Ethical Leadership: Why is It So Difficult?

Why is it so difficult?Enron. Lehman Brothers. Congressional Scandals. We could fill an entire volume with examples of dishonest, unethical leadership. Its prevalence in business and politics is astounding. So, what’s the real issue? Is it that our ethical standards are set too high to be reasonably achievable? Or are our leadership expectations merely so low that we inadvertently promote and/or elect individuals with low morale standards to leadership roles? Or, alternatively, does mere acceptance of a top leadership role inherently bring with it too many temptations for unethical behavior?

Absolute power corrupts absolutely, according to British historian and moralist, Lord Acton.

I’ve been asked to fill in for a colleague in teaching a course in ethical leadership for the next several weeks. And the focus of our discussions will be on establishing a framework to guide ethical decision making and action by leaders. Moving forward, our students will be future leaders (as adult learners, some already hold such roles in their work organizations). They will advise leaders. And they will certainly evaluate the actions of those leaders with whom they interact (as we all do). So, a framework is a good start….but what else is needed?

The problem lies not in the establishment of an ethical framework for leadership. Rather, an academic discussion is simply not enough. For power NOT to corrupt, as Lord Acton believed, we need the following four elements employeed:

1) Ethical Training – It’s no longer sufficient to have ethical leadership courses taught merely in professional schools. Ethics need to be instilled into all levels of academic training. Undergraduate programs need to require these as a fundamental aspect of their core curricula. Professional programs (business, law, medicine, psychology, etc.) need to continue to expand upon their existing ethical training to those up and coming new leaders in their professions.

2) Expanded Professional Ethics Standards – The American Medical Association (AMA). Bar associations. The American Psychological Association (APA). There are plenty of professional organizations that do already have ethical principles and guidelines which govern the behavior of their members. Similar principles need to be developed and instilled as a key part of a profession’s culture in all professional circles.

3) Environment Specific Coaching – Issues of ethical behavior need to take a front-row seat in every coaching and mentoring conversation. Coaching presents a key opportunity to talk about specific ethical situations or dilemmas in a way that encourages collective problem-solving and leadership confidence moving forward.

4) Accountability Systems – Every organization must formalize its systems and process for ensuring ethical leadership. This includes increased ethical oversight by corporate boards, enhanced up and down dialogue (in a safe, yet effectively constructive environment) throughout the organization regarding ethical issues, increased use of ethical considerations in hiring and promoting leaders, and an agreed upon method for ensuring unethical actions are address and corrected (even if that means removing someone from a key leadership position).

The issue of ethics isn’t one that can remain a squishy, delicate, or merely academic exercise. For organizations (and society) to move forward in a productive, ethically responsible and profitable manner (not merely financially), increased focus and action to strengthening ethical cultures in business and politics is needed. And while we’ll never reach a purely ethical level of leadership behavior, the march toward ever increasingly ethical behavior is one that will forever be worth endeavoring.

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