Ethics is usually argued to be a central theme in what makes
for good and effective leadership. Ciulla (1998, p 6) states, “those who seek to define leadership generally agree that
leadership consists of the relationship between followers, leader and the situation, but there is less agreement on
the ‘how’ of leadership, that is, the types of decisions and conduct that should be considered good leadership”.
Unethical leaders will trade on sincerity in order to benefit themselves and in many cases, these individuals are found out.
Leaders should act ethically not out of fear of being caught when doing wrong. Rather, they should embrace ethical behaviour
because of the freedom, self-confirmation, and success that it brings to their vision and goals (Svensson & Wood, 2007,
Ethics, Values and Morals
Values can be defined as constructs representing generalised behaviours or states of affairs that are
considered by the individual to be important (Gordon, 1975, p 2). Values are developed throughout life from influences such
as religion, education, experiences and our parents and affect behaviour as we act in accordance with our values and beliefs.
Leaders usually align their values with those of their followers in achieving their vision. Martin Luther King Jr valued a
non-violent approach which was influenced by his religious values, and so his followers also valued this and pursued the right
for equality through non-violent measures. Dubrin et al (2006, p 128) define morals as, “the standards that an individual
or group has about what is right and wrong”. They continue that ethics is the study of morality in which people engage
in ethics when they examine a society’s moral standards and the personal moral standards they have absorbed from family,
church, friends, society and other influences, and ask whether these standards are reasonable to unreasonable. Decisions are
made through an individual’s or group’s code of ethics and what may be ethical to some, may be unethical to others
as morals and values vary between people.
There are no surprises that some leaders often choose to behave unethically in order to benefit themselves.
William Aramony, a religious and charitable leader, was forced to step down as President of the United Way
under allegations that “he lived lavishly and romanced women with thousands of dollars of the charity’s money”
(Fulwood, 1995). Leadership is always about self and others. The first and final job of leadership is the attempt to serve
the needs and the well-being of the people led (Gini, 1996, p 12). Leaders and followers are engaged in a common enterprise;
they are dependent on each other, their fortunes rise and fall together. Clearly, we cannot expect every decision and action
of a leader to be perfect but rather it is the extent of unethical choices he or she makes. Leaders must keep in mind the
decisions they wish to pursue as followers are likely to follow the behaviours they undertake as they lead by example and
have much influence over their followers. If the leader is corrupt, the organisation or their followers will also evidence
corrupt behaviour (Davidson & Griffin, 2003, p 585).
Deciding what is ethical may be a dilemma as the values of the community or employees may be different
from those of the leader. Many unethical decisions and actions occur not because the leader did not know what was right, but
because he or she failed to recognise the ethical implications in the situation or rationalised the conduct to justify doing
something unethical (Dubrin et al, 2006, p 135). Leaders with strong virtuous values are more likely to act ethically than
are leaders who are operating with a weak or non-existent value system. Some situations may force leaders to behave unethically
regardless of the system of values they possess. An example would be of a business leader in which he chooses to save the
organisation at the expense of unemployment for a large number of his employees.
Effective leaders are credible, with excellent reputations, and high levels of integrity (Toney, 1994,
p 76). In the long run, effective leaders appear to be the most successful leaders, and effective leaders practice ethical
leadership in their organisation or with their followers.
Ethical Decision Making
Most decisions that affect other people have an ethical dimension attached to it. The decisions that
a leader makes will affect others and will have an impact on a large number of people. Dubrin et al (2006, p 128) explain
some of the major theories about right and wrong and how they can be used to make ethical decisions. It is important that
you take note of the diverse backgrounds that people come from in an attempt to understand how these concepts may be differently
perceived by others, than of your own.
Using a utilitarian model, an action is ethical if the benefits produced are greater for the largest
number of people than could be produced by any other action. The ethical nature of the decision is made on the basics of the
consequences of that decision. This model assumes that we can measure the potential benefits and harm from each course of
action, as this is a requirement for being able to determine the greatest good (Dubrin et al, 2006, p 129). Although the problem
is that what may be of benefit to some people, may not be as beneficial to others so it is difficult to determine the interests
of others whilst also acting the best interests in their own.
The virtue theory holds the view that the foundation of ethics lies in the
development of good character traits, a person is said to be good if he or she has virtues (Arjoon, 2000, p 159). Virtue theory
argues that the aim of moral life is to develop general dispositions called moral virtues and to exercise and exhibit them
in many situations that human life sets before us. Dubrin et al (2006, p 133) states that if the decisions to engage in such
actions tends to develop a person’s character by making him or her more virtuous then such actions are morally right.
If the decisions to engage in such actions tend to make people less virtuous then these actions are morally wrong.
Ethics does play a huge part of effective leadership. It is important that
leaders must remember that the decisions they make and the behaviours they wish to pursue will affect the followers, in that
they are likely to follow in the same footsteps of their leader. A few theories can be used in making ethical decisions by
leaders and the utilitarianism and virtue theory have been briefly outlined.