” says Microsoft president Brad Smith, “it’s important that we also rally together to address the unmet economic needs developing around us.”

Microsoft is doing this because it is the right thing to do. But notice a valuable side benefit: they are getting international publicity here for their good deed. They didn’t ask me to write about their donation; I approached them.

This is a great example of how ethical leadership is good for its own sake and good for the leader’s company, too.

For reflection

What is your business doing to make things better for others during this crisis? How might this turn out to be beneficial for your business, even if your focus is primarily on making a positive difference in the world?

Principle #3: Respect Others

Ethical leaders show respect for people by honoring these three rules consistently:

  • Keep Your Promises
  • Tell the Truth
  • Project Confidentiality

Let’s look at each in turn.

Keep Your Promises

We think of contracts with our employers or clients as legal documents. They are. Above all, however, they are promises. We promise to do what our job descriptions or statements of work requires of us. In return, our employers or clients promise to pay us (and perhaps offer benefits like health insurance and sick leave).

When you work from home, there are more distractions than you find in an office setting. The refrigerator, TV, and couch are mighty inviting. So is unfettered access to the Internet. There’s no one watching to keep us on track. All pose risks to the promises we’ve made to employers or clients.

You might be appropriately distracted by high-stakes concerns like child care. This calls for negotiating with your employer about what work you need to do, what work can be delegated, and what the timing of it all should be.

Promise-keeping is a two-way street. Companies that lead with ethical intelligence don’t abandon their employees during a crisis, even if it means taking a financial hit (short of going out of business). Ethically intelligent employers provide flexibility, when possible, with respect to child care and other crucial needs.

For reflection

What will you do to make sure you minimize distractions at home and honor your promise to your employer or client? How is your company keeping its promises to you and other members of the workforce?

Tell the truth

“In war, truth is the first casualty.” Ethical leaders keep this saying (of uncertain origin) in mind during a pandemic. I’ve been impressed by large companies like United, Delta and Southwest airlines and small businesses like B&H Photo and Square that have notified consumers like me of what they’re doing to protect employees and customers now.

For reflection

How forthcoming are you being with your staff and customers? If you’re holding back on communicating truthfully to your stakeholders, why? What will it take to move toward greater honesty? How might your business benefit by doing so?

Protect Confidentiality

My nominee for Worst Office Design Idea of the Past 100 Years is the all-too-common open-plan office. This sonic horror show is a nightmare ethically, because private business conversations that had once been kept private are now out there for everyone to hear. The workaround of having a few private areas or cubbyholes doesn’t solve the problem overall.

Won’t working from home be an improvement in this regard? Perhaps, but we still run the risk of having sensitive information overheard by others who shouldn’t be privy to it.

For reflection

What challenges does the new normal present for you with respect to keeping private things private? What is one simple thing you can do to protect your business and your clients from having sensitive information divulged?

Principle #4: Be Fair

“Your behavior during lean times will be remembered during luxury moments.”
– Dawnna St. Louis

To be fair is to give to others their due. The Los Angeles Times reported that Darden Restaurants, whose properties include Olive Garden and other casual eateries, has established a paid sick-leave policy for its 190,000 employees. In so doing, the leadership of Darden Restaurants evinces ethical intelligence.

The Times also lists companies that have rejected such policies to save money, although their CEOs are and will remain rich. That is both unfair and bad for business. Whoever said “There’s no such thing as bad publicity” wasn’t thinking about situations like this.

Other companies are compromising business-to-business relationships. “A client told me today that two major hotel chains are not willing to return deposits from trade associations that have booked conferences with them,” business consultant and speaker Dawnna St. Louis told me. “One hotel even tried to upsell the client! This is wrong. We need to be giving, serving, and supporting one another, not searching for profits.”

Even if the hotels have a right to keep such deposits, does that make it right? When you’re on the receiving end of such a policy, it doesn’t seem fair at all.

The companies in question may be stanching the flow of revenue in the short term, but the way they’re doing it creates ill will with their valued, long-term clients. By refunding deposits, the hotels would be treating clients fairly and are likely to retain them after the crisis subsides. That can only be good for business in the long term.

As St. Louis put it, “Your behavior during lean times will be remembered during luxury moments.”

For reflection

What will you do to ensure that you’re treating your employees and customers fairly during the pandemic? When stocking up on supplies, will you leave enough for others who need them—perhaps more than you do?

Principle #5: Care

Of the five principles of ethical intelligence, this one may be in the shortest supply in the world, but it’s also the easiest one to apply. It takes little effort to let your team members and clients know that you care about them during this crisis.

If you’re working from home instead of the office now, you have some extra time that had been allocated to your commute to and from work. Why not use those extra minutes by writing unsolicited recommendations on LinkedIn for valued colleagues or customers a few times each week? Each one will take you all of five minutes, and it will be a permanent boost to the person’s career, especially if they have few or no recommendations now.

If you don’t use LinkedIn, a handwritten thank-you note or even an email or a text can make a big difference in another person’s life right now.


Ethical leaders care deeply about others. They also care about themselves. They strive to eat healthfully, exercise, and get enough sleep. They also counterbalance self-criticism with positive thoughts. All of these are difficult to do consistently. They’re also part of what ethical leadership is about.

Dr. Andrew Weil talks about the value of“news fasts”—taking a break periodically from the news, with its relentless focus on horrible things happening in the world. Turning away if only for a few hours a day helps to manage the intense anxiety most of us have now.

At the beginning of a flight, the flight attendant tell us, “In the event of the loss of cabin pressure, oxygen masks will drop down. Put the mask on yourself before attempting to help others.” Why? Because if you’re not in good shape, you’re in no position to help anyone else.

For reflection

Will you commit to taking five minutes today to show a colleague or client that you care about them? How might this benefit them—and you?

How are you taking care of yourself during this crisis?


During a crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic, ethical leaders strive to do these things as consistently as possible:

  1. Do No Harm
    • Prevent Harm
  2. Make Things Better
  3. Respect Others
    • Keep Promises
    • Tell the Truth
    • Maintain Confidentiality
  4. Be Fair
  5. Care

It’s extraordinarily difficult to live by these principles every day, which is why you are to be commended for having read this far. It means you take this matter seriously and are willing to take a few moments from your day to commit to being your best. Thank you.


I adapted these principles from Tom L. Beauchamp and James F. Childress’s masterwork Principles of Biomedical Ethics (Oxford University Press). I simplified the language (e.g., their Principle of Nonmaleficence becomes Do No Harm here). I also broadened the scope of the principles to include business and personal life.

You’ve also learned them from your parents, teachers, mentors, and spiritual leaders. In no way do I claim I came up with these principles. Consider this column a brief refresher course. I hope it has been useful.

© 2020, Bruce Weinstein; The Ethics Guy
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