Arguably, ethics may be the single most important concept that I will take away from my Penn State education. “It provides a basis for understanding what it means to be a morally decent human being” (Northouse, 2016, 330). While ethical principles have been injected into the fundamentals of transformational and servant leadership, a need for ethics could be identified in nearly all leadership theories. For example, a charismatic leader can be highly destructive without a commitment to ethics (Northouse, 2016). As leaders, we will encounter a variety of ambiguous contexts that require us to be prepared. Not every situation will be “black” or “white”, with a clear cut ethical answer. Instead, it is the “grey” areas, that will truly test the strength of our morality.
Kohlberg’s six stages of morality
Before exploring the various applications of ethics, I’d like to review the basic framework provided by Northouse (2016). Kohlberg (1984) has identified six stages of moral development. The stages are divided among three levels of morality; preconventional, conventional, and postconventional (Northouse, 2016). Individuals who reason at the preconventional level are concerned with avoiding punishment, and receiving rewards (Northouse, 2016). Level two, conventional wisdom, reflects a type of reasoning that responds to societal expectations (Northouse, 2016). And, the highest level of moral reasoning is regarded as postconventional morality. Individuals who operate at this level follow a moral conscience. They are interested in justice, social contracts, individual rights, and universal principles (Northouse, 2016).
Conduct Based Theories: Teleological and Deontological
Northouse (2016) discusses two conduct based approaches, which include teleological and deontological theories. Teleological theory explains how individuals reason against consequences and outcomes. Individuals are oriented towards one of three categories including ethical egoism, utilitarianism, or altruism (Northouse, 2016). The categories are separated by the degree to which one’s actions are either self serving, or in the best interest of others. While ethical egoism has the highest concentration of self-interest, utilitarianism and altruism place greater focus on follower outcomes. An altruistic leader will demonstrate the highest concern for others, even when their actions come with a personal sacrifice, (Northouse, 2016).
Deontological theory is concerned with the morality of one’s actions. This theory is about exercising moral duties and obligations, despite the outcome. For example, we have a duty to tell the truth, regardless of whether there will be negative consequences for doing so (Northouse, 2016).
Character Based Theory: Virtues
The third approach, discussed by Northouse (2016), is a character based theory, concerned with virtues. Virtue based theories dictate morality on the basis of “what to be” rather than “what to do” (Northouse, 2016). Ethical behavior is captured through a commitment to virtues such as self control, justice, courage, and honesty. Northouse (2016) also identifies leader-specific virtues, which include perseverance, public-spiritedness, integrity, truthfulness, fidelity, benevolence, and humility (Northouse, 2016).
Each of these theories explain ethical behavior in terms of conduct or character. However, it is personal values that serve as our moral compass (Williams, 2016). Values will affect perception, and how moral decisions are made (Williams, 2016). So, how might one develop a strong set of personal values? Northouse (2016) suggests that our moral abilities are not something we are born with. Instead, they are something we learn from life experiences. “People can be taught by their families and communities to be morally appropriate human beings” (Northouse, 2016, p. 335). Therefore, life experiences affect the development of personal values. And, personal values affect one’s capabilities for ethical decision-making. If we consider the infinite set of familial and societal norms, that exist around the world, it becomes clear why there is such a diverse range of ethical tendencies. While a strong set of values can help one to make ethical choices, a lack thereof has implications for unethical behavior (Northouse, 2016).
Unethical Behavior and The Toxic Triangle
Researchers have identified a toxic triangle which identifies three components that foster the development of unethical behavior (Northouse, 2016). The components include destructive leaders, susceptible followers, and conducive environments (Northouse, 2016). Terrorist organizations demonstrate rampant unethical behaviors, which meet the toxic triangle criteria. Terrorist leaders thrive on personalized power, as they promote ideology of hate (Northouse, 2016). In addition, they prey on susceptible followers with similar world views and unmet needs (Northouse, 2016). They also operate in extremely unstable environments (Northouse, 2016). In addition, unethical behavior is said to be more prevalent when there is no threat of consequence or punishment (Williams, 2016). By taking their own lives, terrorists eliminate the threat of punishment. Without a fundamental respect for consequences, they are not even operating at the most basic (preconventional) level of morality (Northouse, 2016). Through the application of ethical theory, we gain understanding about the challenges associated with combating an organization, which lacks any sense of traditional moral reasoning.
Terrorist organizations provide a clearly defined example of learned unethical behavior. However, leaders often encounter more ambiguous situations that make it difficult to determine “right” from “wrong” (Donaldson, 1996). These seemingly “grey” areas are quite common, making them worth our attention.
Grey Situation #1- Conflicting Values Across Cultures
As the United States continues to delve into international business, it has become increasingly important for American leaders to familiarize themselves with the expectations of their global partners (Pitta, Fung, & Isberg, 1999). A narrow ethical view will often fail leaders, as they begin working in different cultures (Donaldson, 1996).
“When a manager at a large U.S. specialty-products company in China caught an employee stealing, she followed the company’s practice and turned the employee over to the provincial authorities, who executed him” (Donaldson, 1996, para. 13).
That is correct, he was killed for stealing. Kohlberg (1984) might suggest that China implements such harsh consequences to encourage a preconventional level of morality. This would suggest that even those, with the most basic moral reasoning, would be motivated to follow the law and avoid such harsh punishments (Northouse, 2016). However, it is likely that an American manager would not see death as a fitting punishment for theft. This presents a cultural dilemma.
The deontological approach would point to the manager’s obligation to tell the truth, despite any severe consequences or outcomes (Northouse, 2016). And, from the teleological theory of ethical egoism, it would have been natural for the manger act in self-interest, with the hope of avoiding any personal consequences (Northouse, 2016). Both approaches would have led the leader to report the man’s crime.
However, through the lens of utilitarianism or altruism, the manager would have placed greater focus on minimizing the cost to others (Northouse, 2016). In this case, that may have meant sparing the man’s life. Therefore, utilitarianism and altruism may have led her to disregard the cultural norm, and deal with the theft in a way that was better aligned with her personal values.
“One problem in dealing with culture is that it is difficult to define universally” (Pitta, Fung, & Isberg, 1999, p. 242). This is an inevitable and ongoing issue for those that work abroad. “Even those with the highest level of moral development, must rethink their assumptions before practicing in a foreign setting” (Donaldson, 1999, para 2).
Did the American manager make the most ethical choice? If not, would your answer change if the consequence was not death. And, do you think she would have made a different choice if she had known the man? With those questions in mind, consider the next “grey” area.
Grey Scenario #2 – Failing to Blow the Whistle
“Individuals are less likely to report the unethical behavior of co-workers when the violation does not seem serious and if the offender is a close friend” (Williams, 2016, p. 5). Consider a leader who was known for a strong commitment to ethical principles. As a coach and philanthropist, he demonstrated the ability to put others first (Northouse, 2016). In addition, he challenged many young followers to operate according to a higher standard of morals and values. Yes, I am talking about the infamous Joe Paterno. With the high-profile nature of this case, I am going to assume this audience is familiar with the details.
I think it is important to realize that the ethical breakdown had nothing to do with what he did, but instead what he failed to do. Ultimately, Paterno failed to blow the whistle when someone demonstrated highly unethical (criminal) behavior. Paterno’s fate was decided by this isolated situation, despite an otherwise high commitment to ethical principles.
There were many stakeholders in this situation. From a teleological (utilitarianism) approach, Paterno may have felt that he was minimizing the damage, by protecting the reputation of his colleagues and the entire Penn State community (Northouse, 2016). From a false sense of the deontological perspective, he may have believed there was a greater obligation to protect, than there was to report (Northouse, 2016).
An appropriate application of the deontological theory would suggest that his greatest obligation was to observe the university’s formal code of ethics, as well as the law. Therefore, he had a duty to tell the truth, despite the outcome. In addition, honesty is a virtue. Omitting information is often considered the same as lying. The recommendation is to be honest at all times, and in all situations.
Having good intentions is not synonymous with dong the right thing. Therefore, we can lean on ethical theory, and learn from this situation. The inherent lesson is that we will not only be judged by what do, but also by who/what we are associated with. The common phrase is guilty by association. Even if we do not place ourselves in an unethical situation, we must be prepared for the possibility. One wrong choice can undo a lifetime’s worth of ethical choices. Therefore, in this instance, the most ethical decision was to blow the whistle.
Each of these situations drives home the need for ethics education. It is important to be prepared for even the most ambiguous situations. A proper ethical education can unite us though universal principles. So, the next time you hear about a high-profile scandal – ask yourself, what would you do?
Donaldson, T. (1996). Values in tension: Ethics away from home. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/1996/09/values-in-tension-ethics-away-from-home
Northouse, P.G. (2016). Leadership: Theory and Practice (7th ed.). Los Angeles, CA: Sage Publications.
Pitta, D. A., Fung, H., & Isberg, S. (1999). Ethical issues across cultures: managing the differing perspectives of China and the USA. Journal of Consumer Marketing. 16(3), 240-256. MCB University Press. Retrieved from http://home.ubalt.edu/ntsbpitt/ethics.pdf
Williams, J. (2016). Lesson 14: Ethical Leadership. Retrieved from: https://courses.worldcampus.psu.edu/su16/psych485/001/content/14_lesson/01_page.html