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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

The Consequences of Unethical Leadership … and Followership

Ann Skeet and John Pelissero

Karl DeBlaker/Associated Press

Ann Skeet (@leaderethics) is the senior director of leadership ethics and John Pelissero (@1pel) is a senior scholar of government ethics, both with the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University.

The United States has been witness to four years of Donald Trump’s erratic, self-serving, and unethical leadership. Many have objected to his leadership style as unbecoming of an individual who serves as President of the country. But large numbers of citizens and leaders have embraced, tolerated, or enabled even the lowest of his low behavior. And millions voted for his reelection.

The consequences of Trump’s rhetoric and his followers’ actions manifested themselves in the nation’s capital on January 6, 2021. An insurrection, fomented by the president of our country, led to an attack on our elected representatives in Congress as they performed their constitutionally-directed duty to review the certified votes of the Electoral College. One woman lost her life as a direct result of the violence, and three others perished in its midst.

This was an attempted coup of a legitimately elected president. In normal times—times when norms are adhered to—these acts by a violent mob would have been met with condemnation by all leaders who respect the constitution and rule of law. But not in these times.

Republican congressional leaders have enabled Trump’s unethical behavior for years. Many have engaged in the same lying, misinformation, and inciting of Trump followers, preventing an orderly transition of government. They have placed their own perceived political interests, ahead of the public interests they are charged with protecting. The impact has been to stoke distrust in the institutions, processes, and public servants who uphold democracy.

Trump has been lying about a rigged election even before it occurred. Since his losses of the popular and Electoral College votes, he has focused his time, not on a peaceful transition, but on fomenting doubt in the electoral outcome. As courts consistently rejected his unfounded claims of election fraud and attempts to overrule the sanctity of state elections, he urged other Republicans to support his attacks on the will of the voters. While Trump litigated, the nation has experienced cybersecurity hacks disrupting the delivery of healthcare during a global pandemic and disrupting commerce. The nations’ vaccine rollout has been stilted and sloppy.

Social media companies have clung to their claims of neutrality while allowing inaccurate reports to confuse voters and muddy the informational waters that all of us rely on to make decisions in our own lives and in our organizations. By doing so, they have placed short-term profits ahead of the long term values their enterprises could contribute if they protected their most important asset, their users’ trust.

And individual voters have rationalized supporting politicians up and down the ballot by narrowing their field of vision to their own individual needs. Together, we have lost our understanding of the way we all benefit from the common good, and how we each contribute to it.

Trump must be accountable for the sedition he has led. We have constitutional systems to address this and they should be implemented immediately. Leaders acting ethically now will have both courage and competence to act.

On January 6, the peaceful transfer of power was breached, people were injured and four died in the assault on the capital, our national security was risked—due to the tolerance of the words and actions of a reckless president—and those who enabled him. A day of infamy, yes, but also one of moral decay and the loss of civic virtue on par with the Ancient Romans.

Perhaps no single other task for leaders is as important as building community, bringing people together. We are influenced by, and influence others through, the relationships and encounters we have with other people. Donald Trump has not prioritized our communal experience or our relationships with one another, in spite of campaign jargon suggesting otherwise. He has failed to understand that what makes America great is the connection Americans invest in and value with one another.

It is time to tell the truth, to end unethical conduct by Trump and those who continue to follow him. Their actions have had terrible consequences for our democracy and its citizens. It is time for those who have led unethically to face their own consequences.


Jan 15, 2021

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