Ethics 101 – Book Summary and Application

Updated: Mar 16

In school, we learned lots of knowledge, from math to science to languages to art. But what about how to make decisions? What about how to live a good life? What about how to be a good person? The answer to these three questions is ethics.

John C. Maxwell is an American author and speaker famous for his work in leadership. He wrote Ethics 101 as a short guidebook for helping people make ethical decisions, live a good life, and be a good person. And who wouldn't want that in their lives?

In this post, I summarize the key ideas from the book:

  1. The Importance of Ethics Education

  2. The Most Important Ethical Principle is The Golden Rule

  3. Factors that Influence Unethical Choices

  4. Build Your Character

Key Idea 1: The Importance of Ethics

Ethics is important for individuals, businesses, success, and society.

Why is ethics important for individuals?

Some people think ethics is a concern for businesses, politics, or society. But ethics should be a concern for each and every person.

People say that want others to act ethically, yet studies show that people don’t always act with the kind of integrity they request from others. For example, a survey of college students found that 77% of them believe CEOs should be held responsible for the business crisis in the USA, yet 59% of those same students admit to cheating on a test. In the workplace, we see a person asking for honesty and integrity from the company, yet that person steals office supplies and cheats on his taxes.

It’s easy to discuss ethics or be disgusted at other people’s unethical behavior, but the important thing is, we have to make ethical choices in our own lives.

Why is ethics important for businesses?

Many businesspeople think being ethical is a waste of time and money. But according to the Ethics Resource Center, companies that are ethical are consistently more profitable than non-ethical ones.

James Burke, Chairman of Johnson and Johnson gave the following example:

If you invested $30,000 in a composite of the Dow Jones thirty years ago, it would be worth $134,000 today. If you had put that $30,000 into these [socially and ethically responsible] firms—$2,000 into each of the fifteen [in the study]—it would now be worth over $1 million.”

These ethical companies have a written commitment to social responsibility and act on it consistently. So clearly, being ethical is not only the right thing to do, but also the smart thing to do.

Why is ethics important for society?

Author and speaker Zig Ziglar once commented that the reason America had so many outstanding leaders in the early parts of the 1900s is because those men grew up in a time where 90% of education was about being moral, ethical, and religious. By the 1950s, education almost completely ignored morality, and so by 2002, we have no one of equal caliber to the leaders of the early 1900s.

Why is ethics important for success?

Maxwell says,

“There are really only three kinds of people: Those who don’t succeed, those who succeed temporarily, and those who remain successful. Character is the only way to sustain success.”

Maxwell further explains that character is the key to living an excellent and ethical life. Below are some principles about character:

  1. Character is more than talk. It’s about walking the talk.

  2. Character is a choice.

  3. Character brings lasting success with people.

  4. People cannot rise above the limitations of their character.

Whether you are looking at individuals, businesses, or societies, we need to take responsibility to act ethically rather push that responsibility and expectation onto others. Only then can we attain and maintain success.

Key Idea 2: The Most Important Ethical Principle is The Golden Rule

The Golden Rule is to treat others the way you want to be treated.

One day, when Maxwell was having lunch with his mentor, Fred Smith, he said something that Maxwell always remembered. Smith said,

“You know, a version of the Golden Rule exists in just about every culture.”

Here are some examples:

“Whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them.”


“Hurt not others with that which pains you.”


“What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others.”


“This is the sum of duty; do naught unto others what you would not have them do unto you.”


“No one of you is a believer until he loves for his neighbor what he loves for himself.”


“Whatever is disagreeable to yourself, do not do unto others.”


It’s clear that the Golden Rule is embraced by pretty much every culture. The hard part is to follow it consistently. Maxwell gives this short list of things that all human beings have in common when it comes to how they want to be treated:

  1. I want to be valued

  2. I want to be appreciated

  3. I want to be trusted

  4. I want to be respected

  5. I want to be understood

  6. I don’t want to be taken advantage of

I created this poster to explain the 6 aspects of the Golden Rule more visually.

The Golden Rule Poster
The Golden Rule, as explained in Ethics 101 by John C. Maxwell.

Maxwell mentions that an important point about the Golden Rule is that it starts with you. It’s easy to treat others well when they treat us well. Treating others with well even when they don’t treat us well is truly doing the Golden Rule.

Key Idea 3: Factors that Influence Unethical Choices

From his experience, Maxwell found five factors that most commonly make people compromise on their ethics. He calls these the 5P’s: Pressure, Pleasure, Power, Pride, and Priorities.

When facing high pressure, you have to have yourself some tough questions:

  • Am I going to make rash emotional decisions?

  • Am I going to take shortcuts?

  • Am I going to bow down to other people’s opinions?

  • Am I going to make promises I can’t keep?

If any of the answers are yes, you are compromising on your ethics. Remind yourself of who you are accountable to, whether that’s God or your family, whoever is counting on you to do the right thing.

For decades, Americans encouraged short-term pleasure, and that led to bankruptcy, divorce, and drug addiction. How can you prevent this? First, avoid these situations in the first place. Second, develop discipline. Discipline is doing what needs to be done when it needs to be done. Maxwell says,

“It’s ironic, but to gain freedom, you need to contain your emotions with discipline. That takes character.”

Regarding power, Maxwell says that,

“Having power is like drinking salt water. The more you drink, the thirstier you get.”

Power itself is just a tool. It can be used for good or ill. The key is to accept that power is temporary so that you do not try to hold on to it.

Pride is very competitive. Maxwell says,

Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man… How can people treat others the way they want to be treated if their preoccupation is to BEAT them? They can’t.

Pride is also not easy to conquer.

Last is priorities, or more specifically, being unclear on your priorities. When you are unclear on your priorities, you will be more likely to make unethical decisions. That's because you are more likely to succumb to pleasure and pressure. If you are clear on what's important to you, you can reject temporary pleasures for long-term gain, and you can say no to outside pressure to do unethical things.

Key Idea 4: Build Your Character

As mentioned before, people who gain success without character lose their success quickly. Only those with a solid foundation of character can maintain success. How can we build our character? As mentioned before, practicing the Golden Rule is a great way to build your character.

Maxwell also mentions some more ways to build your character:

  1. Take responsibility for your actions: Don’t blame anyone else.

  2. Develop personal discipline: Set goals, use your time wisely, and master your emotions.

  3. Know your weaknesses: If you ignore your weaknesses, you set up yourself up for failure.

  4. Align your priorities with your values: Define your values, then align your actions to them.

  5. Admit mistakes quickly and ask for forgiveness: Who can ask for more than that?

  6. Be cautious with finances: Earn your money, be generous in giving to others, and use debt sparingly and wisely.

  7. Put family ahead of work: Having a strong a stable family creates a launching pad for other successes during your career.

  8. Place a high value on people: Trust, develop, and empower others, and it will be worth it thousand times over.


In his conclusion, Maxwell asks the reader two questions. First, what do you want to achieve? Second, how do you plan to do it? That how sets the tone for how you will live and how well you end up. Maxwell says there’s two paths people can choose from: going for the gold, or going for the Golden Rule.


After reading this book, my biggest takeaways were

  1. Practice the qualities I want from others.

  2. Treat well the people who don’t treat you well.

  3. Give more praise to others.

  4. Put family ahead of work.

1: Practice the qualities I want from others.

I remember often times, when people tell me they’d do something, I’d take it very seriously. For example, if someone agreed to meet up at 5:00, I’d arrive 5 minutes early and get annoyed if there were late. But then when I reflected upon myself, I realized that there were times in the past where I didn’t do exactly what I said. If I have this problem, it’s completely unfair for me to judge others for having that problem. So first, I must fix my faults and develop my own character.

2: Treat well the people who don’t treat you well.

Something I’ve learned is that not everyone is fortunate enough to come across ethical teachings. When people treat me badly, it’s usually not personal. They probably treat everybody that way. I’m fortunate to have received ethical teachings. I need to do my best to treat them well regardless of how they treat me. Only then am I truly practicing the Golden Rule.

As a teacher, I’ve met students who have a bad attitude towards school. If I treat them worse than the other students, then I’m not practicing the Golden Rule. I realize that their behavior has nothing to do with me, and they were never taught ethics. So just as with any other student, I need to try my best to help them make the best of their time in my class.

3: Give more praise to others.

I don’t give praise very often, and it’s a shortcoming that I am working on. One way I’ve improved on this in my work life is to give out gold stars at the beginning of each class to students. I can still improve on this in my personal life. I’ve also learned from other teachers that praise should be specific and meaningful. So instead of saying, “Thanks for cooking dinner,”, it’s better to say, “Thank you for cooking dinner and supporting me. That potato soup was especially delicious!”

4: Put family ahead of work.

I used to put work ahead of family, and that created a lot of conflict at home because my family members felt neglected. And since I prioritized work so much, I didn’t take care of my own health, which just made my family worry even more. That tension and negative energy from home then carries over into the workplace, which then impacted my work relationships.

Indeed, it is much wiser to put family ahead of work. After all, we owe the biggest gratitude to our parents. If I had to choose between having harmony with my family versus having a “successful” career, I now see that it’s definitely better to choose the former. There are many people who chase career success at the cost of family, and in the end, they see that it’s not worth it.

After putting family ahead of work, I began to have much more harmony at home. I then brought that positive energy into the workplace, which allowed me to have better relationships at work too.

In addition to the advice that Maxwell gave for improving character, I wrote a separate article on five virtues we all need to build to improve our character.

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