Ethical Leadership

Peter G. Northouse’s Leadership is internationally considered as a standard introduction of leadership. One thing the book makes very clear is how many perspectives there are on leadership.

“Good” Leadership

One of those perspectives that is very high to my priorities list is the focus on ethics. While trying to have students and scholars engage for different project for the student ministry I worked for in Belgium, within our team we often discussed the lack of ethics focused classes in several disciplines. Economic and business oriented disciplines are not an exception here: efficiency and effectiveness are just much more important than the ethics of character and method.

Without taking an ethical dimension into concern both Hitler and Stalin could have been considered to be good leaders, but intuitively everyone senses there is something missing in this approach. Ethics are indispensable to be considered to be a good leader.

Good Behaviour

But how do you define ethical leadership? Or even more difficult: how do you measure it? Yes, you can define ethical leadership in terms of character features, but in reality no one really knows what goes on inside a person. However, what everyone can see is the behavioural dimension.

The Dutch scholars Karianne Kalshoven, Deanne N. Den Hartog and Annebel H.B. De Hoogh (The Leadership Quarterly 22, 2011) tried to translate the concept of ethical leadership to following, behavioural dimensions:

  • Fairness: Do not practice favouritism, treat others in a way that is right and equal, make principled and fair choices
  • Power sharing: Allow followers a say in decision making and listen to their ideas and concerns
  • Role clarification: Clarify responsibilities, expectations and performance goals
  • People orientation: Care about, respect and support followers
  • Integrity: Consistence of words and acts, keep promises
  • Concern for sustainability: Care about the environment and stimulate recycling

Though these dimensions will always be constraining in a certain way, they can help to have a somewhat comprehensive approach to ethical leadership. I find them a very helpful tool to grasp the ethics of leadership.

Wanting Ethics

At WooThemes we haven’t done surveys about ethical leadership. However, what is very striking to me is that chats with the different team leaders have shown a strong conviction about the importance of leadership ethics. Granted, conviction does not necessarily result in the appropriate behaviour, but it is an indispensable prerequisite for it.

Leadership ethics is not something that just happens. Although character can help, ethical leadership also requires intentional development. It needs to be part of the entire company culture. How are the leaders in your company doing?