By Linda Fisher Thornton
Quibbling about terminology –the words used to describe unethical behaviors as they are uniquely defined by different groups – just misdirects our attention away from some foundational, easy-to-spot signs of unethical leadership.
With so much content available online, it is easier than ever to get a read on a leader’s ethics. Using reliable sources, we can fairly quickly assess a person’s behavior and the impact it has on others. Some believe that ethics is too complex to be readily assessed, but the research agrees in a number of important areas.
The five behaviors that follow are hallmarks of unethical leadership. Spotting any one of them is all that is needed to identify unethical leadership in action.
5 Hallmarks of Unethical Leadership
1. SERVES SELF FIRST
- Cares about self-interest more than other-interest. Values the spotlight and looks for ways to present self as better than others.
- Looks for quick wins without considering their long-term harmful impact. Sees self as above the rules that apply to others.
- Seeks the upper hand rather than working with others collaboratively.
- Overly concerned about being taken advantage of and stays on the offensive.
2. HARMS OTHERS THROUGH NEGATIVE INTERPERSONAL BEHAVIOR
- Makes power and control more important than respect and civility.
- Doesn’t honor boundaries of expected interpersonal behavior.
- Uses words or actions that harm – threatens, belittles, blames, name calls, shames, physically or emotionally harms others.
- Reactive. Doesn’t think through or doesn’t care about the possible impacts of words used. Defends right to say whatever comes to mind.
3. INVITES OTHERS TO TAKE ACTIONS THAT HARM
- Communicates in threats to get a reaction with or without the intention to follow through. Relies on fear to gain the upper hand.
- Welcomes behaviors that harm from others and may see them as validating the leader’s own behaviors that harm.
- Stirs up conflict and/or incites violence.
- Refuses to apologize when others complain about being harmed, which creates the appearance of condoning harmful behavior from others.
4. FAILS TO RESPECT DIFFERENCES
- Divides people into good and bad categories or “in” and “out” groups and treats them accordingly.
- Uses negative labels to isolate and divide people.
- Treats some groups of people who are different as objects, less than human, less than equal, dangerous or needing to be isolated.
- Claims to respect differences because of having worked with a few people who are not “like me.”
5. DEFLECTS RESPONSIBILITY
- Ignores expected leadership and forges own path that takes a detour around ethics. Looks for ways to avoid difficult but important leadership roles or tasks and take shortcuts, believing the ends justify the means.
- Uses name-calling and blaming to deflect attention from bad decisions or ethical mistakes.
- Avoids transparency, withholds information.
- Doesn’t accept accountability for ethics, and extends the same exception to other insiders who make ethical mistakes, saying they’ve done nothing wrong.
5 Hallmarks of Ethical Leadership (In Contrast)
- SERVES OTHERS BEFORE SELF
- SUPPORTS OTHERS THROUGH POSITIVE INTERPERSONAL BEHAVIOR
- AVOIDS HARM
- SHOWS RESPECT TO EVERYONE
- TAKES FULL RESPONSIBILITY
We can do an exhaustive study of ethical theory and talk all day about what different ethics terms mean, but I believe it’s much more productive to look for these five signs of unethical leadership. When choosing leaders in any setting, see how many hallmarks of unethical leadership you can spot.
Unethical leaders may look good on paper, but be careful. They can inflict tremendous long-term damage on people, groups and organizations. For the best outcomes, choose leaders that exhibit the 5 Hallmarks of Ethical Leadership.
Unleash the Positive Power of Ethical Leadership
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