A Common Vision |
What Makes an Ethical Leader?
What Makes an
Professor of Philosophy
We speak approvingly of
leaders in three ways: good leaders, moral leaders and
ethical leaders. Those represent three very different
conceptual classifications, even though in everyday language
there is a lot of overlap.
Good leadership is the basic
meaning of instrumental goodness. It’s about effectiveness
as a leader or a given pursuit – if a leader has achieved a
set of goals. A good leader, in this context, is similar to
the usage of “good lawyer,” “good plumber” or “good public
speaker.” It involves one who has a particular kind of skill
that allows him or her to be successful in obtaining
positive results. You might select General Dwight D.
Eisenhower as a shining example of this. As leader of the
Allied Forces, he was successful. That’s the key criterion.
Moral leadership has no such
instrumental meaning attached to it. It doesn’t have
anything to do with accomplishing goals in an effective
manner. Rather, it concerns the presentation of a model of
personal moral conduct. That moral conduct should positively
affect the behavior of the followers. We could look to Billy
Graham as an obvious candidate as a moral leader. It’s a
concept that has to do with living the right kind of life.
Ethical leadership is built
on the principle of promoting the best interest of the
followers. It involves the ability to determine what the
best interest of the followers really is and acting to
further those interests in a way that does not impinge on
the rights of others. We might choose Martin Luther King Jr.
as an example.
The words moral and ethical
are often used interchangeably, but there is a distinction
between their meanings. Morality, at its core, means
something about individual relations. Morality is a guide to
interpersonal interaction in private relationships. Ethics
is more concerned with public relations. Personal relations
are not the focus of concern. Ethical judgments are made
about goodness at arm’s length.
Given those distinctions, it
strikes me that at the moment that our mission statement was
conceived there was confusion between the notions of ethics
and morality. The question of ethics comes down to is: How
is leadership effective for people around the world? So I am
suggesting a set of criteria by which we judge ethical
We should evaluate ethical
leaders on the utilitarian standard of the greatest good for
the greatest number, subject only to the constraint of not
violating anyone’s rights. Ethical leaders maximize good
outcomes for the greatest number of followers without
trouncing on anyone’s rights.
This is what we ought to be
doing at TCU under the rubric of educating ethical leaders.
I think it’s a good thing to teach students about ethics, to
give them systematic grounds to make value judgments. It’s
also good to develop students’ leadership skills, so long as
we acknowledge that we’re not all born equal and there will
always be more followers than there will be leaders.
Similarly, it’s good to make
students aware of the global community as an antidote to
parochialism and nationalist prejudice. But I think it is
equally important to teach students how to recognize and
evaluate ethical leadership in others. This is the education
of the citizen.
You have often heard it said
that we ought to teach them both sides and let them make up
their minds for themselves. This sounds so wonderfully
democratic. But before we can do anything like that, we have
to teach people how to make up their minds. That turns out
to be rather more difficult than it seems at first.
Evaluating leaders as to
their ethics is a complicated proposition. The criterion may
be straightforward, but learning how to apply it in a
real-world context with competing ideologies requires a kind
of savvy that people aren’t born with.
Associate professor of
I define ethics as thinking
about moral experience. In descriptive ethics, we reflect on
moral values, principles, attitudes, presuppositions,
characters and actions. Here, we simply talk about what
people think should be the case, but we make no claim
about what in a larger sense really ought to be the
case. Let me propose four theses about what constitutes a
good ethical leader.
First, ethical leaders care
about suffering. One of the hallmarks of moral development
is the capacity to empathize with those who are hurting. In
fact, there are probably few things that are more morally
reprehensible that the spectacle of someone laughing at a
person in pain. This is why the photo of the Unites States
soldier smiling while pulling a dazed, naked Iraqi prisoner
by a dog collar epitomizes ethical bankruptcy.
It is bad enough to be
indifferent to suffering; it is morally abhorrent to inflict
it with glee. What an ethical leader does is guide the rest
of us in acknowledging the suffering in our midst, and where
possible, preventing it.
For most of us, it is
natural to focus on the suffering near at hand – what we
directly experience ourselves in our families, in our
nation. But given the TCU mission, if we are to think of
ethical leaders in the global community, we must be mindful
of suffering in the global neighborhood. To paraphrase the
Peruvian theologian Gustavo Gutierrez, “The real ethical
challenge is to step out of our familiar walkways, outside
our usual routines, so that we intentionally encounter those
who are different from us: the poor, the destitute, those of
other races and cultures.”
In today’s global village,
this means attending to the have-nots. And such attending
entails an empathetic reaching out – an other-orientedness –
which exudes a quality of compassion, or what the Chinese
refer to as Jen – a “human heartedness.” In short, an
ethical leader in the global community will lead us away
from an “It’s about me” or “It’s about my country” mentality
and toward an “It’s about us” or “It’s about the integrity
of the Earth.”
Secondly, ethical leaders
are exemplars of justice and fairness. They not only care
for the suffering of others, but they are able to see
themselves as others see them. One of the signs that we are
becoming morally aware as children is that we develop the
capacity to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes. When we
have done something nasty to our brother, our parent may
say, “How would you feel if Johnny did that to you?” We
become able to imagine ourselves in Johnny’s shoes.
In the classic work A
Theory of Justice, the philosopher John Rawls argues
that we should think about decisions about social policies
as if wearing veils of ignorance about what roles we occupy
in the social hierarchy. For example, I would not vote on a
policy about the distribution of social welfare simply
assuming that I was white, male, upper middle-class and
college-educated, but I must be open the possibility that I
might be, for instance, black, female, poverty-stricken and
not formally educated. Standing in such shoes, the impact of
the social policy would look very different.
While we need to be able to
do this as individuals, we also need to be able to do it as
groups: as a university, as United States citizens, as a
nation. So what does it mean to be ethical leaders today in
the United States? In the world’s strongest military state?
In a country where a mere 6 percent of the world consumes
more than a quarter of the world’s resources? When viewed by
those standing in the poor countries of the global
neighborhood, what does justice require? Is it fair that
those who earn more than $10 million in income should have
similar tax rates as those who earn $100,000? Is it just
that we in the United States spend billions feeding our
pets, which can now also get massages and pedicures, while
millions of people are malnourished and starving around the
An ethical leader in the
United States today should guide the rest of us in wrestling
with these basic questions of social justice.
Thirdly, an ethical leader
is self-reflective and self-critical. He or she ought to
embody what the Latin American sociologist of religion Otto
Maduro has called autocriticality. Extrapolated from Ancient
Greek philosophy, the principle not only calls for knowing
one’s self but also possessing an awareness of how one views
social reality through biased lenses.
One of the hallmarks of
autocriticality is a consciousness of one’s own limitations,
coupled with a willingness to acknowledge personal
wrongdoings. In short, the ethical leader is one who is
aware of her failures and who can admit mistakes. And
because of this capacity, she is likewise prepared, and
genuinely able, to forgive others for their mistakes.
Fourthly, an ethical leader
is concerned about the cohesiveness of community life. Such
a leader instigates creative dialogue in what the Greeks
called polis – the community of stakeholders. In the
words of the Asian-American feminist theologian Rita
Nakashima Brock, “We are essentially relational beings – not
isolated, individual monads.” We are born people persons who
are intended to be in friendships, families and larger
Once again, in the context
of TCU’s mission statement, the ethical leader is focused
not only on local and regional communities but on wider
regional and international communities. She or he should
therefore embody a worldmindedness – a sense of history and
breadth that is not only other-oriented but beckons us all
toward unity with all of humanity.
On a national level,
worldmindedness implies that an ethical leader will inspire
us to participate in our own polis. In our
increasingly pluralistic society – where people of different
races, ethnicities, languages – frequently come into contact
– ethical leaders are those who prompt cross-cultural
encounters with difference. I would argue that ethics only
really begins when we are pulled by others of different
classes, races and worldviews to new ethical perspectives.
Associate Dean for
External Relations and the
University Chair in Leadership
Neeley School of Business
Ethical leadership is the
lifelong journey of the decisions and choices we make when
we encounter difficult situations. Every one of us has the
capacity to make decisions and engage in actions that we
deeply regret. So how do we prevent our lives from taking a
tragic course, from hurting our family, hurting our friends,
hurting our colleagues and businesses?
Why do people engage in
unethical behaviors? I submit to you that there are traps
that we often fall into along the way.
First, we crave success and
attention. We all love accolades. We love being successful.
I have never met anyone who has not wanted to be rewarded
with more pay for being successful. But are we falling trap
to success, being driven by ambition, that we do so at the
expense of other people or the organizations we work for?
A second trap is the
shooting star syndrome. People who are successful early in
their careers and move up through the ranks quickly
sometimes believe they are invincible. They have rarely have
had an opportunity to learn from their mistakes because they
move into new roles and don’t have to live with the
consequences of their decisions. Shooting starts also become
blinded by their own success. They will continue their
momentum at all costs.
A third trap is our own
unbridled self-interest – the me syndrome. When we only
think about ourselves, our own goals, our own wealth, our
own achievements, we are not considering how our actions can
damage other people. That does not constitute ethical
leadership. An interesting study was conducted in 1992 of
executives that found that one in eight is at high risk for
integrity problems, reflecting a lack of concern for other
A fourth trap is related.
Some believe that rules do not apply to them. We see those
who are moving up in a corporation that they’re above the
rules, and because of their position or track record, they
can get away with it.
A fifth is showing a lack of
courage, not standing up for what is right. This fall, I was
in a meeting with executives from a major corporation, and
the topic of conversation was that one of them was going to
have to fire four people who had engaged in a cheating
scandal. In essence, a manager had asked one of her junior
employees to help two other employees cheat on a financial
certification exam. The manager had 30 years of experience.
The junior employee had one. All four employees were fired,
but when the junior employee was asked why she did it, she
answered, “Because my boss asked me to.” If we don’t have
the courage to make hard decisions and stand up for what is
right, we’re going to fall prey to unethical situations.
A sixth trap is the fear of
failure. When we want to achieve so badly that we will do
anything to succeed, we make very different decisions. We
make them in fear. I have talked to students about why they
might cheat in class, and the response I most often here is
that they are afraid to fail. They don’t want to look bad.
They don’t want to disappoint their parents. They don’t want
to lose their scholarship. They begin to operate from a
point of failure, and it leads them to the wrong kinds of
A seventh trap we fall into
is rationalizing away information or signals that might be
telling us to do something else. Often times, people who are
confronted on failures will look for scapegoats or someone
to blame their problems, or they will justify actions they
know are wrong. I have had a student plagiarize a personal
leadership action plan. My first question to him was, “How
can you plagiarize a personal leadership action plan? It’s
about you!” His rationalization was, “Everything that guy
said applies to me, so I didn’t see any point in rewriting
The last trap we fall into
is failing to look in the mirror. We lose touch with
reality. We surround ourselves with people who tell us what
we want to hear. We don’t recognize our own personal
shortcomings and we don’t allow others to tell us about
So when you think about what
ethical leadership means, how does one prevent oneself from
falling into these traps?
Good leaders ask themselves,
“What is the purpose of my leadership?” Why do you want to
lead? Why do you want to achieve that position? The moment
that other people leaves your answer is the moment you’re on
the path to engaging in unethical leadership behaviors.
What are your core values?
What are the principles in which you really believe? Very
few people can articulate the principles that guide their
actions and behaviors. How are you going to know if you’re
acting unethically if you have not really thought about what
values are guiding your behavior? Values impact the way you
perceive other people. They impact how you perceive the
world and situations. They impact your choices and your
actions. They impact how you manage other people.
It’s important to focus
inward, not in a self-interested way, but one that asks what
type of person am I becoming through the choices I have
made. If you don’t like what you see, stop. Leadership is
about other people. It’s about being a steward of others.
It’s not about you.
Build a network of support
and accountability. The most successful leaders don’t do it
alone, and they don’t surround themselves with “yes”-people.
They have people that they can turn to for advice. One of
the things that scares me the most is I don’t know what I
don’t know. I have a fear that I will make a decision that
will impact someone, so I have an advice network that can
give me counsel.
Have the courage to stand up
for what you know is right. Have the courage to say no. Have
the courage to fail.