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Ethical Leadership

October 12, 2012 by Dr. Jon Warner in Business Ethics

Ethical Leadership

An “ethical business dilemma” is often not just a choice between right and wrong (which is relatively straightforward to deal with, even though some organizations still make the wrong choices here), but a choice between two “rights”. The ethics writer and management consultant Louie Larimer suggests that dilemmas arise when “cherished” values conflict. For instance, a leader who values both management autonomy and collaboration will face a dilemma when a future course of action can be pursued somewhat selfishly or in a more team oriented way.

This kind of conflict is heightened because leaders have obligations to many stakeholders who often have competing values or interests.

So, how can leaders try to resolve such ethical dilemmas?

Writers and academics in the realm of corporate ethics generally agree there is no ethical “cookbook” that provides easy answers to complex dilemmas. But a number of them have suggested some guidelines.

Many business ethics experts agree that all leaders should have and be willing to act on a definite sense of ethical standards. A fully informed ethical consciousness will contain themes of caring (What do our relationships demand of us?); justice (How can we govern ourselves fairly?); and critique (Where do we fall short of our own ideals?).

With this background, leaders can examine dilemmas from three different perspectives.

  1. To anticipate the consequences of each choice and attempt to identify who will be affected, and in what ways.
  2. Use moral rules, assuming that the world would be a better place if people always followed certain widely accepted standards (such as telling the truth).
  3. Emphasize caring, which is similar to the so-called “Golden Rule”: How would we like to be treated under similar circumstances?

Of course, many organizations do not encourage discussion of ethical issues on a routine or uncontrolled basis. One means of therefore raising ethical awareness is often to form an ethics committee which is set up to represent a variety of interests and people from across a given organization. Such committees would not typically make formal rulings, but would raise awareness of ethical issues, formulate ethical codes (or recommend changes to existing ones) and advise senior management grappling with ethical dilemmas.

What “ethical virtues” should leaders have in practical terms?

Some research studies suggest that honesty is the quality most appreciated by subordinates in any leader. Equally, any leader who has launched a relatively “risky” new change program or has publicly shouldered the blame for someone else’s mistake can testify to the importance of “courage”-a characteristic that the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle saw to be an ethical challenge in its own right. Too little and it is seen as cowardice and too much and it is seen as rashness.

Some who write about ethics argue that leaders must always use their power with restraint, since it always holds the potential for treating others as poorly or even “inhumanely” when taken to extremes. The management consultant and writer, Peter Block therefore advocates what he calls “stewardship”, which is the willingness to accept accountability for results without always trying to impose appropriate control over others. In simplest terms, stewardship asks leaders to acknowledge their own human faults and limitations rather than hiding behind their status and power. In other words, our virtue arises out of a realization of our potential for ethical weakness, not out of a sense of dogmatic leadership strength.

Whatever virtue is desired, moral philosophers going back to Socrates, Plato and Aristotle have emphasized that ethical behavior must become a habit. Just as musicians develop musical ability by playing an instrument, people become virtuous by practicing virtue. Ethical behavior is consequently seen to be not something that can be held in reserve for the big and visible issues; it should be a constant companion when a leader makes a myriad of little decisions each day.

Summary

To be an ethical leader, then, is not a matter of following a few simple rules. The leader’s responsibility is complex and multi-dimensional, rooted less in technical expertise than in simple human integrity or character.

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About Dr. Jon Warner

Dr. Jon Warner is a prolific author, management consultant and executive coach with over 25 years experience. He has an MBA and a PhD in Organizational Psychology. Jon can be reached at OptimalJon@gmail.com

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About the Editor and Primary Author

Jon Warner

Jon Warner is an executive coach and management consultant and in the past has been a CEO in three very different companies. Read more

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