What does it mean to lead ethically? To answer this question an individual must understand ethics, and its application to leadership. “Ethics is concerned with the kinds of values and morals an individual or society finds desirable or appropriate” (Williams, 2018, Lesson 14). Leader behavior is generally guided by the morals/values of self, the standards/values of others, and the right/wrongs appropriate in the situation. To be appropriate—is a choice for the leader. “Ethical leadership is rooted in respect, service, justice, honesty, and community” (Northouse, 2016, pg. 359). The choices made by leaders have implications on the outcome. This blog will briefly connect ethics to leadership and finally delve into some different scenarios.
Kolbergs’s Stages of Moral Development theorizes what innately forms an individual’s ethical leadership (Northouse, 2016, Table 13.1). Based on these ideas, moral development differentiates how the leader ethically functions. In the table below are 3 levels of reasoning based on the stage of an individual’s moral development.
There are two domains of ethical theories relating to leadership: “theories about leaders’ conduct and theories about leaders’ character” (Northouse, 2016, pg. 333). Character is an important factor in moral/ethical development, and conduct is the actual behavior. Leader’s concern varies somewhere between self-interest and the interest of others. Utilitarianism is the concern to do the “greatest good for the greatest number” (pg. 334). Every leader has a unique perspective and their ethical perspective consists of many complex factors. “All leaders have an agenda, a series of beliefs, proposals, values, ideas, and issues that they wish to ‘put on the table’” (Gini, 1998, p. 36). For ethical leadership, the leader must be appropriate to his or her followers and in the specific situation.
“Appropriate” ethical leadership involves responsibility and moral decency. Below are different perspectives from prominent leadership scholars. “The theme common to these authors is an ethic of caring, which pays attention to followers’ needs and the importance of leader–follower relationships” (Northouse, 2016, pg. 359).
• Heifetz’s Perspective: unique approach relative to existing theory. “Involves the use of authority to help followers deal with the conflicting values that emerge in rapidly changing work environments and social cultures” (Northouse, 2016, pg. 333).
• Burns’s Perspective: strongly tied to theory of transformational leadership. “Emphasizes the leader’s role in attending to the personal motivations and moral development of the follower” (pg. 337).
• Greenleaf’s Perspective: most affiliated with the theory of servant leadership. To be attentive to the concerns of followers and empathize with them. “A servant leader focuses on the needs of followers and helps them to become more knowledgeable, more free, and more like servants themselves” (Williams, 2018, Lesson 14).
An example of ethical leadership would involve a leader with a vision to promote the well-being of the organization as a whole (i.e., leader and followers), within the community and society. This example would entail the leader having moral decency and responsibility. The outcome would be considered in this context.
Of course all generic leadership theories can be made more robust by layering in ethical principles. For example, path-goal leadership with ethical behavior would consist of a leader who chooses appropriate relationship styles (i.e., implementing respect, service, justice, honesty, and community) and morally subscribed incentives to motivate followers (i.e., the right thing to do).
Unethical leadership involves knowing “the right thing to do” and doing something less than that for selfish or harmful reasons. Unethical leadership lacks moral decency and fails to provide concern for others. There are many examples of unethical leaders. Briefly using the popular Bernie Madoff, this leader earned the trust of several people as an investment advisor. These followers were unaware that Madoff lied to them and used their funds to his own personal gain. Madoff’s behavior lacked respect, service, justice, honesty, and community. “The disgraced financier Bernie Madoff has been sentenced to the maximum 150 years in prison for masterminding a $65bn (£38bn) fraud that wrecked the lives of thousands of investors” (Teather, 2009, web).
To contrast the same leadership theory from the previous topic, path-goal will be used again. Path-goal leadership with unethical leadership would involve leader behavior that does not care about the follower, lacks moral decency, and does harm to others. More specifically, the unethical leader may purposely obstruct goals, fail to clear paths and obstacles, and lack support. This leader would not likely show concern to the follower’s motivations or help the follower according to their individual characteristics. There would likely be a lack of reward for the follower and no standard of excellence for the follower to achieve.
Some unethical leadership relationships involve destructive leaders, combined with susceptible followers and conducive environments. The figure below illustrates the situation where leaders, followers, and environments reinforce unethical situations (Northouse, 2016, pg. 341).
Personal Experience in Ethical Leadership
In this one section I will drop the academic writing style and go in first person. This is ethical leadership because I feel that I can relay my message (to possible followers) better in this situation. According to the rules this is not the “right thing to do.”
In used car sales, I’ve seen a lot of both ethical and unethical behavior. Let’s start with the unethical. I’ve seen other dealers put wood grinds in transmissions to get another week of life out of a car they’re selling. Then they order their salesman to sell it as-is. This is unethical leadership for several reasons. First, they are teaching their salesman to be fraudulent and not teaching them the ways to do good business long-term. Second, the customer, a follower of the dealer’s advice and trust, is duped into buying something the dealer knows is misrepresented. And the unethical leader did all this with a selfish aim and lack of concern.
As a leader, I try to build up my employees. For example, using the transformational approach, I hire followers who aspire to be the best in their trade. If I hire a mechanic, I encourage more certifications and training. If I hire a porter, I expand on their abilities for other opportunities. With all my employees, I create a vision that if we keep up the good work we will succeed together (in terms of auto dealerships).
I haven’t always been the most ethical however. My moral development came in stages like Kohlberg’s ideas in the table above. My ethical leadership is something I’m proud of now and it has become part of the kind of person I want to be identified as. In the community, reputations are earned and in society we all have a small price to pay for a collective well-being. Ethical leadership is important, even if it is only used to teach what is appropriate in practice.
Leading people the wrong way can have disastrous effects. “Leaders have a responsibility to attend to others, be of service to them, and make decisions pertaining to them that are beneficial and not harmful to their welfare” (Northouse, 2016, pg. 343). This is especially true with leaders of large organizations and public masses. To be appropriate is to be morally decent and practice care. These are the kinds of leader choices an individual or society finds desirable.
“Leading ethically requires not only clear principles and integrity but also, in the public sector, with its high standards, a sense of duty, spirit, sustainability, and even sacrifice on occasion; such leadership tends to be built on superior self‐knowledge and a sense of optimism infused with energy and perseverance” (Van Wart, 2013).
Gini, A. (1998). Moral leadership and business ethics. In J. B. Ciulla (Ed.), Ethics, the heart of leadership (pp. 27–46). Westport, CT: Greenwood.
Northouse, Peter. (2016). Leadership: Theory and Practice. Los Angeles: Sage Publications.
Teather, David. 2009, June 30. Bernard Madoff receives maximum 150 year sentence. The Guardian [web]. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/business/2009/jun/29/bernard-madoff-sentence
Van Wart, M. (2013). Lessons from leadership theory and the contemporary challenges of leaders. Public Administration Review, 73(4), 553-565. doi:10.1111/puar.12069
Williams, Jason. (2018). Pennsylvania State University. Lesson 14: Ethics and Leadership. Description of Ethics– Research. Retrieved at https://psu.instructure.com/courses/1940315/modules/items/24597615