The Journey of Ethical Leadership: Doing Our best to be Better Part 1

As leaders, we are tasked daily with making the right calls in successfully managing our businesses and guiding and inspiring our people. As human beings, we are also tasked daily with living authentic, purpose driven, and fulfilling lives. Is there a disconnect there? Does the leader who focusses on keeping the bottom lines robust run the risk of alienating his or her people? Of acting against their and the group’s best interests in pursuit of profits?

On the surface, there shouldn’t be divide. Even the most cursory glance of the state of business will clearly plead the case for greater responsibility and integrity in business, yet history (and present times) are filled with examples of leaders who have compromised along the way to “make a quick buck.”

This isn’t to say that they were horrible leaders – greedy and short sighted people who placed a higher premium on making a profit than on protecting the integrity of the organisation or themselves. It is fundamentally an issue of ethics or, more accurately, an issue of a lack of ethical leadership.

Ethical leadership calls for business leaders to demonstrate good values through their words and actions, and it demands that they appropriately conduct themselves both inside and outside of the office. It is more than just simply saying “Don’t lie; don’t cheat.” Ethical leadership is a top-down, bottom-up re-evaluation of the values that define us, the realisation and ownership of one’s role in moving the team forward, and the day-to-day embodiment of these values through constant practice, training, and communication.

If it seems like a lot, it is. But it doesn’t have to paralyse leaders. After all, doing the right thing is a course of action that every decent human being should avidly pursue. So, how and why do so many leaders get it wrong?

Defining Ethical Leadership
According to the Harvard Business Review, ethical leaders will not overlook wrongdoing, even in cases when doing so may benefit their businesses. Showing integrity and doing what’s right are at the heart of being an ethical leader AND a decent human being. And, as we will see a little later on, ethical leaders set the example for the rest of the company.

Ethical leadership is defined as “leadership that is directed by respect for ethical beliefs and values and for the dignity and rights of others.” It is based primarily on moral development and the propagation of virtuous behaviours – behaviours that can be embodied and modelled by the team.

Of course, we want all leaders to follow a strict moral compass and recognise and act with urgency on the direction of true north. This calls for leaders to clearly know what they stand for and understand their own values lest their organisations fall into disrepute in corporate scandal.

The author of Culture Hacker (Wiley, 2017), Shane Green paints the situation perfectly when he says, “In today’s transparent, social-media-driven world, senior executives, especially those with a high profile, will be tested and called to task over their morals and ethics in how they do business.”

“This used to be more focused on business practices but is now shifting [to] leadership practices. Businesses, and their leaders, are under a microscope. How they act and interact with those around them professionally will have a significant impact on their ability to attract new talent and, ultimately, their bottom lines,” Green adds.

Ethical leadership, therefore, is mostly defined by consistently demonstrating and promoting behaviour that respects the rights of others within the values-based boundaries.

The Core of An Ethical Leader
At the core of ethical leadership are what I like to call the “basics”. I call them basics not because they are in any way, shape or form, lower than the rest, but because they are fundamental and functional.

Ethical leadership is characterised by a sense of fairness, integrity, respect for others, transparency, and accountability. Ethical leaders focus on team building in fostering a sense of community and team spirit. So, when an ethical leader inspires and leads his or her people, it is not about personal gain but about the organisation succeeding as a whole.

There is a genuine and real effort to achieve on an organisational level. What’s more, there is that driving desire to ensure that decisions are first validated for alignment with the overall organisational values. And only the decisions, policies, and actions that meet this criterion are implemented.

An ethical leader regularly promotes the high values and expectations that they hold. They also hold themselves and their teams to those values. There is no tolerance for ethical violations – across the board. It doesn’t matter who the team member is. Whether you are the CEO or an entry level staff member, there is equity in both the way you are rewarded and disciplined.

Most of all, there is greater communication of the core values to ensure that everyone is on board and is an active participant in building and sustaining a stronger, more compliant, and more trustworthy team. An ethical leader expects employees to do the right thing at all times, not just when it is convenient for them. They will not overlook or tolerate ethical violations. It is no surprise that, led by an ethical leader, employees, cultures, and organisations thrive. It’s just that simple.

Lastly, ethical leadership is not a mutually exclusive style. There are many people who lead and manage, governed by ethical principles integrated within another management framework. Ethical leadership is keenly focused on setting ethical direction within the organisation and directing the organisation, accordingly.

I would like to pause here for now. This is a heavy topic and before I continue, I would like you to fully digest the content and have your thoughts on them. I hope I can stem a conversation and hear your views.

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