Which of These Is Ethical Leadership?
March 20, 2013 7 Comments
By Linda Fisher Thornton
Which levels shown in the graphic below represent ethical leadership?
Is Just Following Laws Ethical Leadership?
The first level on the left, sidestepping laws and ethics codes, is clearly not ethical leadership. This self-focused, opportunistic approach to leadership represents a leader operating below the law or seeking loopholes for personal gain.
What about the second level, in the middle? Is complying with laws and ethics codes ethical leadership? When leaders and businesses operate below the level of laws and regulations, they are punished.
The punishment threshold, though, is definitely not the same as the level of ethical leadership that we need in organizations. If we settle for leadership at this level, we will be missing many other important aspects of ethical leadership that are well above the punishment threshold.
Following laws and regulations is just above the punishment threshold for ethical leadership.
Expectations are moving to a much higher level, a level at which we are expected to do much more. Look at the third level, the highest level of the graphic. Aren’t transparency, sustainability and honoring human rights now expected of all businesses? I believe they are, and there are other factors we need to consider that are not on this list. The minimum standard is gradually moving to a higher level as we better understand the impact of our choices on others in a global society.
There are more ways of interpreting ethical leadership than just the three shown in this graphic, but the graphic illustrates the point that leaders are interpreting “ethical leadership” at very different levels.
As we understand our global interdependence more clearly, the expectations for leading ethically will only increase. Aiming for the principled level of ethical leadership, the highest level, prepares us to meet our challenges as responsible global citizens.
Questions For Reflection
- Which of the three levels shown in the graphic best depicts my perception of what ethical leadership includes?
- How can I convey the message to those I lead that expectations for ethical leadership and ethical behavior are increasing?
- How will I systematically learn what I’ll need to know in order to respond to the higher expectations of ethical leaders?
- How will I share what I learn with others?
Linda Fisher Thornton is CEO of Leading in Context LLC, a leadership development consulting firm helping business leaders lead responsibly in a complex world. She is also Adjunct Assistant Professor of Leadership for the University of Richmond School of Professional and Continuing Studies. Linda was recently named one of the 2013 Top 100 Thought Leaders in Trustworthy Business Behavior by Trust Across America.
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