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Leadership Ethics: Following Your Moral Compass


Author and educator John Gardner stresses the importance of leadership ethics when he says that leaders should not be judged solely in terms of decisiveness and efficiency but, more importantly, on the basis of values and moral reasoning. He agrees with philosopher Immanuel Kant that leaders should treat others as ends in themselves, not as objects or merely means to the leader's end. Gardner thinks leaders who do not behave ethically do not demonstrate true leadership.1

With one after another high-profile scandal in business and government, interest in the nature of ethical leadership has grown proportionally. A common theme is the need for leadership that is based on honesty, service to others, and moral courage.2

Ethics is the branch of philosophy concerned with the intent, means, and consequences of moral behavior. It is the study of moral judgments and right and wrong conduct. Some human judgments are factual (the earth is round); others are aesthetic (she is beautiful); and still others are moral (people should be honest and should not kill). Moral judgments are judgments about what is right and wrong, good and bad.3

Ethics is derived from the Greek word ethos, referring to a person's fundamental orientation toward life. Originally, ethos meant "a dwelling place." For the philosopher Aristotle, ethos came to mean "an inner dwelling place," or what is now called inner character. The Latin translation of ethos is "mos, moris," from which comes the English word moral. In Roman times, the emphasis shifted from internal character to overt behavior -- acts, habits, and customs.5 In more recent times, ethics has been viewed as an overall human concern:

One of the chief problems is to determine what the basis of a moral code should be, to find out what one ought to do. Is it right that which is the word of God given to man in the Ten Commandments? Is it what is revealed to us by conscience and intuition? Is it whatever will increase the sum of human happiness? Is it that which is the most reasonable thing to do? Is it whatever makes for the fullness and perfection of life? Above all, is there any absolute right, anything embedded, so to speak, in the nature of the universe, which should guide our actions? Or are right and wrong simply relative, dependent on time and place and cultural pattern, and changing with environment and circumstance? What, in short, is the basis of our moral values? These questions are of vital importance in a day when intellectual power threatens to outrun moral control and thus destroy humankind.6

Ethics, Humankind, and Other Animals

Whether based on religious belief or secular thought, ethics is a concern unique to humankind. People are the only creatures that combine emotion (feelings) with knowledge (information) and through abstract reasoning (thought) produce a moral conscience or a sense of what should be. In The Descent of Man, biologist and social philosopher Charles Darwin concludes the following of ethics, humankind, and other animals:

I fully subscribe to the judgment of those writers who maintain that, of all the differences between man and the lower animals, the moral sense of conscience is by far the most important. It is summed up by that short but impervious word, ought, so full of high significance. It is the most noble of all attributes of man, leading him without a moment's hesitation to risk his life for the life of a fellow creature, or after due deliberation, impelled simply by the deep feeling of right or duty, to sacrifice it in some great cause.15

Moral Development

How is morality developed? The English philosopher John Locke, one of the most important philosophers of modern times, viewed the newborn child as a "tabula rasa," or blank tablet, on which a life script would be written. He believed that experience and learning would shape the content, structure, and direction of each person's life. In this sense, the ethics of the infant are amoral -- that is, there is no concept of good and bad or right and wrong that is inborn.

Through modeling and socialization, the older community passes on ethics to young people. The words and actions of parents, teachers, and older companions teach and reinforce morality before children develop their own critical faculties. Practically speaking, the three most important influences on character formation are: associations; books; and self-concept.19 An individual's morality is one of the most important dimensions of leadership, determining whether people will trust and respect the leader.

Ethics and the Legal Department

The philosopher Lou Marinoff gives practical advice about leadership and moral dilemmas: "Everyone's ethical warning lights go off at different times. Although working will always involve compromises, it is important to know when an action may take you over a line you do not want to cross. In these situations, your conscience should guide you."21 In the world of work, ethics is typically the purview of the legal department. But being legal may or may not mean being moral. Legality includes everything the law permits or doesn't expressly forbid. Morality is an even older idea, predating even legislated laws. In 1859, the lawyer and future president Abraham Lincoln said, "You must remember that some things legally right are not morally right."22

By all means, you should do what the people in the legal department advise to abide by the law, but you must never lose your own moral compass. If something makes you morally upset, so much so that you know what you are doing is clearly wrong, don't let legality alone appease you. The argument that "I was only following orders" won't absolve you if you make a moral error. Remember, every society has laws, but not all laws are just.  So what is a person to do? The best advice is to follow the dictum "non-harm to sentient beings." This is the basis of every professional code of ethics and every moral society. If your actions cause harm to others, they are immoral. Systems of morality and the laws of a society can get complicated, but if you live by this basic requirement, you will have a clear conscience.23

About the Author

George Manning is a professor emeritus of psychology at Northern Kentucky Univer­sity. He is a consultant to business, industry, and government, serving such clients as the AMA, AT&T, General Electric, IBM, Duke Energy, the United Auto Workers, Young Presidents’ Organization, the U.S. Navy, and the National Institutes of Health. He lectures on economic and social issues, including quality of work-life, workforce values, and business ethics. He maintains an active program of research and writing in organizational psychology. His current studies and interests include the changing meaning of work, leadership ethics, and coping skills for personal and social change.

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