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Practice of Ethical Leadership

Ann Skeet, senior director of Leadership Ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, describes specific things leaders can do to show ethical leadership, including creating community, good conduct, "playing your position," clarifying culture, and ethical systems design.



A model for exploring an ethical leadership practice

Ann Skeet

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

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 use various paradigms to determine the right actions that would lead to positive ethical behavior. There are six ways leaders reinforce ethical leadership in organizations across all sectors, taken together they create a model for exploring an ethical leadership practice. 

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.  

I think of these additional five actions as a practice of ethical leadership—a way of building into our lives actions that, when coupled with our character and values, come together to make a positive difference when we lead.  

1. 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.

2. Encouraging Ethical Conduct

Such leaders are comfortable actively encouraging ethical conduct. They promote 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.

3. Disciplined in Their Role 

The most effective ethical leaders play their position relentlessly. They 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.

4. 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, allowing others in the organization to determine whether their personal values and the organization’s align.

5. 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’ purpose and goals.

Apr 12, 2017

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