Thoughts on Understanding Leadership
Last week I wrote a blog about the importance of ethical leadership in the workplace. I addressed the qualities of an ethical leader including honesty, trustworthiness, fair-minded, responsible, accountable, and having integrity. Martin Luenendonk also addresses “The Qualities of an Ethical Leader.” He describes a variety of core characteristics of ethical leaders including conscientiousness, inclusive, accountable, considerate, consistent, and authoritative. Ethical leadership in the workplace is important so I am devoting a second blog to it with the hope of providing quick thoughts that help to hone in on what ethical leadership entails.
Ethical Leadership Competence
Notice that these qualities are behavioral factors that define good leadership, and they enhance communication and understanding in an organization. Leaders that incorporate these values into their decision-making build trust with employees, the key to having an ethical organization.
The idea that ethical leadership competence exists supports the belief that leaders are made, or can be, not born. Linda Fisher Thornton points out there are Pathways to Ethical Leadership. She addresses 11 paths to "Ethical Leadership Competence." She believes leaders need to develop all eleven paths to be considered ethical leaders. These paths are described as follows.
Following all laws and regulations in one's industry and geographical area.
Personal awareness of good leadership skills and good moral character.
Treating people with respect and caring and respecting differences.
Following internal codes of behavior and organizational expectations.
Following the ethics code in one's industry or profession.
Building a high-trust culture through ethical leadership.
Being morally aware and motivated to act rightly towards others and finding beneficial solutions to ethical problems.
Improving the lives of others and their communities.
Protecting the planet for future generations.
Thinking on a global scale and acting as a responsible citizen.
Ethical leaders that follow these pathways are developing leadership competence.
Expressions of Good Leadership
When I teach ethics to students, I always focus on providing them with simple expressions that help to describe the kinds of thoughts people should have when they strive to be ethical leaders. Look these over and think about whether you have used them, directly or indirectly, to build leadership competence.
Some leaders end up practicing one thing but preaching another in a bid to please different audiences.
This basically leads to hypocrisy in that leaders’ behavior does not conform to the ethical expectations of the followers in the organization.
A leader’s authority depends on people perceiving them as a person of integrity; by acting in a hypocritical manner, leaders undermine their own positions.
Here, we can think about politicians like Gavin Newsom, the Governor of California, who instituted a mask mandate and social distancing in the state but was caught eating at an upscale restaurant in Napa Valley, CA.
Leaders must accept they are held to higher ethical standards than others. It’s presumed they are role models for the organization’s published and implied standards.
If you are leading in a “do as I say, not as I do” way, expect others will resent the double standard and find a way to extract their pound of flesh.
The closer you are to the top, the more ethical you believe things are. People are naturally predisposed to think their ethics and integrity are beyond reproach. The truth is, in an environment where leaders are distrusted until proven trustworthy, leaders must be extra vigilant about not just their intentions, but how it is others might interpret their behavior. While they can’t control every possible misinterpretation of their words or actions, leaders who know their people well make careful choices in how they react to stressful situations, how they confront poor performance, how political they are in the face of controversy, and how receptive they are to bad news.
It takes a long time to build a reputation for trust (and integrity) but not very long to tear it down.
The recent example of the rise and fall of NY Governor Andrew Cuomo best illustrates the dangers when someone is caught behaving in a way that offends most people. In Cuomo’s case, there were allegations of inappropriate behavior lodged against him by former female staffers. The sheer number of complaints doomed Cuomo to the political landfill. He resigned in disgrace and probably will not be able to regain a modicum of admiration by the electorate.
For those of you with a longer memory, think about what happened to Lance Armstrong, who won seven Tour de France competitions, only for the public to find out he was taking a performance-enhancing drug. Armstrong was stripped of his seven Tour titles after a report by the United States Anti-Doping Agency called him a chronic doper who "ruthlessly" made his teammates take drugs as well.
There must be consequences for unethical actions especially when violations are committed by top managers, Otherwise, employees might get the message that they, too, can get away with improper behavior and suffer no consequences.
Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for leaders to ask their employees to cross ethical lines. Consider the following example:
A sales representative at a retail company was asked to grant credit approval to unqualified customers who were friends of her supervisor.
Here are three ways you need to check your leadership choices to ensure you aren’t inadvertently encouraging misconduct.
- You are making it psychologically unsafe to speak up. Despite saying things like, “I have an open door policy,” where employees can express even controversial issues, some leadership actions may dissuade the courage needed to raise ethical concerns. Creating a culture in which people freely speak up is vital to ensuring people don’t collude with or incite misconduct.
- You are applying excessive pressure to reach unrealistic performance targets. Significant research suggests that unfettered goal setting can encourage people to make compromising choices to reach targets, especially if those targets seem unrealistic.
- You are not making ethical behavior and integrity a routine conversation. Too many leaders assume that talking about ethics is something you do when there’s been a scandal, or as part of an organization’s compliance program.
Get Your Ethics Flu Shot
I like to say that organizations should administer an “ethics flu shot” each year by reviewing ethical standards with employees so that they are prepared to be ethical for the upcoming year and beyond. It’s also important to talk about the positive examples of ethical behavior, not just the bad ones. Focusing on the positive actions of leaders and reinforcing the good things.
Leaders must accept they are held to higher ethical standards than others.
It’s presumed true ethical leaders are role models in an organization. The closer you are to the top, the more ethical you believe things are. People are naturally predisposed to think their ethics and integrity are beyond reproach. The truth is, in an environment where leaders are distrusted until proven trustworthy, leaders must be extra vigilant about not just their intentions, but how it is others might interpret their behavior. While they can’t control every possible misinterpretation of their words or actions, leaders who know their people well make careful choices in how they react to stressful situations, how they confront poor performance, how political they are in the face of controversy, and how receptive they are to bad news.
Good leaders tend to be successful in both their personal and professional lives because they embody the characteristic traits of behavior that are admired in our society. You shouldn’t treat ethical leadership like a spigot that can be turned on, when ethical behavior is expected, and then off, when leaders cut corners or act in a way that violates ethical standards all to achieve a goal.
Posted by Dr. Steven Mintz, The Ethics Sage, on September 1, 2021. Steve is the author of Beyond Happiness and Meaning: Transforming Your Life Through Ethical Behavior. You can sign up for his newsletter and learn more about his activities at: https://www.stevenmintzethics.com/. Follow him on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/StevenMintzEthics and on Twitter at: https://twitter.com/ethicssage.