Ethics in Leadership

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This topic contains 28 replies, has 14 voices, and was last updated by  Ben Tornton 5 months, 1 week ago.

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  • #80425

    Why do leaders fail ethically when it is so obvious to the rest of us how they should act?

  • #80477

    Very often we see our leaders fail in their ethical values. Usually we look for an explanation of the leader’s behavior, not or an analysis of the moral status of what was done. What do you think about it?

  • #80475

    Amanda Blount

    Martha, It has taken me some time to respond to this because I wanted to be able to answer with a calm voice.

    If you google Iraq Contracting Fraud, or Kuwait Contracting Fruad, or just google GPC fraud you will see how many of my fellow upper level soldiers have let us down. They have chosen money over their ethics, dignity, families, friends, freedom, etc. It makes me sick. When I give contracting, or GPC classes, I tell the people in the room that if they ever do anything like this, I will visit them in jail often, just so I can point and laugh at them. My anger and stress level goes very high whenever I think of things like this. I have never been put in a position where someone offered me tons of money to trade for my future, but I hope I would choose the side of right.

    Then let’s look at our politicians. Feel free to google political fraud in TN. OH my gosh! Huge sting operation a few years ago! Again, makes me sick! Nice suits, nice cars, shaking hands, yet stealing money from the tax payers as quickly as possible. This is also why TN had a terrible health care system even before the Crash.

    I have no respect for these people.

    In any case — Nope — voice is not calm yet.

  • #80473

    Amanda, from your own words I can say “you are a honest person” living in a society full of people with lack of ethics. Probably you have the same issues in your work environment.

    Unfortunately, in any field we can find coworkers and leaders in powerful position who do not follow what they are preaching. In one of the books I read about Leadership I found the concept of “Transformational Leadership.” The author states the transformational leadership occurs when, in their interactions, people raise one another to higher levels of motivation and morality.” (Kouzes and Posner, The Leadership Challenge). Moral vales is the key.

    We have to have hope the members of the society be able to change. We have to find people we can trust on them because they follow in their personal life what they preach. As a human being we can make mistakes but those mistakes cannot be a chain of mistakes. After the first mistake, the leader has to re-evaluate his life and make a drastic change in his attitude and his values.

    I agree with you that we cannot have respect for those people. We have to work hard to change the myth that leadership is about position and power because leadership is about moral and ethical values. Leaders justify their mistakes using their position and power.

    Thank you for your comments. I found them very interesting. Have a great evening!

  • #80471

    Steve Ressler

    Some thoughts – power can corrupt and people think they can get away with anything. Stress of the job can also cloud judgment. And maybe it is they lack peers to discuss issues with – often you need a good friend or family to put you in check…Maybe they lack that.

  • #80469

    Reg Coppicus

    Leaders fail when they do not have the moral fibre to resist temptation. This can include simple padding an expense account, theft, or failure to do “right” by an employee. It boggles me.

    Many times I have spoken to people who say “I have an ethical question”. Usually this involves them being required to make a hard decision but they don’t want to make it, or more precisely, to exercise the leadership that they have been entrusted.

    Alternatively they are stuck making a decision they do not want to make OR are not allowed to make a decision they wish to make, both for selfish reasons. The selfishness becomes the failure of leadership in this case. The failure in ethics is hiding behind the ethics quesition when you know damn well what you should/should not do.

    Leadership = Ethical. Fail Ethical, then Fail Leadership. In that case no one will follow you. No followers = no Leader.

  • #80467

    Mike Thornton

    In the political arena, I picked-up the following somewhere. Not sure where but I like it.
    “There are politicians and then there are statesmen (or women). There are very few satesmen left.”

  • #80465


    I figure much of the public feels government leaders are biased towards servicing (or at least providing more quantitative services) to certain groups, and those groups chosen to be over-serviced are determined/influenced by campaign contributions provided to these “leaders”–top-level elected federal/state/local officials, who then control/supervise/order the duties of the powerless non-elected public servant. The non-elected–hierarchal “non-leaders”–are usually often whistle-blowers who disdain unethically illegal yet “mandated” service delivery situations, trying to right the above wrongs as best they can. Yet, in the end, these individuals become the TRUE ethical leaders–for they wind up being punished for taking an ethical stand to serve the public in a lawful, unbiased, evenhanded, honest way their bosses failed to/took an oath, to do.

  • #80463

    Tania Smiley

    Often, people with great technical or scientific knowledge and skills are promoted to positions in recognition of their service. Some of these have had little or no managerial experience, and without a mentor or ‘critical friend’ to help them stay on track, it is easy to follow the “this is how it’s done here” mentality of their superiors. I’ve found the best leaders are those who have been mentored (and continue to be mentored even at the peak of their career) by other great leaders – not Presidents or CEOs necessarily – sometimes the mailman or janitor that you started working with 20 years ago may be one of the great leaders and/or counsellors your encounter in your lifetime. Honesty, loyalty and genuine concern for co-workers are critical to great ‘leaders’ but they are not always the strongest traits of people who work their way into ‘leadership’ positions.

    Andrew makes a good point, what are the consequences for poor or ill-intentioned activities? Indeed, what are the consequences for lack of activity? Even officers in ‘leadership’ positions could be accused of suffering ‘presenteeism’ as opposed to being truly immersed in the business of delivering upon the expectations of their customers and co-workers.

    Great question Martha, I guess it all comes back to sharing expectations, I look forward to reading others’ responses.

    Tan ๐Ÿ™‚

  • #80461

    Amanda Blount

    Good point. There is another blog about a contract where contracted security employees were pushed to do illegal activities.

  • #80459

    Amanda Blount

    I am just a red neck girl who fell into a good life, so my Dad said some really country things, but one thing he lived by was this; “Listen to your gut, not your heart or your head. If you don’t need a bunch of pills to calm your stomach, then you are on the right track.”

    One other thing he said, which is right in-line with the Washington Post statement we are taught at every training, is “Don’t do anything you don’t want the preacher man announcing in church.”

    Contracting, updated version, “Don’t do anything that you don’t want on the front page of the Washington post.”

    *** Plus, I don’t look good in orange.***

  • #80457

    Amanda Blount

    Yes, great topic Martha! ๐Ÿ™‚

  • #80455

    Joshua joseph

    Lot of great comments posted here. For what it’s worth…I worked for a number of years as a researcher and consultant in the business ethics field…seriously. Observed a lot, read a lot and also headed up two national surveys on ethics in the workplace. I came at ethics by way of the social sciences and was focused on trying to understand the causes of ethical misconduct, rather than trying to understand what makes a person moral or what it means to be ethical (which are also very reasonable approaches).

    A couple of things I though were pretty interesting: First, people can often compartmentalize their ethics in ways I wouldn’t have expected. I’ve been amazed at how people that seem to be total moral failures in business or government can be viewed as pillars of their communities or churches or in their families. I think it’s because some people really do see business or their work as a different sphere where the ethical rules they learned at home don’t apply. It’s as if they re-calibrate their moral compasses downward in the workplace while keeping up their personal ethics.

    There’s also some very interesting and potentially heartening work on peer influence. Although a bad ethical environment, can influence some people to dull their ethical senses…even check them at the door (think the financial/accounting wizards at Enron), the opposite thing can happen in organizations that hold very high ethical standards. The classic case might be Johnson and Johnson and it’s response to the Tylenol poising scare many years ago now. But there are many other lesser-known companies that are able to maintain the kind of environments that make people want to raise the bar on their behavior, not lower it. And again, a lot of it has to do with what they believe their peers and leaders expect of them.

    Finally, I’d recommend a brilliant and challenging book by Reinhold Neibuhr for anyone interested in some deep but practical reading on morality and leadership. He makes a strong case that when a person acts in the role of the leader of a group, organization or nations – basically representing the interests of a larger set of people – that they cannot necessarily act morally the same way they would if they were only acting on their own behalf. I’m not sure I’d always agree, but his examples are compelling. None of this is meant to excuse the blatant and criminal behavior of the Enron’s of the world, or the regular moral failings we see far too often in leaders at all levels. But it is to also suggest that acting morally for leaders of an organization is not always as cut and dried as we might think.

  • #80453

    Amanda Blount

    Interesting that you did research on that path. I am working on my Thesis and I decided to head down the same path. The reason I did it this way, is because I believe everyone is born morally right, so what happens along the way that makes someone decide to not just steal money, but to work hard at it. Setting up dummy companies, opening various bank accounts, lying, moving schedules, etc. takes time and work. It isn’t like finding someone’s drawer open and walking by and stealing the money. To steal and take money the way the military people did in Kuwait and Iraq took time and hard work. I am sure these leaders lost sleep planning all of this, I am sure their minds were not on their jobs, and I am sure they were not always where they were supposed to be. So, not only did they steal and commit fraud, but they may have also put soldier’s lives at risk.

    These type of people have to say to themselves, “I am doing this ______ because I am stealing money from the Government.” At what point does this become ok in their head?

  • #80451

    Amanda Blount

    Thank you for the vote of confidence, but I hope I do as well as I hope if I am ever faced with a situation like this. We are all human, and if Colonels can fail the test, then possibly anyone can.

  • #80449

    Henry Brown

    Going to be somewhat contrary:

    Who is to say that the ethical behavior displayed by anyone is NOT what they believe to be ethical behavior. And because their beliefs don’t happen to match mine does that mean that they are failing ethically?

  • #80447

    Hi, Joshua, I enjoyed reading your statement. Incredible but you took me to do a tour around our families, the churches, government, private sector, neighborhood, etc. Unbelievable tour!
    Unfortunatelly, the external influences in the life of the human being make many changes, sometimes unexpected. Can we justify somebody stealing money because his son need a chemotheraphy?
    I consider the ethical and moral values can be affected for circumstances (professional or personal issues)and leaders failure the temptations because probably they did not have those values or because o his personal business and interests. Of course, I agree with your point of view that people in the role of leader of a group they can have double face in the way how they act as representing a large group or when they are representing themselves or their families. Those values are based on the circumstances in which the leader is acting. Great post!

  • #80445

    Hi, Tania, Your comment reminded me all those promotions in the government using the Peter Principle “promoting people to the third level of incompetence.” It is sad that you can get a promotion because somebody in the high level of authority is your friend or somebody with power recommend you. As a leader we have to have education, professional/career experience and experience as a mentor or coach to manage or supervise people. The mentality of “this is how its done here” is obsolete in a modern and structured society in which the changes and technology requiere a high level of improvement.
    I agree with your comment that we can learn from others including the janitor or mailman. Each person has an experience to share with us and we can learn from them.
    I believe the external influences can affect the human being ethical values but be poor or ill is not a justification to rob a bank or kill a woman to steal her purse. Usually at work in any organization, corporation or government we share the workplace environment with many people (from the top to the bottom) who are stealing time from the organization with their lazy attitude without to take care of their responsibilities for which they are receiving a check. Thank you for your comments!

  • #80443

    Hi, Henry, I like your point of view. It is true, we can not use our own concept of ethic behavior and apply it to everybody. As I mentioned in other comments the external influences can affect the human being’s ethical and moral values. I agree with you that my supervisor and I have different ethical behaviors but how my supervisor can agree with me if I am stealing the company? Do we have to accept the corruption based on our own point of view? How you will react if the man who is stealing your car displayed and consider right his ethical behavior?

  • #80441

    Hi, Steve! You have true points but I disagree with your idea that those who are the powerless non-elected public servant become the true ethical leaders. This is not a condition to be a true leader.
    Why I believe it is not true? because those people react based on the over-serviced or the campaign contributors (unethical action) looking for a solution bt their action is not a guarantee they are true leaders.

  • #80439

    Joshua joseph

    Very cool! If you’re interested, would be glad to point you to some lit. along these lines…not that I think you’ve got any shortage of things to read ๐Ÿ™‚ My thesis was on ethical decision making in the workplace and how coworkers’ ethics can influence moral behavior.

  • #80437

    Henry Brown

    Martha: Would offer that that perhaps committing a crime is punishable by the appropriate laws regardless of the ethical standards of anyone involved. Been several years now since I had an opportunity to serve on jury but one of the first things I was told “leave your biases/opinions at the door and base your decision on the facts, and the facts only” or something like that.

    Where it gets “sticky”, at least as far as I am concerned, where we, the people, pass laws to attempt to legislate “ethical/moral” behavior. Fortunately I have never had to judge, as a jurist, someone who has violated societies morality laws. But suspect I would be given the same instructions, whether I could or not would be an interesting development. I know that, in those states which have a death penalty, that probably one of the quickest way to get dismissed from a jury is to indicate that ethically you cannot support the death penalty.

  • #80435

    Thank you Joshua. Sure, I would like to receive your comments and ideas. Your thesis sound very interested. I am developing an idea that include leadership and ethical values in the nonprofit sector.

  • #80433


    Wonderful question with many different answers I’d suppose. I can only answer based on my unique and non-representative experience over 25 years as a Fed. I have seen good people fall from grace because they lost sight of the values they were supposed to uphold. I never judged them, but understood that often a vulnerability or hurt exists in each one of us that will make us subject to lapses; we all have a price or issue that would challenge us to the point where we could walk away from our values.

    The real shame was that people who could have helped stop the ethical lapse either ignored it or felt powerless to help avoid the damage that rippled throughout the organization.

    So, instead of focusing on our leaders, we should ask ourselves how we can foster a positive, ethical climate where we work free from relatilaition for doing what is right.

    For me, that is something under my direct control that will add institutional value.


    Dom Savini

  • #80431

    Joshua joseph

    A classic and well worth reading is Robert Jackall’s “Moral Mazes.” He’s got a book and I think also an HBR essay by the same name. BTW, I think SHRM does a study every few years that surveys HR professionals on their views of workplace ethics and their role in overseeing ethics and compliance programs. It should be on their site.

  • #80429

    Senthil Kumar

    wow mr. oliver.

    thanks for your post on “people in power” with “leaders”.

    I for one have mingled both.

  • #80427

    Margaret Bradley

    I am new to GovLoop and so late to this discussion, but it was interesting reading everyone’s thoughts on moral failures and ethical lapses. I am an ethics specialist in the Fed Govt and I don’t believe that the “big” ethical failures we read about in the newspaper or hear about on the evening news are one-time events. They are the culmination of a series of ethical lapses that probably began in very small, seeminginly insigificant steps, but each minor lapse helped justify the next one and so on, until the moral/ethical compass is gone and our minds are able to justify egregious acts. Thoughts?

  • #360061


    Yes, sometimes leaders forget about any ethics altogether.

  • #360180

    Ben Tornton

    Ethics in work is very important, especially in business. A person makes an impression of himself by the way he communicates. And if the boss shouts at an ordinary employee, this does not show him his best side. I researched this topic using this site in college. I studied at the Faculty of Psychology and that was my main job. I concluded that the more uncertain a person is, the worse he behaves with other people. These are purely my observations.

    • This reply was modified 5 months, 1 week ago by  Ben Tornton.

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