Good Leadership: Effectiveness versus Ethics

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.

14 replies »

  1. Interesting! I agree with your distinction between effective and ethical leadership. Which is most important, though: effectively climbing the ladder up the wall, or climbing the ladder up the correct wall?

    Even though there is a distinction, my hope as a follower would be that I am going somewhere important as I follow you.

    So may I posit, Colleen, that while integrity to ethical principles can be different than effective leadership, those same widely recognized principles are still vital to truly sound leadership?

    John S.

    • I guess that the problem with the idea of ethical leadership lies in the question, who decides which wall is the right one? My viewpoint of what is ethical and right might be totally different than your own. It is my hope that we all share some universal values, however many in many ethical debates, it’s not clear what is the “right” thing to do. If you work at a fast food giant, is it right to sell greasy, fattening fast food? Sounds easy, just don’t sell it. Problem is, people who each at fast food giants won’t eat your healthy food. So as a leader in that organization, while it is ethically right to serve healthy food, is it ethically right to stop selling bad for you food, and perhaps destroy the company along with the jobs that employees rely on?

      It would be nice to say that ethical principles are vital to sound leadership. The problem is, who’s ethics are we talking about? I guess in the end, the ethics that the followers are willing to accept determine the ethics of a leader. Or maybe not. I don’t have any great answers for you on this one. All I can say is that I’m not convinced that ethical leadership will necessarily be successful leadership.

  2. Thank you for the excellent feedback.

    In saying that leadership at it’s best is ethical, I guess I mean only to highlight those universal, transcendent principles that everyone of conscience does agree on already. I think this would include fairness, trust/ trustworthiness, integrity, quality work, and possibly other intangibles such as courage, love and compassion.

    I also feel that the “death” of the leader or his immediate campaign does not mean he has not successfully made an impact —- it is regrettable, though, of course, for the leader! I am thinking of moral contributors to society such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Ghandi, Jesus, Abraham Lincoln, Dietriche Bonhoeffer, Galileo and any poet, philosopher, reformer, expert or prophet who is martyred in his day and rightly set on a pedestal by later generations as a great leader.

    I think Jesus says it best: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (John 12:24) This is true whether the death is literal, or only applying to the sacrifice of the immediate success of the leader’s vision, such as in the cases of most of those inspiring leaders listed above.

    But I have been accused of being an idealist and not realistic enough before. 😉

    Thanks again for your frank response.

    John S.

  3. Colleen,
    This really has developed into an interesting conversation. Your original post defining leadership and then sectioning it off into effective and ethical, offers a new perspective for many. As John points out, and you touch on as well, the ethical perspective of the followers, and the corporate goal of the leaders are just as important in understanding these concepts as they apply to our critical analysis of what an ethical leader is. This is an especially interesting conversation given the current state of political campaigning and rhetoric during this election year process. In John’s post, he took a critical look at what ‘ethical’ would mean in a corporate setting. I would invite everyone to take this same critical approach in the political setting.
    In Ethics in Human Communication, Johannesen, Valde, & Whedbee (2008), discuss Karl Wallace’s Four Moralities as a critical basis for evaluating ethical communication among political leadership. I would propose that that these could also be used as a critical starting point for corporate leadership as well. The criteria under the Four Moralities are: “1) develop a habit of speech with the understanding that we are the sole source of information and arguments on the subject at hand, 2) cultivate a habit of justice by selecting and presenting fact and opinion fairly, 3)prefer public to private motivations-revealing the sources of information and opinion and 4)cultivate a habit of respect for dissent by allowing and encouraging diversity of argument and opinion” (pg. 22). These offer an excellent basis for a critical view of any public communication whether from our corporate leaders to their stakeholders or from our political leaders to us. If all communications were viewed through this lens, perhaps we would demand more from our leaders than self-serving goals, speeches and conferences. Is it our responsibility as workers in a corporate setting to require that our leaders strive for these criteria in their communication of leadership? In would be interesting to hear your comments on this.
    In a political setting we consider that it is the responsibility of citizens to have a critical view in terms of choosing who to vote for. Shouldn’t we require this of ourselves and our leaders in other arenas as well?
    Johannesen, R.L., Valde, K.S. & Whedbee, K.E. (2007). Ethics in human
    communication (6th ed.). Prospect Heights: Waveland Press. (EHC)

    Cat Huss
    Graduate Student: Communication/Organizational Leadership and Change
    Drury University

    • Thanks Cat, for such a thoughtful reply to my post and the conversation since. I like your use of Wallace’s four moralities as a basis for ethical communication in politics. I think it helps us consciously think through the process of communication, rather than shooting from the hip.

      My only point here is that different groups of people share different assumptions about so called “universal values”. For example, in the US, one of the implicit assumptions underlying the debate about health care is that the free market (or capitalism, if you prefer) is the best way to allocate scarce resources. If you provide the data that people in the US pay considerably more as a per cent of GDP for less coverage and the same outcomes as the nationalized health care system in Canada, you would be met with disbelief (as I often am when I share this info).

      If you traveled to the middle east, Africa or certain parts of India, you will find very different assumptions about the equality of women, although most of us in the West believe that the equality of women is a universal ethical principle. But, it turns out that what is universal is not universal, as four women of Afghani descent were recently slain in the Kingston, Ontario, Canada area by their family members in a so-called “honour killing” (although what is honourable in killing someone is beyond me).

      Cultivating respect for dissent is essential in an effective workplace. And herein lies the problem. What you find unethical, I may not. That is what makes the idea of “ethical” leadership in a business setting so challenging. If you are McDonalds, you might consider it unethical to sell food that leads to so many health problems. But, if you don’t sell that food, and you go out of business, thousands of people lose their jobs. Is that ethical?

      I love this debate, and I suspect that it could continue on for a long time. Thank you for contributing your thoughts and making such an effort to engage with me.


  4. Colleen,
    Thanks for your response and the excellent examples given. Like you, I believe personal perception and assumptions as well as contexts are the basis for choosing ethical criteria. That is something we cannot change about the world we live in. An ethical decision to me may be unethical to you. What we can do is continue the dialogue we have here and hope it invades other spaces as well. I believe a hallmark of good leadership is the willingness to search for win-win solutions. McDonalds could offer healthier food choices for those who want it while maintaining the old menu for those who don’t. That’s a win-win. As far as healthcare is concerned I’m not sure what the win-win is there, but I agree that the evidence is overwhelming that other non-capitalist systems seem to work very well.
    Best regards,
    Cat Huss
    Graduate Student: Communication/Organizational Leadership and Change
    Drury University

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