Ethics and Leadership

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From Chip Souba:

In the top right hand corner of our blog, under the Welcome, we have asked for your feedback on topics you would like to discuss (and have included a handy link to quickly email your ideas). The latest post from Keith Smith on Ethics and Leadership (see below) comes from such feedback on topics and we’re delighted to welcome Dr. Smith to the conversation.

 We’d love to have even more ideas, topics, comments and feedback – so please JOIN THE CONVERSATION in whatever way you feel most comfortable!

By: Keith Smith
Associate Vice President, Agricultural Administration
Associate Dean,  Food, Agriculture and Environmental Sciences
Director, Ohio State University Extension

What would you do for your company or organization?

What does your behavior say about your choices as a leader?

If we put ethics into its simplest terms, as offered by the Harvard Business School, we could say that leadership is the ability to ethically move an organization from point A to point B. While I appreciate the simplicity of that statement, and being an ethical leader is something I strive for personally, I think we all know the practice of doing so can be more complicated.

The choice between right and wrong seems obvious for most of us – but it’s not hard to get sidetracked. For example, when you look at the scandal among the financial institutions on Wall Street – the mistakes those company executives made by adjusting the records, cheating for business or personal gain, and outright lying to cover it up show how far you can fall when businesses bend the rules for the bottom line.

As Joanne Ciulla mentions in Ethics, the Heart of Leadership: “The rule of business remains ‘the law of the jungle,’ ‘the survival of the fittest;’ and the goal of survival engenders a … mentality that condones the moral imperative of getting ahead by any means necessary.”

But does this process end with business? What if a grocery store clerk gives you too much change…do you keep it? Or, you realize you can get free Internet access through your neighbor’s wireless network…do you use it? When faced with these everyday scenarios, we realize ethics is not just something we should think about at work – we have a personal code to live up to as well. So, as leaders, ethics permeates our professional and personal lives. If we start to make something “acceptable” at work, will that transcend into our personal life – and vice versa?

You can face many ethical dilemmas in making the right choices for an organization. In fact, “Certain ethical challenges or dilemmas are inherent in the leadership role. If you choose to become a leader, recognize that you accept ethical burdens along with new tasks, expectations, and rewards.” – Craig Johnson, Meeting the Ethical Challenges of Leadership.

Leaders can fail if they fall victim to greed/external gratification, if they crave success/fear failure more than they want to do right by the organization, or if they can be easily persuaded by others and rationalize their behavior “on behalf” of the organization.

What are you willing to do on behalf of your organization? If you expect people to behave ethically when dealing with you, you should do the same in return. And remember – you set the standards for your employees. If you are unethical or tolerate that type of behavior, you can bet your employees will follow suit.

What type of foundation are you building for ethical leadership – in yourself and others?

I challenge you to discuss ethical behavior with your colleagues, share practical applications to address challenges you face, and be an example of leadership practices that encourage ethical behavior.

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One response to “Ethics and Leadership

  1. Anders Lindquist

    For this difficult question we could turn to Occam’s razor to break things down. The simplest answer is usually best answer. What would you do for your organization? I say, just do the right thing.

    If the solution to an issue comes at the expense others or hurts someone else, then it probably isn’t the best path to take. Great leaders never ask others to do something that they are not willing to do themselves.

    Anders L. Lindquist

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