Thursday, October 22, 2009
Personal Musings: Ethics in Leadership
The Sheldon Chumir Foundation for Ethics in Leadership depicts their context for ethics in leadership as follows:
“We know that leadership in general is about many things – such as, vision, principle and integrity. Leadership is especially about the power to motivate others through words and deeds. And ethical leadership is about ethically motivating others in ethical directions. Obviously, ethical leadership is a complex matter and we will return many times in the work of the Foundation to think further about the question, ‘What is ethical leadership?’. But let us set out a few ideas here and hope to stimulate your interest to pursue the topic.
It may be useful to get started by thinking of ethical leadership as having both procedural and more substantive, or character-based, dimensions.
On the procedural side we would expect to find, for example, issues connected with ethical decision-making procedures, such as consultation. We would expect ethical leaders to recognize the importance of consultation with those affected by their decisions before they take action. To take consultation seriously is to treat people impacted by a decision with the dignity and respect they are due. Much better outcomes are often produced because a broader range of input has been taken into account.
A fair bit of attention has been paid the procedural side of the ethical leadership equation in recent years. Much has been heard, for example, about the accountability of leaders for actions taken by the organizations of which they are a key part, especially in business and politics. Here Canadians have only to think of the political advertising scandal that led to the defeat of Paul Martin’s Liberal government in the 2006 federal election.
Because of scandals, again especially in the business sector, but not only there, we have seen an increasing number of organizations adopt formal codes of ethics. But codes of ethics can be misleading and give rise to their own ethical issues. For if ethics is a complicated matter – and it is – then we must acknowledge that codes of ethics can never answer all our ethical questions.
Indeed, if the job of acting ethically is to think through the application of general ethical principles – such as the duty to treat every person with dignity and respect – to the facts of particular cases, then codes of ethics can never hold complete solutions. They can even be misleading, as where they dictate that in all circumstances a particular action is wrong, whereas in certain perhaps limited circumstances this need not be the case. A widely endorsed code of fundraising ethics condemns the practice of paying fundraisers “finders’ fees, commissions or other payments based on either the number of gifts received or the value of funds raised.” But properly handled – including complete openness with potential donors about the fact that the fundraisers are being paid by, say, commission – it is difficult to see why fundraising of such a kind is unethical.
We know that as a procedural matter, leaders should not put themselves in conflicts of interest. Even apparent conflicts of interest should be avoided whenever possible. But what exactly is a conflict of interest, how we do we recognize them when they arise and how do we know when the problem is a truly serious one? These are often difficult questions, requiring careful discussion and reflection.
Thoughtful reflection on what it means substantively to be an ethical leader would have us consider the role of courage, for example. It is often very uncomfortable to lead in the ethically desirable direction, especially where that requires opposing the more immediately popular point of view. Imagine how unpleasant it was for those who first advocated for racially integrated sports teams or, for a more modern example, first spoke out in favour of gay marriage. How do we nurture such courageous leadership?
We know that one ingredient of moral courage is independence of thought. The ethical leader is one who can resist jumping on “bandwagons.” But where does this personality trait come from and how can its development be supported?
There are many other dimensions of ethical leadership. For example, ethical leadership recognizes the moral obligation to know enough to do the job right. Personal integrity and respectful decision-making processes are not always enough. Could we call “ethical” a contemporary leader who did not recognize the importance of environmental concerns, or a municipal politician who did not see homelessness and poverty as crucial parts of his or her mandate?
Sometimes consideration of the obstacles to ethical leadership can teach us a great deal. What stands in the way of ethical leadership? Lack of courage or independence of thought are obvious obstacles.
One of them is lack of imagination: sometimes what stops us from doing the ethically right thing is that we cannot see beyond the usual confines of an issue – we cannot see our way through to ethically better solutions.
And sometimes what prevents us from leading ethically is staleness: we have been at the same job for too long and cannot see that the creative spark and tenacious dedication necessary to ethical leadership has long ago disappeared.”