Summer 2006
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What Makes an Ethical Leader?
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A Common Vision | What Makes an Ethical Leader?

Gregg Franzwa
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 leaders.

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.

Jack Hill
Associate professor of religion

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 world?

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 social collectives.

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.

Christine Riordan
Associate Dean for External Relations and the
Luther Henderson 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 people.

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 decisions.

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 it.”

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 them.

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.

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