- Last Updated: Tuesday, 06 April 2021
Over the past century, there has been a lot of work, and thought, given to the development of various leadership theories. From that work, came transformational, situational, and behavioral theories.
Unfortunately, little has been written about ethical leadership. Part of the problem stems from the fact the word “ethical” describes a constraint placed on the leader, and not their approach. In some way, this was addressed by Burns (1978) in his description of transactional leaders. Some people use the term “ethical” interchangeably with the word “moral,” a concept addressed by Burns.
Evolution of Ethical Leadership Theories
In describing his theory, Burns pointed out there were two primary types of leaders: moral and amoral. His feeling was that amoral people were not true leaders, and decided to ignore the dark side of “leadership.”
That’s because amoral “leaders” are typically associated with the use of extreme measures (such as physical force), and derive their power from fear of repercussions. These attributes, or characteristics, he felt were not indicative of a true leader. This is why Burns decided to focus on moral leaders; effectively stating that being a moral person is a requirement for all true leaders.
Add to this problem the fact that morality and ethics can vary considerably from culture to culture, making the issue even more complex. Perhaps the evolution of true ethical leadership theory was hindered even by the innocence of the theorists themselves. For example, if a theory’s starting point is that all leaders operate ethically, then why bother addressing the issue?
Part of the problem with ethical leadership, and its theory, also has to do with how scholars measure effectiveness. It’s quite normal to measure the effectiveness of leaders by their results; whether it’s the profitability of a company or the win / loss ratio of a head coach.
Studies have found that in organizations where leaders have practiced ethical skills; these qualities were among the most appreciated by employees of the organization (Michael Richardson, 1992). But this study does not state ethical leaders were more effective, merely that followers appreciated the fact they were ethical in their approach.
This brings up an interesting point concerning the discovery of unethical behavior by leaders, and the impact of this behavior on the perception of them by their followers. Two well-known examples include President Nixon and President Clinton.
To this day, the mention of President Nixon conjures up his association with the Watergate scandal. At that time, he was arguably the most powerful man in the United States. He was unseated as the American leader after an investigation forced his resignation. That investigation dealt with unethical behaviors.
President Clinton allegedly had an affair with an intern named Monica Lewinski. As a graduate of Georgetown University, and a Rhodes Scholar, then President Clinton claims he misunderstood the definition of a term that many have no problem understanding. Unlike Nixon, he was not forced into resignation. But will the history books, and the public’s perception of his achievements, be footnoted by this unethical behavior?
Ethical Leadership Today
So the heart of this dilemma remains rooted in the fact that ethical leadership is more descriptive of overarching standards, or governing principles, that relate to behaviors. Unfortunately, ethical dilemmas present themselves all the time, so the choice becomes what not to do.
For example, it’s wrong to lie, cheat, or steal from others. Unfortunately, ethical leadership does not tell someone how to react to a certain set of conditions. It doesn’t explain how to maximize the chance that a desired outcome will result. The world is damaged every day by the unethical behavior of others. There have been fortunes lost due to the conduct of leaders at Enron and WorldCom, as well as individuals such as Bernard Madoff. But it is the uncaring attitude of society that prevents the interest, and further study, of the topic. Until the time comes when emphasis is placed on the means of getting things done, and not the accomplishments themselves, it is doubtful that any significant research concerning the value of ethical leadership will appear.
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