Reflection: Ethical Leadership to Achieve Higher Performance

Promoting Ethical Leadership

Articles and interest in ethical leadership have risen dramatically over the last decade.  Managers and leaders are moving away from traditional ‘task and performance’ approaches towards leading people.  This is not to say that the organisational strategy isn’t created or the job doesn’t get done.  This is very much counter to that opinion. We do know that ethical leaders can and still do make critical business decisions. Moreover, they also challenge unethical behaviours consistently.  This reflection considers ethical leadership and its behaviours in today’s organisations.  It will also consider the effects of role modelling behaviour and credibility.  There are many leadership models out there; most are well documented and researched.  Within this, ethical leadership takes its place, even in the most competitive environments.

We live in turbulent times both politically and economically.  At the time of writing this reflection, negotiations are ongoing regarding Brexit.  The end date of October 31 is less than a month before we leave the European Union.  The two major political parties are both losing politicians to the Liberal Democrats and, as I write this piece, Thomas Cook one of the UK’s largest travel companies has gone into administration.  It is difficult to think of a time when things appeared ‘stable’ or indeed in some instances, ethical.  Ethical leadership, at this time, is relevant, purposeful and required.  It also provides an opportunity for leaders who make decisions from a moral standpoint to consider the positive impact they are making.


Occasionally, I speak with colleagues and friends about their work.  When we discuss leadership you can count on the fact that there are some leaders people love and some not. Digging deeper into the reasons they wouldn’t follow a leader, various themes emerge. One prevalent yet unpopular theme is their leadership style, that is to say, they follow one route, it never changes. This ‘route one’ approach does seem to be an occurring theme, yet shows a lack of agility to situations.
This is where Spencer Johnson and Ken Blanchard in their One Minute Manager series were going with situational leadership. The ‘route one’ manager still persists as it can produce short term success and performance.  While this style will engage some people some of the time, due to its persistent one theme, followship drops away.  This leaves the adage ‘if it’s not broken don’t change it’ in tatters.

Silhouette of nine people standing in a field watching the sunset

Followship, Ethical Leadership

Followship seems to occur in leaders when they make the right moral decisions. Leaders that promote ethical leadership have a high level of moral awareness. They judge ambiguity through a moral lens yet have the ability to consider the issue from multiple viewpoints. Let us consider wellbeing for a moment.  There is a heightened awareness currently with academics producing research and papers and writers producing some excellent material.

One such book by Jonathan Phelan is ‘The Art of the Mentally Healthy Conversation’. Within, Jonathan asks us to consider not just mutual wellbeing support but a culture of such. Taking everything into account, this would be the right route to take ethically providing information and learning for our people. Helping tackle crippling mental health issues such as anxiety and depression to name but a few.  This is one example where a leader makes the right decision and achieves sustainable followship.

Walking the Walk

We have heard this term lots of times either from leadership skills courses or general leadership advice.  Great leaders talk the talk and walk the walk.  Another popular saying is ‘I wouldn’t ask my people to do what I cannot do myself’. The latter is less convincing, leaders are not there to ‘do’ everything and practically, they probably can’t.  There will be leaders who say the right things and probably have a genuine belief in their words.  They just can’t deliver on it.  Strong ethical leaders follow through on their words. They consider their actions from multiple viewpoints.  They are not there to think of everything or deploy the action. Ethical leaders walk the walk by enabling others.  More than this, they listen compassionately to all and make their decisions based on their own moral judgement.
Walk the walk means more than making the decision.  It is about follow-through and accountability.  Link this to ethics and you have a major responsibility.  Often we can forget the effect of the day to day decisions that we make.  We also don’t see the range of who is watching and account for their judgement.

Woman in gym clothes walking alongside a pavement

Walk the walk means more than making the decision

Consider one of the toughest decisions we can make as leaders, to discipline someone.  We take the grade, take the title and salary of a manager and leader; we must also take the responsibility.  In a discipline situation first and foremost, we are dealing with people, they deserve dignity and respect.  Secondly, the outcome of your decision has a far and wide-reaching impact.  Even if the case before you is clear cut, consideration of the evidence is absolutely essential.  The impact of your decision in this instance changes lives.

Ethical Leadership Role Modelling 

In Theresa Boughey’s book, ‘Closing the Gap’, there is a section on role models in the workplace.  In this context, Theresa is considering these from an inclusion point of view.  Theresa points out that while there is a general imbalance of diversity and gender, this can be used to great effect through role modelling.  Ethical leaders also shoulder this responsibility.  Whether leaders are active in role modelling or not, peers and employees will be watching and scrutinising the decisions they make.  If leaders are to create and spread ethics in leadership, decisions and actions must stand up to scrutiny.  More than this, they consult, gather ideas and solutions and benchmark against their moral code.  The position of role model is a responsible one and one that should be viewed as privileged.
In many organisational cultures, role modelling comes down to how many years people have served there.  If you don’t believe this, consider news report and documentaries.  Very often the individual will be introduced by name and how many years they have served. Role modelling as with mentoring has this unfortunate around it.  It assumes that the time spent in one organisation automatically means that they qualify as arbiters of knowledge.
In the realms of ethical leadership, this is nonsense.  It is true that there will be a large element of time spent and usually some good knowledge to be leveraged. This missing piece can be the ability to create a followship through outstanding consultation and decision making. 20 or 30 years in an industry doesn’t automatically create a mentor.

Leadership Agility  

Agility has become a common word in the organisational context.  Agility usually lends itself to projects in its proper name of ‘agile’. Ethical leadership is agile in its nature; it is also consistent in its foundations.  A contradiction you might argue and that is a very fair retort.  Consider architecture as an analogy here it may explain the meaning.  Consider the tallest buildings in great cities around the world.  They rise up in grand fashion.  At the bottom, they are less likely to move, a solid mass.  As they get taller there is a need for them to work with the elements and provide movement often utilising very complex systems of controlling the sway.  It works with, not against the natural environment.  This agility to move and sway with the environment yet remain in a foundation of ethics is critical.  Ethics is ubiquitous, regardless of the environment.

Worms eye view of tall glass buildings

Consider the tallest buildings in great cities around the world.  They rise up in grand fashion.

Leadership agility has a similar structure.  Its roots in an individual that is considerate, intelligent and highly skilled.  When change occurs, there is an allowable sway, a movement to incorporate it within the environment.  What actually happens is there is an appreciation that a new approach is required. However, knowing that the decisions they make will be ethical in nature. When viewed from the outside in, this is often considered as ‘doing the right thing’.  Even though the process may be different, the decision making as a foundation marks the leaders as agile in approach and ethical in foundation.  Having self-awareness of this allows leaders to communicate effectively; they appreciate the changing nature of environments.

Strengthened Relationships

In previous reflections, I consider the use of personality diagnostic tools as an approach to understanding colleagues at a deeper level.  These tools and there are many, attempt to share amongst team members our personality traits such as extroversion and introversion.  Strength Deployment Inventory (SDI) and Myers Briggs are two of the most popular currently.  While very useful, choose wisely. Ensure that you have the right by in from the team.  These are supportive tools there to enhance relationships and provide a deeper understanding of individuals.  Assuming all the team are happy with this approach, there may be a wider implication.
Lencioni’s model of the five dysfunctions of teams presents us with challenges teams face on a daily basis. At the bottom of the pyramid is the foundational dysfunction, the absence of trust.  These type of actions are about strengthening relationships.
What the team are allowing is not to be taken lightly; they are putting elements of their personality on show for the team to see. Where the ethical element steps in is our intention and what leaders do with the information. When facilitating these sessions there is very clear rhetoric that accompanies it.  The communication is to the whole group going through the session and is based on ethics. Leaders allow people into a part of ourselves.  It is usually rare that people abuse this. When it does happen, that ethical stance has been broken. How we, as people managers and leaders deal with this, is an essential action.  Not because of who is watching, but for the dignity of the person who’s trust has been broken.

Final Thoughts on Ethical Leadership

The current climate both political and economically is turbulent.  Here and now there is the impending Brexit issue. Moreover, large established organisations such as Thomas Cook are going into administration.  Being an ethical leader is as important now as it ever was.  Having a strong moral code and more importantly, deploying it consistently is an increasing requirement.  There is a balance to be struck.  Leaders should allow people to voice their own perspectives and concerns but not at the expense of making the decision itself.  Aiding the development of others through allowing them to partake in the decision-making process ensures critical growth.  Leaders should grow leaders and therefore be constantly aware of the impact they have on the people around them.
Equally, competing forces constantly ask us to make faster decisions and assume more risk.  While there is an obligation to the organisations’ leaders work in, strong ethical decisions not only provide us with consistency, it also protects the people and the wider organisation.  Through this, managers and leaders can look among our peers and know that the approach taken was consistent and based on our own moral ethics.

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