So one of my students says “Hitler was a good leader”. The whole class freezes, looking profoundly uncomfortable, especially the German exchange student. But no one says anything. (I was waiting for the fight to break out).
Why the profound discomfort with this statement? While I can’t support this with research, I think it has something to do with an unstated assumption in the West that leadership is “good”. So therefore the act of leadership is automatically morally or ethically “good”. So therefore Hitler could not possibly be a good leader.
To consider this idea further, let’s take a look at one definition of leadership (my definition, so it is far from perfect, but it will do as a start):
The relationship between a leader and her followers, whereby the leader influences followers to work together to successfully create and achieve a vision, purpose or objective.
Note that this definition says nothing about the ethics of this vision, purpose or objective. Historically, political leaders essentially ignored ethics in the pursuit of power. (See Machiavelli for further instruction). It is only recently, and largely limited to the developed world, where we have decided to tack on “authenticity” or some sense of moral behaviour to leadership.
My student very astutely pointed out that Hitler, while morally repugnant, did indeed successfully create a vision and influence his followers to achieve that vision (at least for a time). You may question his tactics and the morality of his objectives, but he was an effective leader, measured by the above definition of leadership.
Which brings me to my point. While a leader may be effective in creating and achieving a vision through her followers, this does not necessarily mean that the vision/objective/purpose is necessarily “good”. Even if a leader can influence thousands or millions of followers, it does not mean that the end objective is “good” from an ethical stand point. Effective leaders are not always ethical leaders.
So let’s ditch the idea of “good” leadership. Instead lets talk about “effective” leadership and “ethical” leadership. Effective leadership is about the creation, process and achievement of vision. Ethical leadership is about whether or not the vision or objective is morally good for the whole of society. Effective leadership is about the “hows”, while Ethical leadership is about the “outcomes” of leadership. Obviously these two aspects of leadership are tightly intertwined.
When evaluating leadership we need to consider both effectiveness and ethics. And we need to stop assuming that leadership, in and of itself, is good.