Ethical Leadership: Moral Goals and Moral Constraints

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By: Donald Hubin, PhD
Professor & Chair, OSU Department of Philosophy
Principal Investigator of the Innovation Group for the OSU Center for Ethics and Human Values

Photo by Jo McNulty

Photo by Jo McNulty

One often hears reference to ethical (or moral) leadership.  It sounds like a good thing—and certainly better than the opposite.  But it’s worth considering what is involved in ethical leadership.

Many philosophers—especially those with a great love for theoretical simplicity—seek a single moral principle or value that will serve as the ground for all moral judgment.  Regardless of the prospects for success for such endeavors, this is not how moral issues present themselves to us in ordinary life.  Instead, moral conduct is guided by a variety of considerations.  In particular, both moral goals and moral constraints seem indispensible in our ordinary view of proper moral evaluation.  We’re all familiar with the errors that result from ignoring constraints in the pursuit of worthwhile goals:  understanding the natural course of a disease like syphilis is a worthy goal;  coming to that understanding by denying people medicine that is known to cure the disease is a morally impermissible way to achieve that goal.

But errors result as surely from focusing on moral constraints to the exclusion of moral goals.  All too often, there is a tendency to treat the ethics of one’s profession or the ethics of leadership as if these things can be reduced, in good lawyerly fashion, to a set of requirements and prohibitions.  The concept of ethical leadership is diminished if it is thought of as merely leading an organization through a maze of moral constraints.  Ethical leadership requires keeping one’s eyes on a morally desirable prize, having the vision to set a course to that goal that doesn’t require treating others as mere means to its achievement, and displaying the ability to inspire others to follow that course.

What moral goals do you believe are essential for ethical leadership?

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3 responses to “Ethical Leadership: Moral Goals and Moral Constraints

  1. Anders Lindquist

    The key to this question is integrity. One of the hallmarks of true ethical leadership is having integrity. I would define integrity as being honest to others and being aware of how decisions affect others. Important moral goals should include being honest, remaining uncorrupted, and remaining committed to supporting the institutions principles. Strong leaders have the courage to uphold these principles and have the ability to make accurate judgments. Being goal oriented is natural for successful leaders and being driven to maintain integrity is essential.

  2. Hubin makes a good point. In my teaching at OSU, I’m dismayed by students who think ethical living is just about pursuing one’s own good within certain broad constraints laid down by the law and tradition. I’d like to see them focus more on what further good they can do for others, even beyond what the broad ethical constraints require. “What good can I do?” rather than “What’s required of me?”. Similarly, leaders and institutions should be thinking of the good they can do rather than merely whether they have satisfied some basic requirements.

  3. Different professions and different organizations have different goals, but nearly all have development of their staff to their fullest potential as a goal. As a leader, I believe it is my moral obligation to provide honest and thoughtful feedback to help my staff grow in their positions. Ethical leaders support their staff through professional development opportunities, even if those staff may go on to find new arenas in which to continue their growth and learning.

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