Addressing Ethics in Leadership

12 Addressing Ethics in Leadership


Leadership has a moral dimension because leaders influence the lives of others. Because of this influential dimension, leadership carries with it an enormous ethical responsibility. Hand in hand with the authority to make decisions is the obligation a leader has to use his or her authority for the common good. Because the leader usually has more power and control than followers have, leaders have to be particularly sensitive to how their leadership affects the well-being of others.


What is Ethical Leadership and Why is it Relevant?

In recent years, there have been an overwhelming number of scandals in the public and private sectors. Accounting and financial scandals have occurred at some of the largest companies in the world, including Adelphia, Enron, Tyco International, and WorldCom. In addition, there have been stories of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, sexual assaults within the U.S. military, and a multitude of sexual scandals in the lives of public figures including governors, U.S. senators, and mayors, to name but a few. As a result of such high-profile scandals, people are becoming suspicious of public figures and what they do. The public strongly seeks moral leadership.

As mentioned in Chapter 1, “Understanding Leadership,” the overriding purpose of this book is to discover “what it takes to be a leader.” Closely related to this question, and perhaps even more important, is “what it takes to be an ethical leader.” That query is the focus of this chapter. This means our emphasis will be on describing how people act when they show ethical leadership. While it is always intriguing to know whether one is or is not perceived by others to be ethical, our emphasis will not be directed toward whether you are or are not ethical, but rather we will focus on the properties and characteristics of ethical leadership. The assumption we are making is that if you understand the nature of ethical leadership, you will be better equipped to engage in ethical leadership.

Before we discuss the factors that account for ethical leadership, you may want to go to the end of the chapter and take the Ethical Leadership Style Questionnaire (12.2). It will help you understand your own ethical leadership style and at the same time introduce you to the ideas we will be discussing in this chapter.

Leadership Ethics Explained

To begin, it is important to first define ethical leadership. In the simplest terms, ethical leadership is the influence of a moral person who moves others to do the right thing in the right way for the right reasons (Ciulla, 2003). Put another way, ethical leadership is a process by which a good person rightly influences others to accomplish a common good: to make the world better, fairer, and more humane.


Defining Ethical Leadership

Ethics is concerned with the kind of values and morals an individual or society finds desirable or appropriate. In leadership, ethics has to do with what leaders do and the nature of leaders’ behavior, including their motives. Because leaders often have control, power, and influence over others, their leadership affects other individuals and organizations. Because of this, it is the leader’s ethics—through his or her behavior, decisions, and interactions—that establish the ethical climate for an organization.

Leadership Ethics in Practice

Leadership ethics is a complex phenomenon with multiple parts that overlap and are interconnected. When trying to practice ethical leadership, there are six factors (Figure 12.1) that should be of special importance to leaders. Each of these factors plays a role in who leaders are and what they do when they are engaged in ethical leadership.

Figure 12.1 Factors Related to Ethical Leadership

1. The character of the leader

2. The actions of the leader

3. The goals of the leader

4. The honesty of the leader

5. The power of the leader

6. The values of the leader

1. The Character of the Leader

The character of the leader is a fundamental aspect of ethical leadership. When it is said that a leader has strong character, that leader is seen as a good and honorable human being. The leader’s character refers to the qualities, disposition, and core values of the leader. More than 2,000 years ago, Aristotle argued that a moral person demonstrates the virtues of courage, generosity, self-control, honesty, sociability, modesty, fairness, and justice (Velasquez, 1992). Today, all these qualities still contribute to a strong character.


The Philosopher Leader

Character is something that is developed. In recent years, the nation’s schools have seen a growing interest in character education. Misbehavior of public figures has led to mistrust of public figures, which has led to the public demanding that educators do a better job of training children to be good citizens. As a result, most schools today teach character education as part of their normal curriculum. A model for many of these programs was developed by the Josephson Institute (2008) in California, which frames instruction around six dimensions of character: trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring, and citizenship (see Table 12.1). Based on these and similar character dimensions, schools are emphasizing the importance of character and how core values influence an individual’s ethical decision making.

Although character is clearly at the core of who you are as a person, it is also something you can learn to strengthen and develop. A leader can learn good values. When practiced over time, from youth to adulthood, good values become habitual, and a part of people themselves. By telling the truth, people become truthful; by giving to the poor, people become charitable; and by being fair to others, people become just. Your virtues, and hence your character, are derived from your actions.

An example of a leader with strong character is Nobel Peace Prize winner Nelson Mandela (see page 27). Mandela was a deeply moral man with a strong conscience. When fighting to abolish apartheid in South Africa, he was unyielding in his pursuit of justice and equality for all. When he was in prison and was offered the chance to leave early in exchange for denouncing his viewpoint, he chose to remain incarcerated rather than compromise his position. In addition to being deeply concerned for others, Mandela was a courageous, patient, humble, and compassionate man. He was an ethical leader who ardently believed in the common good.

Mandela clearly illustrates that character is an essential component of moral leadership. Character enables a leader to maintain his or her core ethical values even in times of immense adversity. Character forms the centerpiece of a person’s values, and is fundamental to ethical leadership.

2. The Actions of the Leader

In addition to being about a leader’s character, ethical leadership is about the actions of a leader. Actions refer to the ways a leader goes about accomplishing goals. Ethical leaders use moral means to achieve their goals. The way a leader goes about his or her work is a critical determinant of whether he or she is an ethical leader. We may all be familiar with the Machiavellian phrase “the ends justify the means,” but an ethical leader keeps in mind a different version of this and turns it into a question: “Do the ends justify the means?” In other words, the actions a leader takes to accomplish a goal need to be ethical. They cannot be justified by the necessity or importance of the leader’s goals. Ethical leadership involves using morally appropriate actions to achieve goals.


Source: © 2008 Josephson Institute. The definitions of the Six Pillars of Character are reprinted with permission.

To illustrate the importance of ethical actions, consider what happened at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq in 2004. Because of the atrocities on 9/11, national security and intelligence gathering became a high priority. Rules and standards of interrogation were expanded, and harsh interrogation methods were approved. The government’s goal was to obtain information for purposes of national security.

Problems at the prison became evident when the media reported that prisoners were being sexually abused, humiliated, and tortured by prison personnel and civilian contract employees. Gruesome photographs of demeaning actions to prisoners appeared in the media and on the Internet. To obtain intelligence information, some U.S. Army soldiers used means that violated military regulations and internationally held rules on the humane treatment of prisoners of war established by the Geneva Convention in 1948.

In the case of the Abu Ghraib prison, the goal of maintaining national security and intelligence gathering was legitimate and worthwhile. However, the means that were used by some at the prison were considered by many to be unjustified and even ruled to be criminal. Many believe that the goals did not justify the means.

"Is this question part of your assignment? We can help"