By: Ramy Youssef
Ethics are the moral principles that govern a person’s behaviour or choices. The concept has been deliberated for millennia and the definition remains largely subjective, yet the role ethics plays in human lives is rarely debatable. I believe ethics are the embodiment of an individual’s set of values, the things we hold dearest. Values would be things like equality, freedom, and justice. Ethics would be principles based on values, and using the same example would be treating people fairly, allowing everyone the right to express their opinion, and fostering a meritocracy.
When looking at the term ethical leadership, the choice of ‘leadership’ vs. ‘management’ is quite telling; especially that ethical leadership is discussed extensively in management literature. This would call for a brief pause to highlight the difference between management and leadership.
Perhaps the most succinct differentiation I came across is Peter Drucker’s,
“Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.”
Thus, one could argue that the differentiator for leadership is making choices on ‘what’ needs to be done rather than ‘how’ it should be done.
Hence, it is understandable why from a terminology standpoint ‘leadership’, which is about making choices is wedded to ‘ethical’, which is about the principles guiding these choices.
Although the concern with ethics and leadership dates back ages, and the myriad studies from Greek philosophy to Confucius and Sun Tzu came up with different thoughts, there is a broad alignment on multiple aspects of ethical leadership such as integrity and character.
Until recently, some if not most, organizations believed that a key part of a leader’s role is to ensure compliance; i.e. acting within legal and contractual boundaries.
I believe this view left out a key aspect of leadership; the followers. You can’t be a true leader if you have no followers to lead. These followers have needs and are constantly looking for role models to follow. Accordingly, one of the important roles of the leader is to ‘live’ by what is acceptable and hence showcasing morality is a key role of the leader as one who provides for the needs of their followers.
Although a lot of literature discusses ethical leadership and attempts to systematize it, the premise of ethical leadership still hinges significantly on the personality of the leader. Focusing on doing what’s right remains largely a personal choice. Testing decisions on ethical grounds remains an individual act.
Japan or The Emirates? To answer this question with a yes entails a belief in universal values, the grounds for universal ethics. We are still years away from such a universal value system that entails those ethics would remain, at least in the near future, intertwined with cultures and acceptable norms which are largely region-specific.
Some argue that one of the most important traits of ethical leadership is the respect that the leader gives to his/her followers. Going back to the point about living the values and showcasing ethical behaviour, I would argue that treating people with respect on its own is not enough. I believe a good ethical leader lives by their values on a daily basis, thereby modelling them for others. The term “leading by example” comes to mind. A good leader is trusted and the simple shortcut to earn trust is consistency. Consistently ‘walking the talk’ and making choices founded on ethical choices is the starting point for followers to ‘trust’ that what they see is what they get and that their leader is practicing what they preache.