Where are Our ‘Ethical’ Leaders?
One characteristic of ethical leadership is to influence others. Management expert John Maxwell characterizes leadership this way: “A leader is one who knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way.”
The ethical leader understands that positive relationships built on respect, openness, and trust are critical to creating an ethical organization environment. The underlying principles of ethical leadership are: integrity, honesty, fairness, justice, responsibility, accountability, and empathy.
Covey addresses a principle-centered leadership approach to one’s personal life and organization development. He emphasizes that principle-centered leadership occurs when one’s internal values form the basis of external actions. Principle-based leaders influence the ethical actions of those in the organization by transforming their own behavior first. Covey encourages principle-centered leaders to build greater, more trusting and communicative relationships with others in the workplace.
Ethical leaders strive to honor and respect others in the organization and seek to empower others to achieve success by focusing on right action. An ethical organization is a community of people working together in an environment of mutual respect, where they grow personally, feel fulfilled, contribute to a common good, and share in the internal rewards, such as the achievement of a level of excellence common to a practice as well as the rewards of a job well done. By emphasizing community and internal rewards, ethical leaders commit to following a virtue-oriented approach to decision making based on a foundation of values-based leadership.
Leaders lead by example. They set an ethical tone at the top. They lead with an attitude of “Do what I say as well as what I do.” Ethical leadership can be evaluated through a leader’s vision: Visions are not simple goals, but rather ways of seeing the future that implicitly or explicitly entail some notion of the good.
The Ethics and Compliance Initiative (ECI) points out that research has consistently shown that:
- Ethical leadership is a critical factor driving down ethics and compliance risk;
- Leaders have a 'rosier' view of the state of workplace integrity, and often have more positive beliefs than employees further down the chain of command; and
- The quality of the relationship between supervisors and employees goes a long way in
The ethical leadership scale helps to measure the elusive concept of leadership. It includes several behavioral characteristics of ethical leaders:
- Talk about the importance of workplace integrity and doing the right thing
- Set a good example
- Do not blame others when things go wrong
- Support employees' efforts to do the right thing
- Hold themselves and others accountable for violating the organization's code of conduct
- Give positive feedback for acting with integrity
- Keep their promises and commitments.
Organizations suffer when leadership does not set an ethical tone at the top. The employees may be ethical but acting ethically requires an ethical leader who supports such behavior, not a leader blinded by ambition or greed as occurred in so many of the financial failures of the early 2000s.
Lawton and Paez developed a framework for ethical leadership built on three interlocking questions: First, who are leaders and what are their characteristics? Second, how do ethical leaders do what they do? Third, why do leaders do as they do and what are the outcomes of ethical leadership? The authors suggest that the three factors will not necessarily form discrete areas of ethics. For example, auditors need to be virtuous and exhibit the characteristics of honesty, integrity, objectivity, and professional skepticism. These traits are also essential in auditors’ relations with clients because they enable professional judgment and ethical decision making in client relationships. They also facilitate the kind of probing audits and targeted inquiries of management that should be conducted selflessly and in the public interest, not that of the client or even self-interest.
What’s missing in the U.S. right now is ethical leadership. In fact, it’s not even on the radar of most of our leaders. We live in a time where it’s almost impossible to identify role models. Most leaders are all too willing to compromise their values to achieve some goal. It’s an end justifies the means culture.
Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on March 6, 2018. Dr. Mintz is a Professor Emeritus from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Visit his website and sign up for the newsletter.