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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Impeachment Brings New Ethical Dilemmas to Our Leaders, and to Voting Public

Adam Schiff at impeachment trial.

Adam Schiff at impeachment trial.

Ann Skeet

Photo Credit: J. Scott Applewhite, The Associated Press

Ann Skeet is the senior director of Leadership Ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. Views are her own.

The United States just completed its third impeachment trial in its 244-year history. The dilemmas leaders face in impeachment, therefore, haven’t come up often, to say the least. These challenges are very real for our nation’s leaders, though.


For the president, governing with low approval ratings presents its own challenge, as the ratings are often seen as evidence of the mandate the president currently holds. In a democracy, it’s sort of equivalent to report cards between elections. Accomplishing goals when ratings are low and an impeachment trial is underway is especially hard.

There are a few practices a leader whose hold on his position is tenuous—as the president’s was at the time of his impeachment hearing—can deploy to maintain an ethical leadership stance. Encouraging ethical conduct might seem like a no brainer, but many leaders become less transparent and less likely to share the motivations behind the decisions they’re making when under fire. If the leader relaxes standards for ethics while his own are being questioned, the effects can be serious and lasting, as unethical behavior begins to be rationalized and mimicked, both by those comfortable with the person in leadership at the time and by those who are not.

The best advice a leader under fire can take is to play his position relentlessly. This is always central to ethical leadership, but when the position is in question, it is crucial. Demonstrating that the leader understands his role, and accepts the appropriate checks and balances in place to secure it, is actually a sign of leadership strength and a commitment to ethics. In a corporate setting, the equivalent is how a CEO under siege works with his board and accepts their shared decision-making as necessary governance, as a helpful balance to the CEO’s role. In government, a person being questioned and tested typically fares best in the long run by remaining focused on the duties of his position while allowing the process to check his fitness for office to unfold without interference.

At such moments, some leaders recognize that they don’t have the fortitude, patience, or desire to sit through a process that may draw out. In those instances, resignation is an ethical option.

Chief Justice

The chief justice of the Supreme Court presides in impeachment trials. He has a fundamental challenge many talented leaders face. Because of his expertise and role, he is being asked to do more than one job at a time. With two positions to fulfill and be true to, he faces unique challenges in prioritizing his duties and, most likely, even his self-care. If I’m presiding in Senate until 1:00 a.m. but need to be back on the bench with the Supreme Court justices the next morning, am I well-rested enough to effectively reason? And what obligation do I have, while presiding over the impeachment trial, to insure that the deliberators, the senators, are also well enough rested to reason well?

As with the president, the chief justice can lean on encouraging ethical behavior, as Chief Justice Roberts did in his citation of pettifoggery during President Trump’s hearing, and he can also stay relentlessly focused on his role. Note that in this same example, he reminded everyone that the Senate is one of the largest deliberative bodies in the world. He is clarifying the Senate’s role in this trial—to deliberate—to engage in long and careful consideration.


For the senators who participated in the trial, the dilemmas were varied, depending on their standing with their own electorate and the reputation they have within the body. Known moderates felt the pressures of a nation’s eyes upon them for any signal of what they are thinking. Known party loyalists struggled with whether or not their allegiance lies with their party or their duties as a senator. Those facing re-election felt the time pressure of campaign season upon them. They begin to ask themselves questions like, “How effective can I be if I fail to regain my office in the next election?” It’s a reasonable question.

All elected officials and especially those in moments like these, struggle with a fundamental dilemma of representative government. Do I vote as my constituents want or as I feel is in the best interests of the people I serve and the oath I have taken? These do not line up neatly to be the same thing all the time. Representation is a nuanced skill. An individual votes, but the weight of that vote is always influenced by the other votes in the collective body. 

What does being a good member of the Senate mean as a team member? If I have had a lifelong friendship with the majority leader, do I owe him fealty in this moment. Must I vote as he votes? Relationships built on trust are fundamental to ethical cultures. So too is the respect for each individual’s moral autonomy. What happens when these two very important good things are in conflict with one another? When we arrive at a moment when we must choose between two good things, we can be sure we have an ethical dilemma on our hands.

The house managers have borne a special responsibility to their body, the House of Representatives. Members of this body are the most directly elected officials in Congress, serving smaller districts and facing elections more frequently. In this sense we infer they have a greater responsibility to those people directly. 

Is it any different than the position senators fulfill? When it comes to impeachment, the roles were carefully divided between the House and Senate and they are different. One body decides there is something to look into. The other does the looking. Did the two bodies play their positions?

Speaker of the House

The Speaker of the House, having provided her leadership in the drafting of the articles, the Speaker had no position to play in the trial itself. Her most important task related to the trial was picking the people she felt could best represent the House’s thinking on the articles of impeachment. 

House Managers

Each house manager became a storyteller in the trial. How they divvied up the remarks, the order in which they spoke, all required a balance between the implications for the individual representative and the trial. What if one manager covers a more unpopular aspect of the charges and is later not elected because of it? How do you fairly determine which house manager covers the politically riskier aspects of the charge being made?

Voting Public

And what about us, the voters? What role do we have in an impeachment trial? Democracy is predicated on an informed electorate that participates. Do we know the issues? Are we engaging in democracy right? It was designed as a full participation sport. We all have a position. Have we let our senator know what ours is? In this day and age of email and social media, it’s remarkably easy to do.

Government exists to serve the common good. Is that being considered in the viewpoints you are hearing from members of Congress in this historical moment? If it’s not, what are you going to do about it? My advice for voters who want to practice ethical leadership is the same as it is for everyone else. Encourage ethical conduct. And play your position.

Feb 11, 2020

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