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Is Being a Leader Inherently Unethical?

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If you review the various major models of leadership out there a glaring hole becomes rapidly evident, and that is the relative lack of ethics as a trait, skill or critical behavior of leadership. In a cross section of studies reviewed by Peter Northouse (2010) on leadership traits and characteristics, only one major review (Kirkpatrick and Locke, 1991) out of six, listed integrity or ethics as an important defining characteristic of leadership. Roughly the same results occur when other leadership models are reviewed including those that focus on leadership skills or style, a situational characteristics approach to leadership, a contingency theory or path-goal theory approach, or exchange based approaches to leadership. Only models describing transformational leadership and authentic leadership seem to have substantial ethical or moral components to them. Since the development of most of these theories is driven by data-based experiments, it leads one to questions why ethical behavior does not show up in so many of the major approaches to studying and classifying leadership.

That finding is in stark contrast to what you would find if you just asked a group what characteristics they want in their leadership, (let’s start with the folks in Egypt for instance and ask what they think about corruption), and would certainly be at odds with the vast majority of competency models that exist in corporations for defining the skill sets needed for their leadership as well as it’s prominence in performance management systems and 360 surveys which assess leadership. One Fortune 20 firm in their management competency model caveats the whole thing with *****all always done with the highest integrity*****, another starts off their competency listing with a very strong statement about ethical behavior and on and on.  So there seems to be a substantial gap between many of the influential models of leadership and what is actually happening in the organizational world.

Some of the leadership theories seem to get at ethics tangentially, for instance that a leader needs to take into account what followers desire and what their personal goals are as they set organizational goals, and by taking those follower goals into account they are acting ethically. That also seems to miss the mark, as most leaders in organizations have a vision of where they want the organization to go and while they may ask for input and help in fine tuning the tactics to get there, the leaders are often hired specifically for their vision and are paid big bucks to implement those visions. So leaders are influencing followers to do things their way and to buy into their vision without having a significant say in exactly what that vision is. Does all this add up to leadership being inherently unethical? At least as far as these definitions are commonly used?

The purpose of a theoretical model is to bring order or structure to the phenomena that surround us. Those phenomena can be observed directly, indirectly or they can be hypothesized. People have a natural tendency to build models, as it is a hardwired into our brains as a mechanism by which we cope with and process the vast amounts of information that impinge upon us every day. One common use of models in everyday life is to speed decision-making by reducing information processing time. Some people build useful and accurate models and some build models that are based on flawed assumptions, poor information, bias, bigotry, or worse.  When people build models that they use in day-to-day activities, they are called heuristics or rules-of-thumb.

“Its 20° F outside and something is falling from the sky? Could be snow or sleet, likely not rain, and in any case it may be slippery driving out there this morning.” Those assumptions about icy conditions when it is below 32° F and precipitating are based on a model that we each have in our heads about driving conditions as they relate to temperature and precipitation or moisture. We use the available information within the context of our model to make predictions and to guide our behavior.

“When you meet a human being, the first distinction you make is ‘male or female?’ and you are accustomed to making that distinction with unhesitating certainty.” – Sigmund Freud

You make that male/female distinction with unhesitating certainty because of the heuristics that you have regarding which body shapes, facial characteristic etc. are classified as a woman and which are classified as a man. When those heuristics are thrown off, you end up spending a much greater amount of time making your judgment and there are those, who, when their heuristics are thrown off become decidedly uncomfortable.

Most organizational members, using their own heuristics, would not hesitate much in classifying a leader’s specific behaviors as being ethical or not in their view, using an “ethics – I know it when I see it” kind of approach. Yet the definition of ethics and the specific behavior of what is ethical and what is not can be exceeding difficult to get everyone within an organization to agree upon, as people view ethics through different lenses, depending on where they sit within the organization. (Jolton & Saltzman 2008)

Beyond every day heuristics, models in a more scientific sense tend to include or be useful as:

  • A formal statement of a problem, which if done well will require clarity about what the different variables and parameters in the model are, and how they are interrelated.
  • A guide in identifying knowledge gaps, suggesting a focus for where more information needs to be obtained.
  • Gaining theoretical insights which define the interconnections between various factors extending our intuition.
  • Quantitative testing. Quantitative predictions will not only say that X will increase, but how much.
  • Interpretation. When measuring the phenomena of the model directly is not possible, it may be possible to measure the outcomes or surrogates of the phenomena and then to use that as an interpretation of the model. (Warning, this is a source of potential bias. For instance in social models where assumptions are made that certain outcomes are due to the wrong underlying variables but are not actually causally related.)
  • Forecasting and prediction. Prediction tends to be more rigorous than forecasting. For instance, I could forecast that the sun will come up in the east in the morning, which is based on an understanding of how the earth rotates. But if I can predict that the sun will come up at 5:41a.m. if I am at 42° N Latitude and 73° W Longitude, that is a prediction based on a deep understanding of the Earth’s movements including rotation, revolution, and precession.

Spinoza writing about ethics in the mid-1600’s, was afraid to publish his work during his lifetime. It was only after his death that his friends published it and then identified him only by his initials, given that his views towards ethics were considered so heretical. What was heretical about his writings? In three of his propositions below you can see that what he was essentially saying about ethics is that it is dependent on the person and the environment. In other words, one person’s view of what is ethical or unethical will vary from another’s simply because of the different natures and circumstances between them.

Proposition 29:

“No individual thing whose nature is quite different from ours can either assist or check our power to act, and nothing whatsoever can be either good or evil for us unless it has something in common with us.”

Proposition 30:

“No thing can be evil for us through what it possesses in common with our nature, but in so far as it is evil for us, it is contrary to us.”

Proposition 31:

“In so far that a thing is in agreement with our nature, to that extent it is necessarily good.”

Baruch Spinoza, 1677

Given that, one explanation for the lack of prominence of ethics as a critical leadership characteristic in models, may have more to do with the varying nature of the definition of ethics and less to do with the importance of ethics in and of itself.  The common wisdom, as evidenced in organization after organization, is that ethics is critical to successful leadership. Perhaps by furthering the research on the definition of ethics or how ethics breaks down into commonly agreed to subcomponents, we would begin to see it showing up more strongly in the research models of leadership. The ultimate goal of a better definition would be to predict to what degree how much a leadership that is stronger on ethics would outperform those that are not.


Jolton, J. & Saltzman, J. 2008, Preventative Maintenance: How Industrial/Organizational Psychologists Can Build and Maintain an Ethical Culture, SIOP annual convention

Northouse, P.G. 2010, Leadership, 5th Edition, Sage Publications

Spinoza, B., 1982, Ethics and Selected Letters, translated by Samuel Shirley, Hackett Publishing Company, Indianapolis

Turchin P. 1998. Quantitative analysis of movement. Sinauer Associates, Sunderland MA.

© 2011 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.

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Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

February 15, 2011 at 9:15 pm

3 Responses

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  1. Jeffrey,

    Great stuff! Progress in science traditionally follows the path of finding common ground in building fact-based knowledge and extending rational observation through hypothesis. Realizing that observational interpretation is inherently fraught with danger, rational quantitative approaches, such as statistics, are often applied as a gauge. From this, rational sets of facts are established up-front … most of the time. Without these set of common facts on which to build models, rational interpretation becomes impossible. Learning ceases. Bias poisons the process and we are reduced to advocacy, and sometimes much worse. Leadership in politics and in some business, these days, seems about advocacy. Advocacy speaks not to learning or searching for common ground, but advancement of the cause. Human beings, in our religious practice (since forever), our politics and in some glaring cases, I’m sorry to say, our practice of science, have devalued ourselves to positions of advocacy. Principled leaders, of course, advocate strongly, but are committed, or become committed through learning and growth, to bring us all along in the process of transformational change. Ethical leadership requires transparency and straight-forward honesty. THAT’S HARD WORK and many times, career limiting. Principled leaders become transformational when they become about learning and growing and owning the process. They are true agents of change, and history shows us that agents of change don’t last that long. So, it just might be that ethical leadership is not about self-preservation, it’s about selflessness.

    George Cernigliaro

    February 17, 2011 at 8:21 am

  2. Jeffrey,

    The key is accountability. Models and statements are meaningless without action. What everyone should be demanding are organizations which withold bonus money or takes punitive action against leaders who violate the boundaries of ethics. Instead we have far too many anecdotes to the contrary. For example:

    (CNN) April 4, 2011 5:52 a.m. EDT —

    Declaring 2010 “the best year in safety performance in our company’s history,” Transocean Ltd., owner of the Gulf of Mexico oil rig that exploded, killing 11 workers, has awarded its top executives hefty bonuses and raises, according to a recent filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

    That includes a $200,000 salary increase for Transocean president and chief executive officer Steven L. Newman, whose base salary will increase from $900,000 to $1.1 million, according to the SEC report. Newman’s bonus was $374,062, the report states.

    Newman also has a $5.4 million long-term compensation package the company awarded him upon his appointment as CEO in March 2010, according to the SEC filing.

    The latest cash awards are based in part on the company’s “performance under safety,” the Transocean filing states.


    Something tells me there is both a violation of ethics and a dismal lack of leadership on display here.

    Rick Pannemann

    April 5, 2011 at 9:42 am

  3. Reblogged this on Jeffrey Saltzman's Blog and commented:

    During this time of uncertainty, it is worth examining some of our basic underlying assumptions about how the world works and how people interpret that world. This piece is about ethics.

    Jeffrey M. Saltzman

    November 14, 2016 at 4:45 am

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