How to Balance Ethical Growth and Competitive Advantages Rules and expectations may limit our freedom, but they protect the equality of everyone's freedom and, within those limits, still present us with limitless opportunities to improve and grow.

By Simin Cai, Ph.D.

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

In sports, games depend on rules — boundaries, penalties and rule-keepers to enforce them — that skirt the edge of viewer excitement without becoming dangerous or unfair. Everyone agrees on adhering to these rules, and despite them, the game can still be very competitive. In hockey, players can throw down their gloves and fight as long as their actions stay within the limits of competition. Those who play dirty risk more than expulsion from the game: That reputation can ruin their careers.

In business, we also have to follow rules and expectations to sustain our companies and avoid tarnishing our personal and professional brands. The purpose of any business is growth, but unless we play within those boundaries, that growth is not sustainable. Stakeholders, such as employees and customers, have higher expectations for businesses, from diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) to environmental, social and governance (ESG) standards. The first to step up with new and effective ways to meet more of those demands is the company that will continue to grow.

While ignoring these trends may bring short-term savings, going against what clients expect will not create sustained growth over the long term. Any company that wants sustainable growth must consider and accommodate the expanding range of rules and expectations in balance with their value proposition in order to continue building.

Related: Ethics In Business: Why You Shouldn't Put A Price On Your Integrity

Equal freedom to grow

In life, we all have unlimited freedom to grow — as individuals, partners and leaders, but also for our companies. This freedom is not necessarily an innate right, but rather the limitlessness of our potential to learn more and develop our skills to attain greater achievements. However, to ensure equal freedom for all, our pursuit of individual freedom must not come at the cost of the freedom of others. These limits establish the scope of what our freedom can entail — the boundaries within which we can build, manage and sustain our growth.

Equality in our freedom to grow is not sameness, neither in how much we grow nor the path we take to get there. Giving a group of people all the bananas they want might seem like equality to someone who loves bananas, but those allergic to bananas would see the situation differently.

To be equal, everyone needs a fair chance to obtain however much of whatever fruit they want. Maybe "as many as I want" is less for some. Maybe the fruit I want is more challenging to obtain, but I am willing to put in extra effort to pursue it. Many compromises can still demonstrate equal freedom if everyone accepts the resulting limitations as equal. Just like hockey, you may come with a different size and weight, but with the rules accepted, you have a fair chance to win if you fight hard and smart both on the ice and off.

The limitlessness of opportunity within those limits

People today have higher standards with more access to information about companies and their leaders. Leaders now have to think about DEI and ESG initiatives on top of other business limitations to their freedom to grow — our abilities and natural laws, as well as these newly-evolved legal and ethical boundaries that must be considered. Meeting these limits is now a balance of following the right rules and considering the expectations (and additional boundaries) of these new stakeholders in the game.

If I were to take as many as I wanted of a rare fruit from a largely undeveloped rainforest, today's consumers would see this as coming at the cost of their well-being because of its impact on the environment and society's well-being. My fruit-harvesting team would need to be inclusive and diverse to attract top talent and maintain a positive public reputation. Additionally, I would need to consider ways to minimize our interference and impact within the rainforest so that, once harvested, the forest will have enough time to return to its undeveloped state.

But within all these parameters, we can still find infinite growth opportunities. Despite the rules in hockey, there are still endless ways players can improve: their skating, speed, timing, body strength, knowledge of plays and the skills on the opposing team, to name a few. In the same way, there are infinite parts to the puzzle of pieces that impact a company's ability to improve despite the limits of modern business standards. By studying the floor plan deeper, we find more ways to improve in more areas and sustain greater company growth.

Related: 5 Pitfalls to Avoid When Growing (or Scaling) a Business

Staying within those limits makes us competitive

I like to put myself in other people's shoes to better understand their boundaries and how I can grow without infringing on those limits. Of course, someone could choose to ignore how others feel for the immediate benefits, but stepping on other people's toes in the pursuit of growth can be dangerous. It might work the first time, but the second time it happens, they tend to fight back. After a couple of times of pursuing short-term benefits at the cost of others, you may find no one wants to work with you anymore.

Meeting every demand from every possible perspective could be an endless investment of time and resources, so the best way to approach these evolving expectations is to focus on building our own strength, just like how a hockey player does. For companies, it is the value proposition: what we do well, how we connect that ability with a solution to bring the benefit to our customers and how we solve it in a unique way that no one else does or even can. Just as we have the freedom to grow in ourselves and our companies, we are limitless in developing a better value proposition. By incorporating more of the details we learn about the "floor plan" and its boundaries (rules, standards, expectations), we narrow our efforts toward building more of the limitless achievements within them.

We must make efforts to meet these new expectations for sustained growth today, but those efforts must support, not hinder, our own freedom for growth. This framework is universal and applicable to all businesses of any size, from a small fruit-cart operation to a multinational corporation and everything else in between.

Related: 5 Ways to Succeed in a Competitive Environment

Simin Cai, Ph.D.

Entrepreneur Leadership Network Contributor

President & CEO of Go!Foton

Dr. Simin Cai is the Founder, President, and Chief Executive Officer of Go!Foton – a cutting-edge company bringing innovation to the global photonics market.

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