Ethical leadership is a tricky thing.

Just because it is a combination of two already in themselves extraordinarily complex topics.

Both can look back to at least two thousand years of history and rivers of ink that have flown in writing about them.

Ethics:

  • How should be act?
  • What is a good life?
  • How should be live together?

Those are big questions and every generation is faced with new challenges on how to answer them.

Leadership:

  • How can we justify that one person has the power to lead others?
  • Is it really necessary to have a leader? Who should be the leader?
  • How do you become a leader? How do you lead?

Power is the keyword that links both topics! With power comes responsibility. But also, the potential for abuse.

Consequently, leadership is an inherently ethical activity.

This is one of the reasons why everybody wants ethical leadership.

Nobody would openly say that leadership does not have to be ethical. This is remarkable, because whenever I say that I work in business ethics, the default reaction is “Oh, that is an impossible combination!”, “Does that really exist?”.

But what exactly is ethical leadership?

What are the standards and criteria that make somebody an ethical leader.

Are ethical leaders these grandiose fearless heroes and heroines that do amazing deeds?

Does he or she have to be immaculate in their ethical behavior or can they be imperfect?

Who is coming to your mind if you think of ethical leaders?

When I ask my business students if they ever met an ethical leader or what persons come to their mind if they think ethical leader, they often mention their mothers and fathers, Mandela, Gandhi, Mother Teresa …they never mention business leaders. Never!

My guess is that it is because our image of the qualities of successful leaders in business often contradicts ethics.

Just think of some powerful business people: Jack Welch? Steve Jobs? Elon Musk? Sheryl Sandberg? Inspiring leaders, yes, but more or less doubtful for their ethics.

How about you? Who are your ethical role models in business?

Not so easy, right? And still most leaders think they are ethical, while often their followers would not agree.

There are many complex reasons for this, let me just explore 3 of them:

  1. We all think of ourselves as good persons and if somebody questions this, we immediately become upset and defensive. The fancy term for this is “moral identity threat”. That is one of the reasons why usually, people in power do not get critical feedback on their ethics, because their followers understand very well that this would jeopardize the relationship. But guess what, not receiving tough feedback is bad for your ethical consciousness and learning, because nobody is ethically perfect. In ethics we all are constant work in progress.
  2. The second ethics buster is over-confidence: Leaders must be confident. Otherwise, they would not be leaders. Imagine Martin Luther King saying: “I might have this dream, no idea of it will work and if we will get there…” Not very convincing! Would you follow him? Probably not. The downside of confidence is that it can very easily switch into over-confidence and consequently into ethical over-confidence. Being ethically overconfident means that you do not ask yourself the critical questions that you should be asking yourself. This bias often comes with the superiority bias, the human tendency to think that we are more ethical than the others. You know this if you ever lived with roommates: We always are convinced that we clean up more than the other person…
  3. The third ethical leadership buster is:  The power high. As a leader your brain gets literally drunk with power… and this leads to (Keltner, The Power Paradox, 2016)

• Empathy deficits,

• Self-serving impulsivity,

• Incivility and disrespect,

• Narratives of exceptionalism and a sense of entitlement.

We see, leaders are up against important obstacles for being ethical. You need an extraordinarily strong commitment and relentless self-reflection to work against these tendencies if you want to avoid becoming an unethical leader without noticing it. Because this usually is not something that happens overnight – it is a slippery slope. As you climb up the corporate ladder, your jokes might seem to become funnier. But that is, of course, not because you become a funnier person as you reach more powerful positions.

Therefore, beyond the resistance against the described three ethics challenges of leadership, I would like to go one step further and explore what leaders can proactively do if they want to become and stay ethical leaders.

Here my inspiration comes from Aristotle who thought that we are all born with a certain moral sense. But then it is like a muscle that you need to train to strengthen it.

Please, let me take you to my ethics gym and I will show you three exercises that will make you ethically competent and work your ethics muscle:

  1. You will need to anticipate and prepare for ethical challenges in cold blood. Many professions and industries have their specific and predictable ethical challenges: data privacy for telecommunication, corruption risk in construction, money laundry in banking. Trying to resolve these tough dilemmas in the heat of the moment is a recipe for epic ethical fails.
  2. The basis of all ethical leadership is appreciation of others. If your followers feel truly appreciated, they will stand by you a long way. So be interested in your team members, ask them questions, say thank you, catch them when they are doing good work and acknowledge their contribution, show them that you trust their judgment. Based on appreciation, you can go to the next step and listen to people so they know that when they speak up on ethics it will be safe and worthwhile. This is the magic antidote against the moral dangers of power.
  3. And third ethics gym exercise is having a moral hero. This is important for the emotional support of your role as an ethical leader. Having a personal moral role model can help built our moral imagination and spark your motivation. Here we can find inspiration e.g. in Charley Chaplin: He was not only wildly successful, but he was also a dissident, who was never afraid to talk truth to power, who was critical and insightful about the dark side of progress and capitalism and at the same time he was always full of compassion and humor.

These three exercises are not rocket science, the secret is – like at the gym – consistency!

You cannot say “Hey, today I will do my 5 minutes of ethical leadership with my team!”.

Ethical leadership is a full-time job, because as a leader you are under constant observation and your followers see everything.

It is like with your kids: It is useless to tell them to not be on their smart phones all the time, if you are on your smart phone all the time.