A model for exploring an ethical leadership practice

Ethical leadership creates an environment where the goals and values of people working in the organization align with its mission. In the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics’ Framework for Ethical Decision Making, people are encouraged to consider various paradigms to determine the actions that lead to positive, ethical behavior. There are six ways leaders reinforce ethical leadership in organizations across all sectors. They encompass both the aspects of “being” and “doing” by someone in a formal leadership position. Taken together—character and actions–they create a model for exploring an ethical leadership practice.

1.Modeling: Character and Values

The first way is simply how the leader shows up in the world, revealing her character and values to others.  This is a fundamental element contributing to how much impact she can have.  Regardless of what actions she takes, they will be received through the lens of what kind of person she is.  If she is perceived to be virtuous and to have strong moral character and integrity, the actions she takes will have more force than if someone with questionable character made them.

2. Creating Community 

Ethical leaders invest in creating community. They do this by using the organization’s mission and shared values as the cornerstone for decision making. They recognize and leverage the agreements between various stakeholders and reinforce their commitment to these agreements at key moments. They tell stories and model behaviors that contribute to a strong culture, by connecting to values reflected in the company.

3. Encouraging Ethical Conduct

Such leaders are comfortable actively encouraging and promoting awareness of ethical conduct at work. They focus on intent and action, and are alert to the traps that limit humans’ abilities to behave well.  Falsely identifying decisions as monetary or business decisions when they are ethical ones, working too quickly to allow for moral reasoning, or asking people to act when they are tired or scared are all tendencies that can lead to ethical missteps.  Leaders can hedge against these very human tendencies a variety of ways, signaling by questions asked, using inquiry to highlight virtues sought, and by reframing issues so the ethical dilemmas within them are clearer.  Acting upon decisions requires good, old-fashioned courage at times and an alertness to the pitfalls of groupthink.

4. Being Disciplined in Their Role 

The most effective ethical leaders play their position relentlessly. People in formal leadership roles are charged with representing specific interests.  Formal leaders accept explicit responsibility for making course corrections if they identify an interest mismatch or conflict. Informal leaders are frequently identified because they implicitly accept similar responsibility even if it is not called for in the formal role they hold.  Both formal and informal leaders are mindful of the various and often conflicting roles they have in life and are disciplined to make decisions with heightened awareness to honor their role’s obligations. By clearly identifying decisions that can be made by individuals or should be made collaboratively, leaders help others in the organization exercise this same discipline and appreciate and honor the wisdom of decisions reached.

5. Clarifying Culture

In spite of effort and intentions, things go wrong. When they do, ethical leaders pause to clarify culture. At such times, they reinforce or revisit the organization’s mission and identify any gaps between stated and actual values, own the gaps and clear up confusion between policy and practice.  As the culture evolves and becomes more clear, others in the organization can determine whether their personal values and the organization’s values align.

6. Designing Ethical Systems

Leaders committed to such a practice accept responsibility for designing ethical systems in the organization that use goals, mission, and values to make decisions about compensation and other rewards, like promotions. Such leaders invest in individual and personal development. It is a part of their practice to grow their own knowledge and contribute beyond their own organization. Masters in this area contribute to design principles and standards in their industry or other relevant ecosystems.

It is useful to study a person’s ability to use these five levers of ethical leadership as one way to measure someone’s effectiveness as a leader.  People with strong character and the ability to put these practices to use are more likely to create organizations where the mission is clear and the values of the organization and the people working in it line up, contributing to longer, healthier relationships between organizations and the people connected to them and increasing the likelihood of fulfilling organizations’ purposes and goals.

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