Ethics and Everyday Leadership

What Is Leadership?

Leaders inspire groups — groups as small as a two persons or as large as nations — and guide them toward exalted aims. Such aims may be, for example, winning instead of losing, turning out excellent products instead of mediocre ones, or adopting a more effective form of government.

Leadership bestows a legacy of accomplishment or continued striving, or both.

We often inappropriately call a person a leader because he or she has leadership responsibilities (e.g., supervisor of a work group, manager of an enterprise, pastor of a church, elected official, coach or quarterback of a football team). But a formal title does not bestow leadership, just as the lack of a formal title does not deny it.

Leading is not managing, preaching, or speech-making, though such activities may play a part in leadership. Leading is not commanding, bullying or manipulating, though leaders sometimes resort to such actions, and risk of losing their followers. Leadership is not a perquisite of high position, celebrity, or wealth, though these may be useful springboards to leadership.

The Importance of Example

Enduring leadership requires respect, respect for the leader’s aims and respect for the leader. Thus the importance of leading by example.

It may be trite to say “lead by example,” but there is no better way to lead than by example, that is, to follow a code of conduct that is not only true to one’s stated aims but also worthy of respect.

Consider the Jesus of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, who preached that bliss was to be found in the hereafter, not on earth. He forswore possessions and gave his life rather than deny his beliefs. He practiced what he preached, as the saying goes. His ethics — demonstrated in his deeds — buttressed the message upon which the Christian church was built.

In sum, Jesus was believed not just because his message was compelling but because his behavior was compelling. His behavior compelled trust which carried over from his person to the message he preached.

The Ethical Elements of Everyday Leadership

In today’s world, a person who would lead for longer than a day or a week must lead by example. The essential traits of leadership by example in the everyday worlds of business and politics are these: personal integrity — first and foremost — followed by fair and consistent behavior toward others, the instillation of institutional ethics, and a candid respect for the rule of law. Let us consider these traits in reverse order.

Candid Respect for the Rule of Law

We confront the law at almost every turn in the everyday world of business and politics. An ethical leader will insist on obedience to the law while openly questioning particular laws that seem unjust.

Take, for example, the obligation of most businesses to practice affirmative action. A business-person may legitimately believe that the mandate to practice affirmative action is unjust to those it disfavors, demeaning to those it is intended to favor, and economically unwise. That person has a dual obligation: to state his reservations about affirmative action and to insist on strict adherence to it for as long as it is the law.

To flout the law invokes disrespect for the rule of law. To obey an unjust law without voicing reasoned objections to it is an act of moral negligence.

Institutional Ethics

Leadership usually takes place within or gives rise to an institution — a business, a volunteer organization, an elective body. The ethics of an institution must be consistent with its aims. A profit-seeking business, for example, might have an ethic of honesty and craftsmanship; a volunteer organization, an ethic of respect for persons of all abilities; an elective body, an ethic of adherence to the Constitution regardless of transitory opinion.

A leader will articulate and personnify the institution’s ethics. A leader will take every opportunity to inculcate in its members the institution’s ethics and will resist staunchly any efforts to subvert or pervert those ethics.

Giving lip service to ethics but not practicing them is not leadership. Giving lip service to ethics but subverting or perverting them is moral fraud.

Fair and Consistent Behavior Toward Others

There may be “different strokes for different folks” but “different rules are for fools.” Nothing — nothing — breeds deeper disrespect for a would-be leader than special treatment of individuals based on their status rather than their performance.

Consider, for example, a senior manager who lets subordinate managers break the rules while enforcing them against the rank-and-file, who fires the rank-and-file while overlooking the failures of managers, or who hires or promote on the basis of “political correctness” instead of merit. That manager can forget leadership because he will not command the respect of anyone whom he can trust as a follower.

Personal Integrity

American history is littered with the husks of would-be leaders who thought they were above the law and above common decency. Bill Clinton is but the current, notorious specimen of the ilk.

A person cannot command respect who habitually lies, dissembles, or cuts corners with the truth; who takes advantage of his position for personal gain beyond reasonable compensation; who insists on and flaunts the privileges of rank; or who flouts the rules that others must obey. Neither President nor preacher — no-one.