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What is ethical leadership?

June 16, 2011

This post is duplicated on the IDEA CETL’s blog.

‘Ethical leadership’ sounds like the kind of activity with which the business community should be closely engaged, particularly in these post-financial-crisis times. However, there appears to be very little clarity, in either the business or academic communities, as to what ethical leadership is or how to implement it (I am happy to be contradicted by those who have thought more about this subject than I have).

One challenge is to work out why we want to talk about ethical leadership at all, and not just ethics in general – what is it about leadership that requires its own specific considerations? One explanation would be that there are certain role responsibilities that apply to leadership. In other words, just as doctors have certain responsibilities that other people do not, so do leaders by virtue of the roles they occupy in society or more specifically in their organisations.

However, criticisms of the notion of role responsibilities aside, there are good reasons for thinking that this cannot be the whole story. Individuals in many different formal roles can provide leadership, and not all of these would be officially recognised leadership roles; if the only thing that unites them is that the individuals in those roles do, in fact, provide leadership this suggests that it is not the roles themselves doing the work.

As Jamie Dow has pointed out to me, a central element of leadership is the exercising of influence and this can be done in many ways. This raises two potential foci for ethical investigation: what people are being influenced to do, and how the influencing is being done. It also raises an ambiguity in the idea of ethical leadership – does it concern using ethical means to influence a group towards whatever ends are chosen, using ethical criteria for choosing the end itself, or influencing a group so that they act more ethically (or all of these things)?

Ethical questions around authority and its legitimate use are relevant here, although exactly what the relation is between leadership and authority requires clarification (for example, is every use of legitimate authority an act of leadership?). Christopher McMahon’s work on authority in business organisations is interesting in this context, particularly his book Authority and Democracy.

Another factor to bear in mind concerns the nature of the group or organisation that is being led. Much discussion of ethical leadership focuses on the individual doing the leading, but it seems reasonable to assume that what ‘ethical leadership’ requires in any situation will change depending on who or what is being led. What, for example, is the purpose of the organisation? Is this purpose legitimate? In addition we might think about how we understand what an organisation is, and whether there are different kinds – is leading an organisation of a particular type the same as just leading a group of people or not? This brings us into the realms of social ontology.

I realise that (as usual) I have mainly been asking questions, but as with many areas of business ethics this strikes me as one of the most useful activities we can undertake. When dealing with an environment that is understandably, and rightly, so focused on action it is worth remembering that uninformed action is often useless and can be counterproductive. If we do want to see and engage in ethical leadership, we had better spend some time working out some of the basics of what it actually is.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Ben permalink
    June 16, 2011 5:06 pm

    Good blog J. What impact might the ethical responsibility of ‘leaders’ have upon the ethics of the actions of the people they lead? Are there occasions on which the ‘ethical’ nature of a follower’s action is strengthened by the (potentially) unethical actions of a leader?

    For example, if a politician orders the bombing of a city – The bombing of the city might be considered an unethical act, but the political order is an attempt to legitimise the actions of the military personnel who actually drop the bombs. I guess this opens up a can of worms on the nature of personal responsibility, authority and the following of orders, but it’s interesting that a leader’s (unethical) decision could conceivably make the followers’ actions ‘ethical’.

    • June 16, 2011 5:58 pm

      Yes, interesting… you would have to identify what specifically was doing the work in rendering the orderee’s actions acceptable. It could be some promise or oath made to the orderer, or in the case of military orders to the society they represent.

      But I suspect in this case the unethical nature of the order would render the promise void, or the order illegitimate (i.e. no longer representing the ‘voice of the people’).

      Perhaps the expectation of bad consequences if they didn’t carry out the order might at least excuse the action, but it would likely depend on the severity of the consequences vs. the consequences of carrying out the act.

      This also reminds me of the point I made in my first bin Laden blog about ‘dirty hands’; I didn’t talk about it in this blog for sake of clarity, but if the idea of dirty hands can be sustained at all it raises lots of complex questions about the ethics of leadership, and these complications would also pass on to the ethics of those being led.

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