Qualities of an Ethical Leader


Qualities of an Ethical Leader

Ethical leadership is a captivating subject and one that I believe we need to talk about in our daily lives, at home and at work, especially at this time.  Interjecting ethics into our collective conversations about who should be our next elected officials may actually be the kick in the pants we need as a nation to get real about ethical leadership.

Unfortunately, news cycles are bursting with want-to-be leaders whose behaviors, words and actions are what I classify as, “ethics deficient.”  How do you spot ethics-deficient leaders? Quite simply, they look like politicians hurling personal insults at each other and behaving like schoolyard bullies.  They have titles like CEO or Chairman of the Board and are now facing the music of their bribing or poaching scandals.  While these are more extreme examples of leaders who lack in the ethics department, not all ethics-deficient leaders are infamous, larger-than-life figures with lots of cash to burn and a hyperactive Twitter trigger finger.

Whether in a Fortune 500 Company, small business, large health care system or community hospital, ethics deficiencies among the leadership masses are often unintended, not meant to be malicious, or driven by a number of revolving-door professional dilemmas -- these you will find parked under the situational ethics canopy. You see, situational ethics calls for leaders to do what’s right; however, what is deemed right will depend on the context of the situation.  In the case of situational ethics, one must justify that what seems right in one circumstance may be wrong in another. In other words, it’s really a judgment call and judgment calls have big backfire potential, posing all sorts of challenges in the fairness department. 

Situational ethics may look like holding some members of the team accountable for hard deadlines while allowing another to be delinquent because of a “special” set of circumstances. It involves permitting an employed surgeon with a history of disruptive conduct to commandeer more time in the OR because he or she is a star revenue producer or turning a blind-eye to underperformance because of a personal or pre-existing relationship.  These same subjective values creep their way into boardrooms when members discount a quality issue, fearful of a reputation blemish.   

When there is a need to render the right decision versus the more popular one, the leader who possesses the qualities of high-ethics will experience the most success and is likely to sleep a bit more soundly at night -- only after a few nights of tossing and turning of course because ethics can be exhausting after all.

Are you an ethical leader?

Before exploring the qualities of an ethical leader, let us first unpack the word “ethic.” For centuries, philosophers have been defining and expanding the concept of ethics.  According to the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “the field of ethics (or moral philosophy) involves systematizing, defending, and recommending concepts of right and wrong behavior.”   Today, philosophy experts divide ethics into three general subject areas known as metaethics, normative ethics, and applied ethics. In short, metaethics investigates the origin of ethical principles, in other words, where they come from, and what they mean.  Normative ethics focuses on that which is practical and reasonable, defining standards of right and wrong from a moral standards perspective. Lastly, applied ethics as it is defined, “involves examining specific controversial issues,” many of which are being debated on the national stage daily.

Contrary to some beliefs, ethical leadership does not automatically come with the keys to the C-Suite.  The qualities of an ethical leader steadily develop in those with a resolute passion for being and doing what is authentically good.  Ethical leaders spend concentrated time building a cohesive and comprehensive principled foundation that develops over time and through life and leadership experiences.  Their backgrounds, what they have been taught and modeled, and their consequent actions, all influence their ethical foundation. 

Where we run into the most trouble when it comes to our understanding of ethics is our inability as a population to come up with a universal understanding and agreement about what is “right.” Cultural diversity, varying religious, political, ethnic, and familial beliefs and values, for example, impact our interpretations of “right” and “wrong” to a certain degree, but we all must have some sensibilities of what is inherently right and what is wrong  As a leader, it is critical to embrace and demonstrate ethical behavior . This affects everything you do as an organizational leader and sets the tone for your culture. Culture in your organization is the shared observation of the leadership team, and the shared mindset of your leaders must focus on doing right, on being ethical in all situations.  

Ethical leadership does not support a double standard; it does not tolerate disruptive behaviors. It does not turn a blind eye on compliance, overstep boundaries, play favorites, under manage or mismanage, and, it is not passive or aggressive.  Ethical leadership is fair, transparent, and informed. It applies to all and demands absolute accountability.

As intriguing as the philosophy behind ethics and ethical leadership is, I discovered that Patricia Pinnell and Shirley Eagan, who teach a West Virginia University Extension course for volunteer leaders, make dissecting ethical leadership quite simple.  They ask participants to answer these four questions related to any decision or action they take to determine if their decisions are ethical. These are:

Eagan and Pinnell then offer, “If you can honestly answer “yes” to all or most of these questions, then it’s likely that your decision or action is truly ethical.”

Perform an Ethical Leadership Self-Appraisal, and do it often. Principled leaders are eager to do the self-work required to be successful.  By successful I do not mean ‘winning.’  Success where ethics are concerned is not about having a strong cash position or crushing the competition. Success for an ethical leader is starting and ending each day knowing and feeling that you have done the very best you can and offered those you lead the right things. If you’re wondering what some of these “right things” are, here are a few examples:

Finally, remember that ethical leadership does not dismiss bad behaviors, even when they are situational in nature.  To exclude is to excuse and this has no place in the space of an ethical leader