Leadership Ethics
What is Right and Wrong?

Larry Reynolds alluded to leadership ethics in his four steps model of leadership, when he said that leaders have to "do the right thing". But is the right thing? I think it means two things.

Aligned to the Vision

First, leaders are expected to act consistently with their own vision and the values they claim to espouse. Politicians who moralise to their electorate - and then are found to be acting differently themselves - are soon replaced. Business leaders who act contrary to the values they expect in others are met with cynicism and obstruction.

Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, when criticising the policy of "strategic communication", said,

"To put it simply, we need to worry a lot less about how to communicate our actions and much more about what our actions communicate. Each time we fail to live up to our values or don't follow up on a promise, we look more and more like the arrogant Americans the enemy claims we are."

He seems to understand the success cycle and four steps leadership!

An unwritten code

But "doing the right thing" also means acting according to a code of leadership ethics that, while not always written down, followers expect of their leaders.

At the heart of the unwritten code of the ethics of leadership is the expectation that leaders will act in the best interests of their followers - that they will put them first, before themselves. This is partly because when a leaders asks people to follower them, they are often asking them to put "the cause" or other people before themselves. The leader is expected to do likewise.

In the UK members of parlaiment who were found to have claimed excessive expenses from the "public purse" - whether it was allowed in the rules or not - were heavily criticised by the public at a time when many people are suffering financially. Some of them lost their seat as a result - people were no longer willing to follow them.

The ethics of leadership also expect leaders to be honest, open and truthful to their followers. When leaders are found to have lied, trust goes out of the window. As it would it most relationships!

Trust is also an essential leadership ethic. Followers will take a view on whether they can trust a leader but their decision will normally be based on the leader's judgement in past situations. After Senator Edward Kennedy left the scene of a car crash in which his young female passenger died, the American public did not believe they could trust him with the presidency - although he continued to be elected to the Senate by those who knew him better than the wider American public.

Personal morality is often expected in the leadership code of ethics, depending on the moral framework in which the leader is working. Most of the American public seemed to forgive Bill Clinton for his adulterous affairs, but that may have been because he already had a good track record as a president. Other politicians have not fared so well. A long period of quiet reflection - out of the public eye - is often called for before a leader can return. Where exactly is Lord Archer now?

Written codes

Sometimes the code of leadership ethics is written down. The Committee for Standards in Public Life (also known as the Nolan Committee) defined the Seven Principles of Public Life. Many companies define their corporate values. And there are groups and organisations who promote ethical leadership and who explicitly define ethical codes.

The Center for Ethical Leadership is an example of one that works with diverse groups to help them to explore and develop their leadership values. The Center asks a very sharply focused central question, "What kind of leadership does the common good need at this time in this place?"

My position?

I do expect leaders to follow a code of ethics, whether it is written down or not. Leadership involves a psychological and emotional contract between leader and follower. And if a leader expects something from followers, he or she should be willing to live up to that.

My own personal code of ethics is driven by the Scout Law, one of the best statement of values I have come across. Written for young people and adults, it covers much of the ground discussed above and offers us all something we can strive every day to live up to.

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