Leadership and Ethics

Every leader will end up, sooner or later, in a situation with ramifications that last their entire life. These defining moments reveal who a person is at the core of their being (Badaracco, 1997). In situations that demand immediate response a leader’s actions will stem from the values and beliefs that form the bedrock of self. Understanding that a single lie can destroy a hard earned reputation for honesty and integrity (Hackman & Johnson, 2013), leaders should be concerned with equipping themselves with the skills and character to avoid such fatal consequences. The ethical behavior of leaders is innately desired among followers. An ethical leader who is able to achieve success will attract a larger following and a more dedicated team. This article explores the ethical leader and how to strengthen one’s ethical understanding.
What Are Ethics?
            The idea of ethics encompasses moral duties and obligations (Ethic, n.d.). Laws and regulations may sometimes support these obligations and duties, but more often ethics deals with the unregulated behavior of individuals. Ethics deals with what to do and what not to do (Wright, 2010), even when there is no clear regulation or rule to follow. Although the study of ethics can be broken down into various micro-studies, for the sake of clarity this paper will focus on decisionist ethics, or what an individual ought to do (Fedler, 2006). This type of ethical behavior disregards how an individual feels about an action and rather focuses on what a person does regardless of feeling. Doing the right thing despite personal feelings is an important component in becoming a great leader. Leadership is about what you do (Kouzes & Posner, 2012), and therefore leadership ethics are equally about what an individual does.
How Do Ethics Come to Exist?
            What one perceives as true becomes the foundation of their values (Srinivasan, 2011). Values generate morals and from morals stem ethics. Morals are not innate: they are learned behaviors (Northouse, 2015). Ethics are also learned behaviors. Therefore, whatever an individual has learned to be true develops into beliefs, which become the basis of personal ethics and ethical behavior. Beliefs are built upon some level of experience, which may account for the varying views on what is considered ethical to each individual.
Ethical Means
            There are four basic situations in which a leader will be tempted to make unethical decisions: manipulation, spin, inappropriate behavior, and self-promotion (Lutzer, 2003).  These basic situations are inescapable and all leaders find themselves tried by them at some point on their journey. One should keep in mind that during these times of ethical crisis, the ethic itself is not being tested, but rather it is the true beliefs of the leader that are under examination.
            The basic idea behind manipulation is the quiet use of coercion to ignore the will or advice of others in order to gain a favorable outcome (Lutzer, 2003). Manipulation subtly differs from leadership in that leadership is not built upon coercion, but rather leadership is built upon influence and exchange (Northouse, 2015). Leaders who engage in manipulation can survive as long as the followers are not aware of the manipulation. Leadership is based upon trust (Northouse, 2015), and when that trust is eroded leaders will lose their effectiveness and influence.
            Spin is a common tactic among leaders in business, political, and religious settings. Spin refers to the embellishing of one’s own actions, importance, influence, or abilities in order to secure some type of gain (Lutzer, 2003). Spin is often done in tandem with other forms of unethical behavior. Robert Greene (2000) encourages individuals to use spin as a method of achieving power and influence. He rationalizes this behavior by propagating the idea that everyone, leaders and followers, engages in spin.
Inappropriate Behavior
            Inappropriate behavior encompasses many different aspects of unethical behavior. From abusing others goodwill and mismanaging funds (Lutzer, 2003), to failing to follow through on a promise, this type of unethical behavior is often a temptation for those in leadership. Examples of this type of behavior can be found in abundance in both large and small scales. For example, President Clinton used his position to solicit sexual favors (Williams & Delli Carpini, 2000), king David used his position to have a lover’s husband killed (2 Sam. 11), and Bernie Madoff created a scheme that stole billions from individual investors (Arvedlund, 2009).
            Laws censure many types of inappropriate behavior: however, leaders often have the ability to engage in unethical behaviors that are found in the proverbial gray area. Failing to follow through on a promise and attempting to smooth the situation by incorporating spin is a common tactic in the cooperate world. These types of situations have lead to the glut of contractual agreements and the lengthy judiciary process that takes place regularly in modern America.
            Thanks to the advent of social media, self-promotion has become rampant to the point of expectation in modern society. Lutzer (2003) defined self-promotion as an individual taking credit for ideas that were not their own. Social media and a general lack of proper citations are key in the increased self-promotion that is occurring regularly across all spectrums of society.
            Leaders must make sure to give credit to where credit is due. Eventually, a leaders actions will catch up to them and no matter how much spin is put on a series of events, followers will be upset (Denning, 2011). Taking credit for the ideas and actions of another, especially one’s followers, will quickly drain both creativity and morale.
Preventing Unethical Behavior
            Preventing unethical behavior is difficult. Ethical interventional training is often difficult due to individuals failure to recognize their own unethical behavior (Bazerman & Tenbrunsel, 2011). While recognizing the ethical faults in others tends to be relatively easy, examining one’s own ethical shortcomings can be extremely difficult (Bazerman & Tenbrunsel, 2011). While engaging in routine training and reinforcement can have a positive effect, creating an ethical character takes years to build.
            One of the main problems with understanding one’s own ethical situation is the lack of objectivity. When an individual has something to gain by viewing a situation in a certain light, chances are high that the individual will shade their own opinion in a favorable light (Bazerman & Tenbrunsel, 2011). One way of helping to prevent unethical behavior is to examine the desire of your own self (Bazerman & Tenbrunsel, 2011). A wise leader will examine their own motivating desire and seek to understand how these desires can become perverted or obsessive. Having a strong desire to succeed can be a great thing but taken to the extreme, this desire can cause callous and evil behavior. By taking time to examine personal motivating desires, a leader has the ability to extrapolate varying pitfalls and ethical dilemmas that may arise.
            Decision debriefing (Bazerman & Tenbrunsel, 2011) is another method of examining and preventing unethical behavior. This form of feedback is created by quickly explaining a situation to a trusted party and asking for frank analysis. Because our individual ability to accurately analyze our own ethical situations, getting another, or several others, opinion can be very useful.
            A leader should see to create certainty in order to stay on an ethical pathway. Uncertainty is a prime catalyst for unethical behavior (Bazerman & Tenbrunsel, 2011). When an individual is uncertain of which actions should be taken and the pressure is on, unethical decisions can be made, even by accident. Uncertainty creates a fog that obscures the outside world from the immediate present. In these times of pressure, an unethical decision may be made without factoring in the long-term consequences. Identifying core values and beliefs, reinforcing them, and discussing these beliefs with another party is one way of creating certainty and clarity in times of pressure and crisis.
            What is considered ethical stems from morals, values, and beliefs. For an individual to know what is ethical, they must know and understand what they personally believe. Since ethics are drawn from society’s beliefs, an individual may be acting within their own belief system, yet be seen as unethical by society. Ethics must be reinforced in order to be maintained, and even small ethical infractions can have devastating consequences for leaders and followers alike. The best way to create ethical behavior is to consistently work on and improve one’s own self and character. To be an ethical leader in modern society means one should be in tune with society at large as well as with personal beliefs and values. Through this method, leaders can grow in recognizing and making ethical decisions on a consistent basis. Consistency of ethics will build trust with followers and continue to strengthen the validity of the leader, giving the leader a strong base of operation for years to come.


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