Most of us are shocked when a leader — public, private, or non-profit — behaves unethically. The ethical behaviour of leaders has a significant impact on others in their organisations. Leaders must set a good example, because the repercussions are significant. 

People all over the world want their leaders to be ethical. Leadership experts James Kouzes and Barry Posner asked 75,000 people around the world what they look for and admire in a leader.

The top-ranked characteristic over a 20-year period was “honesty”. People want to follow someone who is truthful, ethical and principled.

Recent research conducted by a team from the University of Illinois at Chicago among employees in Singapore generated similar results. More than 400 employees from 10 different educational, health care, non-profit and training organisations were asked to rate the behaviour of their supervisors.

They were given seven specific behaviours to rate:

•   Creating value for the community;            

•   Conceptual skills;

•   Emotional healing;

•   Empowering;

•   Helping followers grow and succeed;

•   Putting followers first; and

•   Behaving ethically.

While all seven behaviours received positive ratings, the behaviour that was most desired by the employees was “behaving ethically”.

Unfortunately, the biggest gap between current supervisor behaviour and desired behaviour was also “behaving ethically”. The Singaporean employees who were surveyed want their supervisors to be more ethical.

That makes sense. But it gives rise to another question: Where and how do leaders learn to lead ethically? They can learn about values, virtues and good character from their families, their faiths, and their schools.

But when it comes to learning about leadership itself, they may not learn anything at all about ethics. The surprising fact is that many ideas or theories of leadership do not include ethics.

They are about skills or techniques designed to get other people to do things. These skills or techniques can be used for good or ill.

For example, Bernard Bass, a leading scholar regarding transformational leadership, argued that transformational leaders could be either heroes or villains. Both Gandhi and Hitler would qualify.

Other scholars note that while a lot of research has focused on leadership, little research has been focused on leadership ethics. 

Moral element

Fortunately, there is an idea about leadership that embeds ethical considerations, and that is servant leadership. Leadership scholars have concluded that one of the elements that distinguishes servant leadership from other leadership theories is the moral element.

Servant-leaders demonstrate personal morality and integrity, and encourage enhanced moral reasoning among their colleagues.

In addition, the ethical behaviour of servant-leaders is embedded in four operating principles that guide them in their daily decision-making. The four principles are:

•   Serve people;

•   Help people grow;

•   Exercise foresight; and

•   Care about everyone the organisation touches.

These principles are not only ethical, they are also effective, because they support high performance and exceptional organisational results.

For servant-leaders, it is not a choice between ethics and success. Servant-leaders know that their ethical behaviour enhances their organisation’s success.

Article by Dr Kent M Keith, CEO of the Greenleaf Centre for Servant Leadership (Asia) based in Singapore.