Ethics and morals — they’re the same thing, right? Potato…po-tah-to.

Well, no.

Despite the fact that many of us (me included!) sometimes use the terms interchangeably, they’re actually two distinct concepts. Of course, most of the time it doesn’t really matter if you mix them up; whoever you’re talking to will know what you mean, your message will hit the target.

However, there is one particular group of people that should pay a little more attention to which term they mean and which term they use: leaders.

As the founder of PointNorth Consulting, a leadership development firm, I’ve spent years researching the characteristics, the qualities, and the actions that go into effective leadership. And I’ve hit upon an inconvenient truth: in thinking of morals and ethics as two identical concepts, we run the risk of failing in our leadership roles.

So what’s the difference?

Let’s look at morals.

Morals speak to our culture, our customs, and our religion: as a society we have a shared notion of what is right and wrong and we use this to form our moral compass.

Visit your local church in clothing that exposes your legs, your shoulders, or your face and you may not get so much as a second glance. You’re dressed in line with the unwritten moral code. Try the same outfit in religious buildings abroad, with differing views of morality, and you might not even be allowed in the door!

You may have been brought up to believe that avoiding fish on a Friday is the way to go — your neighbor is more concerned with the rights and wrongs of consuming pork products.

In our society, a married couple sharing a public kiss or holding hands is no big deal, but if you want to travel the world you need to accept that other societies may deem this as inappropriate — or immoral — behavior.

Our morals are often dictated to us in this way, by society, by our religion, by those around us, often to the point where we fail to question whether we as individuals agree with these notions of right and wrong.

Ethics are how you act beyond the morals you practice. Ethics are not affected by your culture or religion.

If morals are the theory behind what we see as right and wrong, good and bad, ethics are what we put into practice. The term itself evolved from the word ethikos, which means character, and this is exactly what ethics is about. Our ethics are what we choose for ourselves, they dictate how we live our lives and the decisions and actions we take.

Our ethics dictate what kind of leader we will be.

Imagine for a minute that you’re in the grocery store and you encounter someone racially abusing a person of color. “Well, this isn’t right”, you think. That’s your moral compass kicking in. But whether or not you act on these morals is down to character — it’s a matter of ethics. The ethical leader would step in, would seek help, or would call the police.

Ethics are when you put your morals into practice.

When it comes to leadership, whether in the sphere of business or politics we need to think carefully about the words we use. In my recent book on leadership development, I decided to steer clear of the word “morals” unless I was specifically referring to the definition above. Morals really have little place in leadership. After all, the workplace is often made up of employees from different cultures, different religious backgrounds, and there are hundreds subtle differences in each person’s moral code. And of course our employees have a right to uphold their individual moral codes in the workplace, as long as it does not adversely affect others.

The world of politics could likewise learn a lesson here — too often recently we’ve seen leaders use the terms interchangeably. There is endless rhetoric inspired by “morals” yet when it comes to action, there is a distinct lack of ethical leadership.

We all like to think of ourselves as moral leaders, as having a strong sense of right and wrong. But, if we are in a position of leadership, it’s far more important to focus on ethics and how we translate theses ideas of right and wrong into action that supports everyone in our leadership community — whether or not we share identical moral codes.

Being a leader with morals is a good start but if you really want to become an effective leader, let your ethics and character be your guide.

Al Schauer is the Founder of PointNorth Consulting. He offers coaching and mentoring to aspiring leaders committed to leading with character. His new book on values and doing the right thing will be available Spring 2019. Sign up through the link below to receive updates on how you can purchase his book.