Thursday, September 18, 2014

Can ethical leadership be taught?

In the typical business school, this question would be interpreted, or “refurbished.” Can students be trained to become ethical leaders? While often conflated contemporaneously, these two questions are indeed distinct. Instructors, professors and school administrators should first decide which question is more relevant to their purposes. The question chosen should fit with the education, pedagogical method, and philosophy of education of not only the instructor or professor, but also the school itself. In this essay, I distinguish the two questions in order to unpack them with their full significance.

The entire essay is at “Can Ethical Leadership Be Taught?

Monday, September 8, 2014

Toward a Definition for Ethical Leadership: Disabusing the Pessimists

Linda Thornton, a management consultant, suggests that “the definition of leadership ethics is still unclear; its scope is broadening, making it a moving target.”[1] This is not good news for the topic. Fortunately, the field may be making the task of definition unduly arduous. Scholarship is needed to ferret through the debris so a concept of ethical leadership can be constructed that is both academically rigorous and of use to practitioners, whether in advising and “doing” ethical leadership.

Thornton points to the increasing scope of problems that can occur in leadership ethics globally as having broadened the scope of leadership ethics. She assumes that the “widely differing values, rules and laws” in the various cultures (including corporate) mean that the “way we define ‘leadership ethics’ has to be different” (p. 60). She is assuming (erroneously) that the particular context of an application must be part of the concept’s definition. Furthermore, she treats defining leadership ethics as the same as defining “an ethical company.” What happened to leadership? Perhaps we can now see how the problem of definition has been rendered unduly difficult by fallacious assumptions.

Besides distinguishing particular cultural values and principles from ethical leadership as a concept that holds irrespective of the context, the concept can perhaps be further delimited. For example, Thornton includes adhering to legal requirements as part of the definition. However, ethics is not the same as law; something can be unethical without being illegal. For example, Goldman Sachs sold derivative securities that the investment bank was shorting. Not informing the customers of the firm’s own shorting may have been unethical, but it was not illegal at the time. Also, it can be ethical to violate a law deemed as unjust (e.g. apartheid). The requirement of law-keeping is thus a dogmatic interlarding of an extrinsic factor into the definition of ethical leadership.

Thornton also tucks into stakeholder management into her construal of ethical leadership, where she avers that the scope of ethical leadership includes “how what we do in organizations affects profits, people, and the planet” (p. 60). In other words, ethical leadership requires “making choices that do not harm groups not traditionally considered constituents of the organization” (p. 60). However, the validity of the claims even of groups “traditionally considered constituents” is subject to debate ethically, given the property rights of a firm’s stockholders. The term “constituent” alone is problematic in stakeholder management. To refer to an external stakeholder as one is itself to engage in a power-grab. Adding additional groups, as if required as an inherent part of ethical leadership, suggests that the matter of defining is following an ideological or partisan agenda.  In this way, definitional difficulties have been expanded quite unnecessarily. Such ideological or prescriptive agendas, by the way, are admittedly all too salient in the writings of many business ethics scholars; the lapse is not limited to consultants and leaders in the field. Stakeholder management theory, for example, could be an ideological Trojan horse coming in "under the radar" under the subterfuge of scholarship. This practice itself is unethical. Adding one's ideology into the process of defining the concept of ethical leadership is like pouring dirt into clear mountain-stream water. Working toward a definition of ethical leadership thus entails as a first step filtering out the precipitate slug.

More difficult to shave off the definition of ethical leadership—but perhaps no less necessary—are ethical values that are universally-held and maybe even intrinsic to ethics itself. Thornton lists honesty, integrity and fairness. However, it may not to be ethical to be honest, such as in telling a Nazi SS officer that a family of Jews is hiding in the wall between the kitchen and living room. Fairness too might be conditional from an ethical standpoint. Whether integrity, which can be defined as congruence between word and deed, contains substantive ethical principles is itself a matter of dispute (see “Integrity in Strategic Leadership”).

Beyond the unnecessary roadblocks evinced in Thornton’s depiction of the problem in defining ethical leadership, the attitude of some practitioners—whether consultants or leaders—toward knowledge generally (and especially on a construct as potentially ideological as ethical leadership) functions as an obstacle to achieving a definition. Viewing knowledge as “just another perspective” among opinions—essentially treating knowledge as opinion—is to tacitly dismiss defining itself. In other words, treating knowledge as relative or simply as whatever anyone happens to think about a topic effectively eviscerates scholarship, not to mention clearly defined concepts. The meaning of a word becomes whatever the user decides, and this dilutes meaning itself and impairs communication. I suspect that behind practitioners who reject the academic literature of a concept relevant to their own field, or treat a theory or empirical result as simply another perspective among their own opinions is the false presumption of being entitled as scholars without the higher education that is requisite. Whether in raising their own opinions to the status of knowledge or disavowing knowledge as anything more than opinion, the anti-intellectualism is ultimately self-defeating. If the only thing that can go into the definition of a concept is opinion, the project of defining ethical leadership is indeed doomed. Fortunately, knowledge does exist—even in the case of the concept of leadership! Such knowledge is neither opinion nor subject to it. Therefore, in order for the phenomenon of ethical leadership to achieve an a priori conceptual solidity, scholarship is needed. Such scholarship, being oriented to the concept itself, should not be based on empirical surveys, opinions from the field, or even the participating scholars’ own ideological agendas.


1. Linda Fisher Thorton, “Leadership Ethics Training: Why Is It So Hard to Get It Right? September 2009. 

Monday, September 1, 2014

Emperors and Generals: On the perspectival Wisdom at Upper-Echelon Leadership

In complex social arrangements, such as exist in governments, business firms, and religious organizations, a person must climb through many levels before reaching persons of sufficient height and occupational breadth that what had been said to be binding requirements suddenly become as though unfettered butterflies. Astoundingly, the mid-level subordinates may even object as the rules are relegated back to their true status as guidelines. Beyond the element of greater authority, a greater perspective in terms of what truly matters is profoundly important in this regard. Having many decades of lived experience, plus a certain maturity in place of pettiness, is also in the mix. A Pope of the Roman Catholic Church, for example, may be more likely to pick up on a sincere heart of the sort Jesus would praise than run through a laundry list of doctrinal requirements.

In the film Emperor (2012), religion and government are intertwined in the Japanese emperor, who was until shortly after World War II also officially a living god. Although his aides attempt to put General MacArthur into a straightjacket of protocol for the meeting with the emperor at the end of the film, both the general and the emperor are off sufficient maturity and perspective to disabuse themselves of the protocols and focus on the truly important stuff. To discern the petty from the profoundly important is a key feature of upper-echelon leadership.


The entire essay is at “The Emperor