Despite what you may hear on TV or read in the daily news, ethical leadership is not dead. (Not yet, anyway.) You know ethical leadership when you see it, when you feel what it's like to work for someone who takes ethics seriously. Ethics is concerned with a person's values, morals, motives and overall character. Ethical leadership is about what leaders do, as well as who leaders are -- how they think about themselves and the world.
In his book, Leadership: Theory & Practice, Peter G Northouse describes five foundational principles of ethical leadership. They are: respect, service, justice, honesty, and community. Together these principles offer a foundation for understanding what it means to be an ethical leader.
Ethical leaders respect others. Respect means that a leader listens, is empathetic, and tolerant of opposing points of view. It means valuing others' ideas and confirming them as worthy human beings -- worthy of love and belonging, right now, as is. Ethical leaders embrace diversity in all forms; they refrain from making insults or having fun at another person's expense. Simply put, they believe people deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, and they strive to model that belief in everything they do and say.
Ethical leaders serve others. They place their follower's welfare foremost in their plans in activities like mentoring, empowerment, team building & citizenship, to name a few. In Leaders Eat Last, Simon Sinek suggests great leaders sacrifice their own comfort -- even their own survival (eating last) -- for the good of those in their care. They develop what Sinek calls a "Circle of Safety" that separates the security inside the team from the challenges outside, fostering high levels of trust & cooperation. Their people feel important, that the leader cares about them. Ethical leaders serve others by caring enough to know them well and find the best ways to support their success.
Ethical leaders are just. Ethical leaders are concerned about issues of fairness and justice; they place issues of fairness at the center of their decision-making. They don't play favorites; instead, they enforce work rules, manage expectations, and assign rewards fairly & justly, according to known criteria. They don't make up the rules as they go, and they don't abide by different rules than those they serve.
Ethical leaders are honest. When leaders are dishonest, others come to see them as undependable and unreliable. People lose faith in what dishonest leaders say and stand for, and their respect for them is diminished. As a result, the leader's impact is compromised because others no longer trust & believe in them. But it's not enough to simply tell the truth. Being honest has to do with being open and representing reality as fully and completely as possible. To that end, honest leadership involves a wide set of behaviors, from being open & candid to choosing what information to disclose, to being authentic. Honest leaders don't promise what they can't deliver. They don't misrepresent themselves or others or evade accountability. And they do not believe that the pressures of business release them from their ethical responsibilities.
Ethical leaders build community. An ethical leader takes into account the purpose of everyone involved in a group. They are attentive to the interests of the individual, community and the culture, and are concerned with the common good, in the broadest sense -- not just for themselves or a special interest group. They want to win, but not at the expense of integrity or truth. They look not only at the short-term impact of their actions, but also at long-term effects.
Being an ethical leader takes courage, commitment and relentless consistency. It's not just about what you do, but who you think you are. Ethical leaders recognize that pushing the boundaries around ethics is a slippery slope; that is, once you start pushing on that line, or if you cross it, it gets harder to go back -- especially if you get away with it. Ethical leadership can look like the hard road -- but I'd argue that trying to lead in any other way is a much harder road.
Being an ethical leader is not about perfection. Perfection is unrealistic. But ethical leaders do strive to be consistent, and when they get it wrong, they are humble enough to say so -- to accept feedback, ask forgiveness, and learn from their mistakes.
I could argue that if you're not an ethical leader, you're not a leader at all. In that case, I'd say we use the word "leader" too freely to describe some people or their roles. Either way, people still want their leaders to be ethical and they are pleasantly surprised when it happens. Sadly, they just don't expect it anymore.
But you can be the change. Together we can bring ethics back and re-set expectations. Are you in?
Northouse, Peter. Leadership. Sixth Edition, 2013.
Sinek, Simon. Leaders Eat Last. Audio version. 2013.
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