Ethics and Trust are the foundation of leadership

Charismatic leadership theories and transformational leadership theories have added greatly to our understanding of effective leadership, they do not explicitly deal with the role of ethics and trust. Some scholars have argued that a consideration of ethics and trust is essential to complete the picture of effective leadership. Here we consider these two concepts under the fabric of authentic leadership.

What is Authentic Leadership?
The philosopher Jean Paul Sartre wrote a lot about authenticity, arguing that to be an authentic person, an individual needs to be honest with one self and avoid self deception. Although this might be good advice for anyone, it may be especially critical for leaders.

Authentic leaders know who they are, know what they believe in and value and act on those values and beliefs openly and candidly. Their followers would consider them to be ethical people. The primary quality, therefore, produced by authentic leadership is trust. How does authentic leadership build trust? Authentic leaders share information, encourage open communication and stick to their ideals. The result: People come to have faith in authentic leaders.

Because the concept is so recent, there hasn’t been a lot of research in authentic leadership. However, we believe it’s a promising way to think about ethics and trust in leadership because it discusses on the moral aspects of being a leader. Transformational or charismatic leaders can have a vision, and communicate it persuasively, but sometimes the vision is wrong (as in the case of Hitler) or the leader is more concerned with his own needs or pleasures, as in the case with business leaders Dennis Kozlowski (ex-CEO of Tyco) and Jeff Skilling (ex-CEO of Enron).

Ethics and leadership:

The topic of ethics and leadership has received surprisingly little attention. Only recently have ethics and leadership researchers begun to consider the ethical implication in leadership. Why now? One reason may be the growing general interests in ethics throughout the file of management. Another reason may be the discovery by probing biographers that many of our past leaders – such as Martin Luther King, Jr., John F Kennedy and Thomas Jefferson suffered from ethical short comings. Certainly the impeachment hearings of American President Bill Clinton in grounds of perjury and other charges did nothing to lessen concern about ethical leadership. And the unethical practices by executives at organizations like Enron, WorldCom, Health South, Arthur Andersen, Merrill Lynch, Adelphia and Tyco increased the public’s and politician’s concerns about ethical standards in American business.

Ethics touches on leadership at a number of junctures. Transformational leaders for instance, have been described by one authority as fostering moral virtue when they try to change the attitudes and behaviors of followers. Charisma too has ethical component. Unethical leaders are more likely to use their charisma to enhance power over followers, directed toward self serving ends Ethical leaders are considered to use their charisma in a socially constructive way to serve others. Here is also the issue of abuse of power by leaders, for example, when the give themselves large salaries bonuses, and stock options while, at the same time they seek to cut costs by laying off long time employees. Because top executives set moral tone for an organization, they need to set high ethical standards, demonstrate those standards though their own behavior and encourage as reward integrity in others.

Leadership effectiveness needs to address the means that a leader uses in trying to achieve goals as well as the content of those goals. For instance, Bill Gates’s success in leading Microsoft to dominate the world’s software business has been achieved by means of an extremely aggressive work culture. Microsoft’s competitors and US government regulators have pinpointed this competitive culture as the source of numerous unethical practices from using its control of its windows operating system to favor Microsoft’s partners and subsidiaries to encouraging its sales force to crush its rivals. Importantly, Microsoft culture mirrors the personality of its chairman and cofounder Gates. In addition, ethical leadership seeks or the organization morally acceptable? Is a business leader effective if he or she builds an organization’s success by selling product that damages the health of its users? This question for example might be asked of executives in the tobacco and junk food industries. Or is a military leader successful by winning a war that should not have been fought in the first place?

Leadership is not value-free. Before we Judge any leader to be effective we should consider both the means used by the leader to achieve goals and the moral content of these goals.

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  • I suspect that ethics and trust are both anthropocentric concepts that arguably focus on the moral approach to leadership. In this way culture, society etc. presumably dictate ethical values. If this is the case how do we balance ecological issues? If a culture is based on ideas stemming from anthropocentricism, science or the philsophy of revealed religion then our ethics might place the profiting of humanity over and above the environment. Is this true leadership? can we really make leadership a universal concept if cultures are not? are we in danger of making organisations the true world society? are we in danger of making organisational cultures the dominant culture? are we in danger of reducing individuals to mechanistic workers with no power to ‘lead’ outside of the company box? Only questions for this one. If you have answers I would love to hear them.