Leaders' Edge Advisor

Ethics in Leadership

By Gary De Carolis, President, Center for Community Leadership

Leaders Edge - Kenley Wade

Leaders Edge - Moral Compass

Our Moral Compass:

Most societies of the world operate from their "moral compass," which stems from various spiritual and societal teachings and governance. These moral compasses have emerged across all of recorded time, and have served to establish and maintain the "directional" behavior of mankind. Two key directional elements of our behavior in the broader society are ethics and ethical principles. Sara Boatman provides a clear and practical definition of ethics: "ethics, at its most basic, is deciding what is right (or more right) in a particular situation, determining what ought to be, and deciding what is consistent with one's personal value system."

Current Perceptions: Ethics of Business and Political Leaders

The American public's opinions about individuals in leadership positions in the private (business) and public sector (politicians and appointed officials) include the following:

  • many business leaders and politicians are dishonest,
  • white-collar crime occurs among business leaders and politicians,
  • business leaders and politicians feel that ethics can impede their career, and
  • business leaders and politicians bend the rules to get ahead.

It is apparent that leaders in both the private and public sectors should make every effort to counter these widely-held opinions. They cannot expect to be respected if they do not demonstrate integrity and ethical principles in their actions and decision-making.

Promoting Ethical Leadership

So, what is ethical leadership? According to Boatman, "ethical leadership combines ethical decision-making and ethical behavior, and occurs in both an individual and organizational context. A major responsibility of a leader is to make ethical decisions and behave in ethical ways, and to see that the organization understands and practices its ethical codes."

The principles of personal ethics apply equally well in organizational contexts: concern for the well-being of others, trustworthiness and honesty, willing compliance with the law, basic justice, benevolence (doing good), and preventing harm.

How do we implement ethical leadership?

One tool for facilitating constructive ethical practices within an organization is development of standards of ethics and conduct, which could include some or all of the following elements:

INTENT: describes the purpose of creating ethical standards, with some specifics such as an expectation that all employees will obey the law.

POLICY: directs all employees of the organization with respect to their affirmative obligation to know and to adhere to the policies of the organization. Subsets include:

  1. Compliance with the law, e.g., the specific laws governing the practices or business of the organization;
  2. Conflict of interest, e.g., instructing employees regarding their responsibility to discern activities that are or are not in the best interest of the organization;
  3. Use and care of assets, e.g., defines the organizations assets that are available to employees and the care to be taken to ensure they are not misused or misappropriated; and
  4. Ethical conduct, defines examples of unacceptable ethical conduct.

It is important to remember that ethical standards and policies are not simply part of the set of codified rules and regulations that sit on a shelf, but are standards by which individuals and organization can demonstrate integrity. As a leader, it is your responsibility to find and demonstrate your personal and organizational moral compass.

Key questions for leaders to answer about standards for ethical behavior:

  • What ethical principles do I value most?
  • How well have I done about upholding them and what can I do to improve?
  • What ethics are valued by my organization?
  • What can I do to be more effective in reinforcing these ethics?
  • How can I best support ethical behavior among my colleagues and other members of my organization?

This article includes excerpts from: "The History of Values in Leadership" by Thomas Wren; "Moral Leadership and Business Ethics" by Al Gini; excerpts from Sara Boatman's presentation on "Ethical Leadership" supported by citations from Blanchard and Peale, and extracts from Carter McNamara's "Complete Guide to Ethics in Management."

Center for Community Leadership · P.O. Box 3069, Burlington, VT 05408-3069
ph: 802-863-9132 fax: 802-863-6586 · info@centerforcommunityleadership.com

Copyright 2005 Gary De Carolis. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the author.

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