Ethics and Leadership

Ethics and Leadership


From Black Monday 1987, Enron in 2001, and the financial crisis of 2008; business ethics have come to the forefront of everyday conversation. It is fair to say that our financial and cooperate institutions are not the only segments in the society to experience scandals. Nonetheless, due to the exploitation of natural resources, food shortages, poverty, pandemics, pollution, and terrorism; a number of growing experts view these dilemmas as contributing to the ethical decline of our business establishments. The past and current scandals in our business world legitimize this view. Many believe that our preoccupation with success and wealth bolsters this argument. Our nation’s current financial situation raises strong questions about business morality, in particular ethical leadership. In pertaining to ethical leadership thought and development, relative theories or models should be placed in perspective. According to some researchers, ethical leadership literature focuses on the philosophies of virtue ethics and deontology over consequential-ism (Knights and O’Leary, 2006). Consequential-ist theories (i.e. egoism, applying morality for personal gain; and utilitarianism, happiness of the greatest number is the greater good) fundamental aspects are the acts of ‘right and wrong’; and pleasure is ‘good’ and pain is ‘evil’. These cause and effect ideologies can appear to be ‘one-dimensional’ and redundant in achieving its results. In contrast; rights-based ethics such as deontology promotes fairness, equality, truthfulness, and freedom.

However, deontology could be multifarious and cumbersome for most business models. Some may argue that rights-based ethics in the work-place would produce constant deliberations about policies and regulations which could eventually impede the function and purpose of the organization (Knights and O’Leary). However, impulsive compliance to bureaucratized morality can desensitize our moral judgment. In other words, moral dilemmas are needed when confronted with questionable practices in the work place. One consideration for leadership is to incorporate what is called ‘virtue-ethics that espouse compassion and honesty. Different from the right-based model, virtue-ethics focus on developing the character of an individual rather than focusing on the act. Subsequently, contingent and situational leaderships are seen as more psychological and independent. In basic terms, situational leadership involves an individual’s personality or external factors where as contingency leadership matches the appropriate trait(s) for a specific condition. Yet, more and more experts are looking for collective approaches to lead because there is no superior way of leadership. Collaborative and value-based models appear more complementary than controlling and outcomes-based paradigms. Moreover, when combining virtue ethics, deontology, and consequential-ism; an effective communication and incentive system should be put in place to further promote ethical behavior (Whetstone, 2001;Trevino et al., 2003; ctd in Knights & O’Leary, 2006). Philosophers such as Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas view the virtue of responsibility and appropriate conduct and obligations towards others in high regard.

However, we have to loosen our preoccupation with self and prioritize social affirmation and endorsements of economic and symbolic images. Greed and vainglory typically supplant ethical accountability. More to do with judgment than character, ethics present who we are in relation to others (Knights & O’Leary, 2006). In order to coexist, we have to be responsible for ourselves to others. Social order requires rules and restraints. In context, ethics of responsibility can certainly be applied to the Servant Leadership Theory which may be equated with the philosophies of Jesus and Gandhi. The Servant Leadership Theory identifies 10 characteristics of servant leaders: listening empathy, healing, awareness, persuasion, conceptualization, foresight, stewardship, commitment to the growth of others, and community building (Parris & Peachey, 2013). Leading by example, the servant tends to the needs of others. Subsequently, introduced by Robert K. Greenleaf in 1970, writers such as Ken Blanchard and Larry Spears adopted his philosophy and incorporated into other leadership theories such as Situational Leadership (, 2010. Servant Leaders see themselves as compassionate communicators who are system thinkers that do not believe in a chain of command. Instead, their emphasis is on personal commitment, ethics, trust, and collaboration for organizational growth through teamwork.

An extension of the Servant Leaders’ collective or team principle is described in Mendez’s (2009) research that analyzed collective leadership. This author explained two facets of this leadership style; ‘Leadership Sharedness’ and ‘Leadership Distribution’. Leadership Sharedness joint vision of the team is defined by all members. This approach enables members to challenge questionable established patterns and ideas and also to propose new solutions to old problems. In Leadership Distribution, Mendez states… “a team will exhibit high distribution when the team relies on one member to establish the team’s vision, on another to develop specific objectives and establish procedures and routines, and on a third one to solve conflict among team members and make sure the ideas of all members are being listened to”. Others agree with Mendez collective model of leadership. In order to create an atmosphere of collaboration, leaders must ascertain what the group needs concerning work-related tasks, forming mutual relationships, and building a common purpose (Kouzes & Posner, 2007). Both the Servant Leader and the Collective/Team approach incorporate fundamental ethical characteristics and methods similarly with transformational leadership. In essence, Kouzes and Posner define transformational leadership as the infusion of peoples’ energies into strategies. According to these authors, the main distinctions between transformational and transactional leadership are that the goals and purposes are related, but separate. Transactional leadership has been called ‘managerial leadership’ that incorporates motivation and appealing to followers’ self-interests. The transactional approach concentrates on the role of supervision, organization, and group performance. Finally, future leadership models should be universally pliable; or, a compilation of theories that allow for flexibility and compatibility. This allows fulfilling new niches of organizational designs and consumer needs.


Knights, D. & O’Leary, M. (2006). Leadership, Ethics and Responsibility to the Other. Journal of Business Ethics. 67(2), p. 125-137.

Kouzes, J. M. & Posner, B. Z. (2007). The Leadership Challenge. 4th ed. Jossey-Bass; San Francisco, CA

Mendez, M. J. (2009). A Closer Look Into Collective Leadership: Is Leadership Shared or Distributed? Dissertation, New Mexico State University; 131 pgs.

Parris, D. L. & Peachey, J. W. (2013). A Systematic Literature Review of Servant Leadership Theory in Organizational Contexts. Journal of Business Ethics, Vol. 113, No. 3 (March 2013), pp. 377-393


Source by Kenneth Jackson Reynolds, Jr

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