As business practitioners grapple with the intangible yet potentially valuable notion of ethical leadership, it is left to scholars to assess whether those practitioners are “coloring within the lines.” It is admittedly all too easy to draw in exogenous material that is pleasing to the eye; it is all too easy to deem such material required for ethical leadership rather than ballast weighing it down, unnecessarily. One business practitioner characterizes ethical leadership as that which “inspires the behaviors in people necessary to create competitive advantage.” As achieving a sustainable competitive advantage is the task of strategy, inspiration alone can be extracted as that which is particular to leadership. Strategy is what is left once one has extracted inspiration from the characterization.
As though to isolate the concept of ethical leadership on a petri dish, the practitioner adds that ethical leaders “distinguish themselves by doing that which is inconvenient, unpopular, and even temporarily unprofitable in the service of long-term health and value.” These stipulations may be dogmatic in the sense of being arbitrary, however, rather than intrinsic to the concept.
What is the nature of the inconvenience and unpopularity, given that the practitioner distinguishes them from being contrary to short-term financial interests? Does it even make sense to admit the existence of an inconvenience that does not register financially? Perhaps the inconvenience is to the leader who wants to retain power, or to others in the organization. Secondly, is the lack of popularity within the organization, or in society (or both)? Lest it not be forgotten, for something to be unpopular in society translates into a lack of congruence between organizational and societal norms or values. It should be noted that organizational-societal congruence lies at the heart of corporate social responsibility. Does doing the ethical thing necessarily entail an incongruence or unpopular measure? The only aggrieved may be the corrupt, while the overwhelming majority within the organization support the ethical leader’s principles and vision for what the organization can be.
Furthermore, sacrificing on short-term financial interests for long-term profitability is not in itself ethical; rather, long-term strategy can viably be at the expense of financial expediency. To essentially “monetize” an intangible asset such as ethical leadership is problematic because the specificity can easily eliminate alternative paths that are just as capable of being classified under ethical leadership.
Nevertheless, the practitioner narrows the purview of that which counts as ethical leadership even further. Ethical leaders “view the world as interconnected and develop multidisciplinary solutions to address complex problems that crop up every day.” The world as interconnected is a salient feature of the feminine template, whereas the hub-and-spokes framework is consistent with the masculine way of relating to the world. Were the feminine structure also that of ethical leadership, the hub-and-spoke framework of stakeholder management would not be ethical. Put another way, attending to the interests of individual stakeholders could not be considered a viable approach to ethical leadership.
Nor does ethical leadership connote “multidisciplinary,” or even being broad-minded. An ethical leader can legitimately be single-minded in preaching a particular ethical principle applied to herself or the organization. Similarly, nothing in the concept of ethical leadership requires that the problems to which it applies are complex. In fact, ethical leadership is not simply another name for effective problem-solving; rather, management is oriented to problem-solving. To reduce the vision of an organizational or society leader to particular solutions is essentially to micromanage leadership into management, and therefore to commit a category mistake.
The practitioner slips into his own domain (i.e., management) in projecting a content onto ethical leadership. For example, he claims that the “leadership team” at Ritz-Carlton “allows each employee to spend up to $2,000 to address customer issues at his or her own discretion.” While giving front-line employees more discretion with which to resolve customer complaints is a laudable policy, I’m not convinced it is ethical in nature. The statement, employees should be given the use of $2,000 each, does not feel like the trust of the claim. Rather, it seems like smart, even broad-minded management not to be so niggardly with one’s control over one’s budget.
Lastly, the practitioner’s own ideology has infused into his concept of ethical leadership, as evinced in his claim that “Ethical leaders extend trust to their workers, creating the conditions necessary to empower employees, suppliers, and even customers to take the risks necessary to create game-changing innovations.” The prescriptive tone is in the subtle must extend and must create. Furthermore, is top-down management really unethical? If so, the ethical principle of fiduciary duty, which extends downward from a corporation’s board, can only be an oxymoron. The interlarded ideological demands here may be nothing more than a power-grab by means of defining. The grab in this case pertains to not only the practitioner in defining ethical leadership, but also organized labor vicariously.
At the same time, common sense tells us that ethical leadership is not just integrity in the sense that a leader's actions are consistent with her words; ethical implies that the content of at least one basic ethical principle is involved. The problem is when an ideology quietly slips in and presumes to declare itself an ethical principle. Ethical leadership itself is artificially narrowed, and likely even distorted, in the process.
Behind my critique is the Nietzschean claim that the imposition of modern morality by ethicists is itself none other than a self-serving power-grab to get the strong to do their bidding. That is, the moralist’s defining is actually an act to dominate out of weakness. The club used is Thou Shalt Not, and the ethicist’s pleasure is obtained by his or her ideology overcoming the external obstacles in practitioners who have other beliefs and values.
If Nietzsche is correct, ethical leadership itself may be severely and yet invisibly infected. At the very least, its definition would need to be severely pruned back—like a government’s bloated budget that has become distended from political pressure from various special-interests (i.e., ideologies). Rather than thinking about what you want ethical leadership to be, try asking yourself what it is.
1.Dov Seidman, “Ethical Leadership: An Operating Manual,” BloombergBusinessWeek, December 17, 2010.
2. Friedrich Nietzsche, a German philosopher, most of whose books were published in the 1870s and 1880s. Key to his philosophy: pleasure from the power in overcoming obstacles (internal or external) is our main urge, or instinctual motive.