Ethical Leadership - How is it Defined?

Ethics is a Choice

Recently I had lunch with a high capacity leader and asked him the question, “What is leadership to you?” He didn’t even blink before saying, “Leadership is all about character.” I have a great deal of respect for this leader and he has shaped hundreds, if not thousands, of people’s lives. I was not only stunned but also thrilled at his candid and immediate response. What is the relationship between ethics and leadership?

In the past we have witnessed ethical leadership collapses in both the financial and energy industries with Bernie Madoff’s demise and BP’s incomprehensible oil spill tragedy. Madoff was ruthless in his pursuit of wealth. His leadership was apparently driven by a lack of character so therefore being ethical was never a consideration. BP’s CEO, Tony Hayward, is allegedly blaming his Swiss contractor for the disaster. Character screams for a voice of truth, but who is willing to listen?

People do follow leaders without character for various reasons. They may have a character blind spot themselves or perhaps they are just naïve and get taken advantage of by toxic leaders. If I asked you what leadership is, can you define it clearly in your mind? Can you do it with one word? If you can, I predict it will have something to do with integrity or honesty. The reality is that all authentic leadership is destined to be ethical leadership.

The etymological basis of the word ethics is the Greek word ethos, meaning habitual or customary conduct. Ethics and ethical are often used synonymously with morality and moral, as when reference is made to the ethics or morality of a person or group, or to their ethical or moral values. Ethical leadership demands that leaders play by a set of principles that are both universal and innately understood. Problems may arise when leaders get distracted by score keeping and rule interpretation. Rules are set in place to offer guidance to the principles in which we believe, such as honesty. Honesty as a universal principle has never been questioned, but is frequently compromised and justified.

Xcellero Leadership’s conviction about leadership is that we lead from who we are; therefore, character is essential to be an effective leader. No character, no lasting impact. If people can’t trust the messenger, they won’t trust the message, so being a person of character and integrity is imperative. Why then, do toxic leaders get to such high levels of success both in terms of fame and fortune? Perhaps it has something to do with the reflection of who we want to follow. Maybe followers of such people are intoxicated with the same sort of desires and forgo the consequences for momentary pleasure.

Ethical leadership is non-negotiable. Leaders with any value will align themselves with an ethos based character. The essence of character is one of those things. If you have to ask what character is, you are over complicating it. One of my mentors has a saying that is germane to this topic: “There is never a wrong time to do the right thing.” Isn’t it time for leaders to lead from truth and love rather than from fear of disapproval and need for greed?