The Boundaries of “Unethical Leadership”
How do we define unethical leadership?
While there are hundreds of stories that illustrate examples of unethical leadership in the news, those stories taken together still do not clearly define the boundaries of what unethical leadership includes.
To be relevant, our definition of “unethical leadership” has to be broad enough to include the many ways that leaders behave unethically. To guide ethical leadership behavior, it must also be specific enough to provide boundaries for leadership behavior and decision making.
Defining Unethical Leadership
Our definition must be broad enough and specific enough to define what society considers to be moral behavior. Brown and Mitchell, in their 2010 Business Ethics Quarterly article Ethical and Unethical Leadership: Exploring New Avenues for Future Research , define unethical leadership as “behaviors conducted and decisions made by organizational leaders that are illegal and/or violate moral standards, and those that impose processes and structures that promote unethical conduct by followers.”
Using that definition, we quickly find ourselves trying to determine exactly what the “moral standards” are that ethical leaders are expected to follow. According to Wikianswers.com, “A moral leader is an individual who governs or makes decisions based on fairness and ethical guidelines, rather than personal, political, or financial considerations.” (wiki.answers.com, What is a moral leader?)
Being unwilling or unable to think beyond our own personal interests and our own personal gain can lead to unethical leadership, but not all unethical leadership decisions are made intentionally.
Types of Unethical Leadership
Unethical leadership appears in a wide variety of forms and happens for a variety of reasons. Sometimes unethical leadership is motivated by greed and involves harming others to make more profit.
“Dark side research has uncovered a variety of unethical leader acts. Various terms have evolved in the literature, such as abusive supervision (Tepper, 2000), supervisor undermining (Duffy et al., 2002), toxic leadership (Frost, 2004), and tyrannical leadership (Ashforth, 1994). Research shows these leaders are oppressive, abusive, manipulative, and calculatingly undermining (Tepper, 2007). Their actions are perceived as intentional and harmful, and may be the source of legal action against employers (Tepper, 2007). Therefore, destructive leader behavior is unethical.
Unethical leadership, however, transcends beyond the leaders’ own behavior. In seeking to accomplish organizational goals, leaders can encourage corrupt and unethical acts within their organizations.”
Michael E. Brown and Marie S. Mitchell, Ethical and Unethical Leadership: Exploring Avenues for Future Research, Business Ethics Quarterly
Unethical leadership may also happen when leaders fail to take the time to consider the impact of their choices on the many stakeholders involved. Decisions with unintended consequences can be just as harmful as intentionally unethical decisions.
“We need to understand the ethical challenges faced by imperfect humans who take on the responsibilities of leadership, so that we can develop morally better leaders, followers, institutions, and organizations. At issue is not simply what ethical and effective leaders do, but what leaders have to confront, and, in some cases overcome, to be ethical and effective. “
Joann B. Ciulla, “Ethics and Leadership Effectiveness,” Book Chapter in The Nature of Leadership. Eds. J. Antonakis, A. T. Cianciolo, and R. J. Sternberg.
Leaders are dealing with a high degree of complexity, yet lack a detailed road map to guide their process. As we develop leaders for success in the future, we must focus on the ethical elements of their work, and help them work through the many difficult choices they will have to make.
The Complexities of Unethical Leadership:
Unethical People Thrive on Ignorance of Others by Gordon Clogston, leadershipcourseware.com
Examples of Unethical Behavior in the Workplace by Victoria Duff, Demand Media at smallbusiness.chron.com
Spotting the Unethical Leader in 2010 by Dr. Daryl Green, e-zinearticles.com
Systems Thinking: Twisted Leadership Safety Ethics by Dr. James Leemann, ishn.com
Ethical Leadership Culture: The Case of the Dissenting Senior Leader by Linda Fisher Thornton, LeadinginContext.com
Moral Leadership Standards:
The Moral Foundations of Ethical Leadership by Hester and Killian, in the Journal of Value Based Leadership, valuesbasedleadershipjournal.com
Moral Leadership as Shaped by Human Evolution by Paul Lawrence, blogs.hbr.org
The Difficulties of Being a Moral Leader in an Unjust World Speech by Jim Sterba, University of Notre Dame, online at scu.edu
Leading for Ethical Performance by Linda Fisher Thornton, LeadinginContext.com