“I am resigning from my post, effective immediately…” – This line from an email sent by a Fortune 500 company CEO left a permanent impression on how people see ethical leadership, especially in a global business context. At the time when Mark Hurd got luridly mired in several ethics-related scandals that led to his public demise from Hewlett-Packard (O’Brien, 2010), open conversations on corporate scandals and controversial moral dilemmas became judiciously relevant, especially to its employees, I included, who witnessed how the stories metamorphosed.
When horrible faces of unethical leadership step into the limelight, we cannot help but ask ourselves, what are the beautiful expressions of ethical leadership?
Akin to a combination of transformational and transformative leadership in terms of goal (communicate truth), focus (in support of status quo), and purpose (promote goodness), ethical leadership is a commitment to the inner and outer drive of the leader’s social responsibilities in pursuing the common good (Grace and Grace, 1999). Ethical leadership exude a strong 4Vs character baseline (values, virtue, vision, voice) that embraces sensitive integration and understanding of certain levels of ethical analysis (individual morality of leaders, means of leadership, leadership mission) (Palmer, 2009). Moreover, ethical leadership serves as a unifying factor in cultures and mindsets (Connelley and Tripodi, 2012). In a recent empirical investigation in Singapore, ethical leadership is meaningfully interspersed with effectiveness, satisfaction, and positive organizational culture outcomes (Toor and Ofori, 2009).
Ethical leaders profoundly extend their current ways of thinking on emotions, congruence, and identification of proper organizational behaviours (Brown and Mitchell, 2010). Whether in the Western or Eastern societal clusters, a more all-inclusive representation on ethically leading across cross-cultural and cross-sectoral commonalities and differences reveal that ethical leaders lean more into value-oriented perspectives (concern for responsibility/sustainability, honesty, integrity, people-orientation) (Eisenbeiß and Brodbeck, 2014). Because of the robust core self-evaluation that they default to, ethical leaders are proficient at invoking emotional linkages and influencing people engagement towards unquestionable moral actions and emotions (Zhang, Zhou, and Mao, 2018).
In highly changing and deeply competitive global landscapes, where continuous positive adoption to a culture of readiness and structure is vital, it is inevitable to have responsiveness barriers relating to dishonesty, corruption, egocentrism, manipulation, and other morality-related and (Metwally et al., 2019); it may be a choice of some to pursue unethical leadership options to reduce uncertainty. Nevertheless, ethical leaders are those who prove that it is possible to find purpose in enhancing readiness to change in direct, honourable, and positive ways that can shape cultures of certainty and value. Some of the most prominent ethical leaders that we know of are Sheryl Sandberg, Confucius, Bill Gates, Jesus, and Barack Obama.
Ethical Leadership Effects
As antecedents, analyses, and consequences reveal, particularly in the workplace setting, despite ethical cultures and pressures surrounding leadership, ethical leaders get and stay ahead because they exhibit superior potential for promotability, both in near-term and long-term contexts (Rubin, Dierdorff, and Brown, 2010). Empirical research has shown that ethical leadership builds social learning through enforcing ethical behaviours, facilitating empathy-enabling processes, and establishing effective relationships amongst peers; as a result, cognitive, relational, and structural breadths of social capital are generated successfully through ethical leadership (Pastoriza and Ariño, 2013). Likewise, there is a positive effect on employee-organization commitment (organizational deviance is low) when the leader’s reputation is perceived as with high moral standards (Neves and Story, 2015).
With openly constructive prosocial motivations and conscientiousness effects on relationships, ethical leadership also supports the social learning theory (behaviours, environmental/personal factors) in terms of strong dutifulness (Xia and Yang, 2020). This can be correlated not only with organizational support from an individual point of view but also towards positive cross-level effects on the team’s morale and performance. Furthermore, empirical data show that ethical leaders have helped transform organizations in irreversibly good ways, by enabling, influencing, and sustaining ethical approaches toward issues, culture building, and social movements in complex settings (Cortellazo, Bruni, and Zampieri, 2019).
Just like Meg Whitman, the CEO who succeeded Mark Hurd, the way she advocated for ethical practices in every inch of the decision she made, strategically demonstrated ethical leadership in a way that inspired resilience, performance, and enablement for Hewlett-Packard to get back on track.
Societal and demographic shifts because of globalization, unprecedented challenges, tempting acts, and pressing issues can trigger impressions on the soundness of pursuing unethical leadership. This however does not mean that it is and that it certainly can be, right. Ethical leadership is irreplaceable, and the focus on purpose (values, virtue, vision, voice) and goal on every leadership dealing are relevant and significant. Ethical leaders are the role models of value-oriented perspectives, and they can spark sustainable high moral standards and performance that are truly coveted, no matter what conversation, controversy, or context it may be.
What is your ethical leadership story? Does it involve an “I am resigning from my post, effective immediately…”? Does it ignite emotional fervour and moral actions?