Understanding Ethical Leadership

Understanding Ethical Leadership

Ethical Leadership

In this series of articles, I will argue that ethical leadership in business is ‘good’ leadership, and that the long-term benefits that can accrue from ethical leadership to the organization, and the wider communities within which businesses operate, are tangible and enduring.

In this first article, I will consider some of the qualities we commonly associate with ethical leaders, and some examples of ethical, and unethical leadership activities.

See our course on Ethical leadership.

Defining Ethical Leadership

First, let’s begin with a couple of definitions of ethical leadership:

“Ethical leadership is leadership that is directed by respect for ethical beliefs and values and for the dignity and rights of others. It is thus related to concepts such as trust, honesty, consideration, charisma, and fairness.” (source Wikipedia).

Most of this makes sense – other than the inclusion of charisma. Ethical leaders do not require charisma: indeed, evidence suggests that many charismatic leaders may have convinced their followers to compromise their values and beliefs. Of even more concern is the fact history is full of charismatic leaders, low down on the ethical leadership scale (Adolf Hitler for example).

This second definition is from the Centre for Ethical leadership.

“Ethical leadership requires more than values. Values such as care, justice, integrity and respect are the raw material of ethical leadership, but they require a production process to convert them into effective actions in complex and dynamic situations……… Ethical leaders are constantly engaged and apply their skills across all of their work and non-work roles;”

From this, we understand that ethical leaders apply a commitment to what may be universal values of fairness, equality, respect etc.., and extend these leadership principles beyond the business context. Moreover, ethical leaders work at it!!

So, what then are the main characteristics of ethical leaders?

The Characteristics of Ethical Leaders

Most of us would also accept that:

  • Ethical leaders practice fairness – making sure everyone is treated fairly and equally.
  • Ethical leaders apply a set of coherent, generally-accepted values or principles, such as honesty, justice, respect, care for others, taking responsibility for your actions, putting the greater good ahead of their own interests, etc.
  • Ethical leaders reward ethical behaviour and sanction unethical behaviour in the workplace.
  • Ethical leaders incorporate an ethical dimension into their decision-making processes.
  • Ethical leaders lead by example, and ‘walk the talk’.
  • Ethical leaders take responsibility for their actions and their failures.

So, let’s look at some examples of ethical leadership in action.

Leaders exemplifying Ethical Leadership

Leo Varadkar, Prime Minster of Ireland

Leo Varadkar, prime minister of Ireland demonstrates his commitment to equality in attending Pride events in Ireland, both north and south, and openly promoting the case for equality in marriage legislation across the island of Ireland.

Jostein Solheim, Ben & Jerry’s

Solheim is known for his comittemnt to ethical principles in the workplace, the community and in supporting social causes. Ben & Jerry’s is committed to sourcing ingredients from Fair Trade certified partners, which guarantees that farmers are receiving fair wages and working conditions. The company’s website devotes a page to promoting local and national democracy in the USA.

Elon Musk, Tesla and SpaceX Corporations.

Elon Musk is one of the world’s wealthiest individuals with a net worth estimated at more than $11.5 billion, and is considered an innovation leader, with projects such as Tesla, SpaceX, the Hyperloop etc. Musk has contributed millions of dollars to charitable organizations and has his personal vehicle, the Musk Foundation, which has contributed to hurricane and tsunami response, and the Future of Life Institute, with the aim of ensuring future uses of artificial intelligence will be beneficial to humanity.

Leaders exemplifying not so ethical leadership

Now, let’s look at some examples of leaders whose reputation is somewhat tarnished.

Martin Winterkorn, former CEO of Volkswagen

Although the German automaker has had a history of fostering a corporate culture that is aggressively competitive, Martin Winterkorn, who had been at the helm since 2007, may have contributed to a culture that enabled the installation of software that failed to accurately report emissions on its vehicles.

Though he claimed not to be aware of the wrongdoing, Winterkorn appears to have had a reputation for   being a hard-driving perfectionist who would carry a gauge while he walked around to measure gaps between car doors, in relentless pursuit of securing the top spot among global car manufacturers.

Former FIFA President – Sepp Blatter

FIFA president Sepp Blatter and his heir apparent, Michel Platini were both banned from the sport for eight years (initially) by FIFA’s ethics committee, for quite astonishing disregard for ethical principles, and for presiding over the sport at a time of scandal on an epic scale, resulting in, among other things, a Swiss police raid that culminated in the U.S. indictment of nine senior soccer officials and 16 others for money laundering and racketeering.  The bans have been imposed by Fifa’s ethics judge Hans-Joachim Eckert for a “disloyal payment” of £1.3 million in Swiss Francs made to Uefa president Platini in 2011, signed off by outgoing Fifa president Blatter. Both Blatter and Platini have vehemently protested their innocence.

Is it all about perception?

Of course, some of you may argue that the examples here are highly subjective, and supporters or detractors of these leaders, will find countless reasons to counter the case we make for each.

In China for example, Sepp Blatter is held in such high regard, that a museum in Shandong province has a shrine to him.

Similarly, with the test of time, perceptions of these leaders may change. Some may in later life be looked on as exemplary leaders, and others may be considered as failures.

Looking around you

Criticising leaders is a media pastime which sells copy and oftentimes engenders strong emotions and vilification.

Much of this criticism is ill founded and serves the interests of the media owners, or the press bodies and individuals involved.

However, a useful exercise to begin our discussion is to look at the leaders around you, inside and outside your organization, and consider whether they exhibit the characteristics of ethical leadership:

Ask yourself if her or she…

  1. Articulates a visible set of values which are in accord with contemporary principles of social justice? (yes | no)
  2. Demonstrates through their actions a clear commitment to these principles in the workplace? (yes | no)
  3. Takes personal responsibility for failure of the organization to live up to these principles?
  4. Can be trusted to keep his or her word on statements made. (yes | no).
  5. Puts the interests of the organization and its members above his or her personal interests? (yes | no)
  6. Holds other leaders in the organization accountable for failure to meet agreed standards of ethical behaviour. (yes | no)
  7. Ensures that the organization acts responsibility and is committed to adding value to the communities in which it operates. (yes | no)
  8. Is committed to sharing the benefits of the organization’s success with its employees and the community. (yes | no)

Hopefully, you will be able to answer in the affirmative for most of these brief questions. Finding fault is easy – and finding the leader who demonstrates all these qualities may be harder than you think.

More importantly, in the next article, we will be asking you to consider your own leadership style, and whether you embody these ethical leadership principles in your work.
See our course on Ethical leadership.

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