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Ethical leadership

When facilitating ethics classes, I often start the discussion by asking what ethics is. Many people struggle to define ethics, but to quote Justice Stewart, they “know it when they see it”. Just as importantly, they recognize the symptoms of weak ethical culture.


It is worth considering this fundamental question:

If people know what it means to act ethically, and understand the damage done by unethical actions, why are ethical breaches so common?

Answering that question is complicated. The specific reasons are often varied to the situation. However, it is unarguable that the ethical climate of an organization directly relates to the prevalence of employees acting unethically.


If we consider an organization’s culture as reflective of how things are done in the organization, then the ethical climate is how things are done as they relate to ethical behaviour. The ethical climate reflects the organization’s values and norms and ultimately determines what members believe is right or wrong.



Changing the ethical climate so that the organization encourages ethical behaviour starts with educating people about such behaviour, and in order to be sustaining the environment needs to change. The organization’s ethical environment should provide motivation and incentives to act ethically, and eliminate incentives that result in people acting unethically.

A strong ethical climate makes ethical behaviour easy, automatic and habitual.


Leaders, by their nature and position in the organization, strongly influence the ethical climate of the organization. While the hope is that leaders elevate the ethical climate of an organization, this is not necessarily the case. Often, leaders are not self-aware and don’t have a sufficient frame of reference to know whether they are a positive or negative force in the organization.


For leaders to be a force for ethical behaviour it is important to understand what motivates leaders to act unethically.


Parker Palmer, author of the book ‘Let Your Life Speak’, identifies five internal enemies or “monsters” that exist within leaders and, which, if unchecked can drive unethical behaviour:


1. Insecurity:

Leaders are often insecure and mask that insecurity by tying their self-worth to their role and its related power. This leads to unethical behaviour when leaders project their insecurities onto others and make them fulfill their selfish needs.


2. Battleground mentality:

The sense that every relationship is a competition, to be won or lost. Leaders that have this perspective foster an environment where followers are constantly worried about losing the battle and will be motivated to win at all costs.


3. Functional atheism:

The belief that the leader has the ultimate responsibility for everything that happens within their sphere of influence. It leads leaders to impose their will on others and stresses those relationships. Often this leads to depression and despair as leaders learn they do not have that level of control.


4. Fear:

Leaders often fear the loss of control that change can bring. To prevent this loss of control, they work to minimize change. This can be in the form of suppressing dissent or curbing innovation. Fearful leaders emphasize rules and procedure instead of creativity as this is a way to consolidate their power.


5. Denying death:

This trait speaks to the leader’s desire to keep their projects and programs alive even when they are no longer viable. Being afraid of a program or project dying reflects the overall fear of failure. Denying death results in the leader allocating company resources to a sub-optimal project for selfish reasons.


By acknowledging that these five monsters can live within everyone, it allows leaders to actively minimize their negative impact. Leaders can address these monsters by following a disciplined leadership approach to improve their ethical behaviour.


‘Servant leadership’ is often seen one leadership method that can reduce the negative impact of the internal motivators described by Palmer. Robert Greenleaf coined the term servant leader in the 1970s to describe a model of leadership in which leaders puts the needs of the follower above their own


By focusing on the needs of the follower and the organization, the servant leader is less inclined to take advantage of the follower’s trust, acting inconsistently or abusing their influence to gain additional power. Research into servant leadership supports the premise that this type of leadership creates an ethical and trusting organizational climate.


It is worth noting that servant leadership does not imply weak leaders. There are times when the best way to serve someone is to reprimand them. Also, servant leaders need to ensure that they are working towards goals and values that are worthy of their service. For the servant leader to be successful, they must be self-aware and understand the importance of promoting ethical purposes that bring fulfillment to work.


Servant leadership is not the only leadership theory designed to improve the ethical climate of the organization. But understanding leadership involves an obligation to the betterment of followers and the organization will influence the leader to be a force for good and resist the influence internal monsters have over us.

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