Why Y’all Are Wrong on Leadership and Ethics: #sorrynotsorry


Every time there is a scandal in business or ethics we hear the same script: It’s a Leadership issue! (Person in question failed a Leadership test….) It’s an issue of Personal Morality ! (Person in question has moral flaws and/or failed to demonstrate Personal Morality i.e. Moral Purity….)

This is usually followed by hand-wringing of two types:

A – society is failing to develop Moral Character and Purity (Kids today! Socrates lament…) B- there are always a few bad apples, but the barrel is fine so we can all relax.

Several experiences in recent months have highlighted something that I think about often. Since I teach both military ethics (working with civilian and Army ROTC students) and business ethics (who are business majors in a required philosophy class for the School of Business) –  and that is the relationship between Leadership and Ethics.

Here is the conventional narrative: We need to (using Leadership Theory, Management Theory, Organizational Theory or some other theoretical construct from the Social Sciences – especially psychology and sociology and/or Business) develop curriculum or training on good Leadership, on Strategic Thought and related areas and practices and if we do so, ethics kinda takes care of itself.  This is not to say that these fields and these approaches do not recognize the possibility that one can be a ‘good’ (effective) leader and be also unethical  (note I did not use the term immoral here…I will return to that point in a few moments), but they tend to think it is not very likely, or the exception to the rule.  But why?

These approaches tend to view ‘ethics’ really as a matter of the personal morality of the character of the individual leader, or maybe how they carry out their role of leader within some idea of best leadership practices for their community.  So the ‘unethical’ leader will really be an immoral individual and this cannot be accounted for or addressed by leadership or management theories – you have to try your best to chose and hope for moral people who will then become ethical leaders.

[A word about moral and ethical and their use here. The first day of any of my courses involves making an important distinction between moral – what individuals, groups or societies think of as right and wrong – and ethical, which is higher order reflection upon these or analysis about what it means to say something is moral, what moral claims or language means or are used and how moral systems or claims are given justification.  These terms are often used interchangeably and this contributes to the general confusion and problems that I am highlighting in this discussion. Words matter.]

What is the problem with this view?  One take is Dale Wilson’s good piece in The Strategy Bridge about ethical fading and decay Wilson; this viewpoint seems to be supported by studies about the ethical cultures of companies in business and reports in the military like Lying to Ourselves Lying.  Many of these reports locate the problem as either one of personal morality (and responsibility) or a failure of leadership.  We see a similar dynamic around the round of examination in the military post Vietnam and Abu Gharib.

I think there is some merit in these analyses; they certainly are part of the story, because something important is missing here.  In professional ethics, ethics is not about personal morality alone, and in fact personal morality as the only ethical guide can be highly problematic because the ethical problems faced are faced in the context of systems and structures that go beyond the individual and on which the individual has limited impact upon and control over.  Being ethical in this frame is about understanding actions and policies within the context of ethical systems and communities – in the social context and within a context of service or obligation to society.

If this is going to be successful it requires tools of ethical reflection, analysis which has to include thinking about ethics and ethical questions and problems in a systematic and critical way. It is not enough to  know My Lai and Enron where wrong – but why?  They were not solely the result of bad choices by Lt Calley and Ken Lay, which is one conventional way of dealing with these case studies.  What could they have done, and made everything turn out differently? Except that Calley and Lay were not the only ones making individual choices in those contexts, and those actions would not have happened without certain assumptions, choices and systematic ways of thinking on the part of many other individuals and groups involved.

It takes a village to be ethical, and it takes a village to produce ethical failures. But so much of our discussion is focused on personal morality, individual responsibility and then we wonder why ethical failures are a regular feature of military and business endeavors?  Because we are ignoring really important parts of the picture and the way in which individuals are part of ethical and unethical communities, systems and thinking and the ways in which that impacts their actions.  Joanne Cuilla (author of The Ethics of Leadership Book) has done some important and pioneering work here and it merits sustained and important attention by leadership theorists, practioners, military and business ethicists. She fuses ethical theory and ethical traditions of discourse (include Aristotle, Kant, Mill and others) with many of the traditional questions, theories and frameworks of thinking about and practice of leadership.

To this end, I will be devoting the last couple of weeks (where my students present and lead class based upon their research and reading) to this topic of Leadership and Ethics. Because one ought to practice what one preaches.


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