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What Does Ethics Have to do with Leadership?


Accounts of leadership in relation to ethics can and do go wrong in several ways that may lead us too quickly into thinking there is a tighter relationship between ethics and leadership than we have reason to believe. Firstly, these accounts can be misled by the centrality of values talk in recent discussions of leadership into thinking that values of a particular kind are sufficient for leadership. Secondly, the focus on character in recent leadership accounts can lead to a similar error. The assumption here is that because good character is often a locus of descriptions of leaders, such character is necessary and sufficient for leadership. Thirdly, we can fall victim to an observer bias that colors our accounts of the leaders we admire and thus wish to either have or be, which in turn leads to the fourth way in which accounts of leadership can go wrong in their description of the role of ethics in leadership. Through inattention or through wishful thinking accounts of leadership can become merely prescriptive and stipulate that ethics is requisite and at least partly constitutive of leadership. Keeping in mind these ways in which accounts of leadership commonly go astray, we can say that any adequate account of leadership must, at least in the first instance, be able to differentiate not only between leadership and good ethical character, but also between leadership and power, authority, influence, managerial ability, and charisma. Taking a closer look at some of the ways that the relation between leadership and ethics is misconstrued is necessary to better understanding both leadership and its connection to ethics. It is, however, just a first step. Asking whether we have reason to think of leadership as an Aristotelian virtue should, we think, enable us to give a more accurate and useful account of the complexity of the relation. It also captures underlying reasons for wanting to see the two as intrinsically connected.

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  1. 1.

    Ciulla (1995), p. 17.

  2. 2.

    Gardner (2006), p. 121.

  3. 3.

    Grint (2010), for example, opens with the acknowledgement that the enormous amount of the leadership literature has led no closer to a consensus about the definition of leadership (p. 1). Indeed, Grint argues that the different approaches to leadership that he identifies are neither close nor likely to agree on a shared definition of leadership (p. 4).

  4. 4.

    The fact that, regardless of when any particular account of leadership and ethics is published, the author can find a recent or cotemporary such catastrophe that is commonly known and significant enough to form a reference point for their audience, whether it be the Enron collapse, the recent Global Financial Crisis, the earlier dotcom bubble bursting or one of any number of events, should tell us something both about the nature of such appeals and the success of the earlier similar appeals to greater and more ethical leadership to prevent just such disasters.

  5. 5.

    Liden et al. (2008), p. 161.

  6. 6.

    Eubanks et al. (2012), pp. 1–3.

  7. 7.

    Thiel et al. (2012), pp. 48–64, make a similar point. Despite claiming that “the discretionary decisions made by leaders are inherently ethical because of the far-reaching and high-stakes consequences these decisions may have for internal and external to the leader’s organization” (p. 52), in fact their descriptive account of how leaders make ethical decisions and how they can adopt strategies to make decisions more in line with their ethical values at most address how leadership can be done in an ethical manner and for ethical ends (two of Ciulla’s three kinds of “good leadership’) and gives us no reason to think that leadership itself is intrinsically ethical, nor that one must be an ethical person to be a leader.

  8. 8.

    See, for example, Kellerman (2004), pp. 4–5.

  9. 9.

    Burns (1978).

  10. 10.

    Gardner (2006), p. 121.

  11. 11.

    Ciulla (1995), p. 13.

  12. 12.

    See, for example, Rich (2006) and Cox et al. (2009).

  13. 13.

    The questions raised by Eubanks et al. (2012) in their introduction to the recent special issue of the Journal of Business Ethics address this element of ethics and leadership—what we might call leadership done in an ethical manner.

  14. 14.

    In Ciulla’s outline of these three “categories”, effectiveness (so central to virtue ethics) is omitted. Ciulla lists firstly “the ethics of leaders themselves”—their “intentions… [and] personal ethics”; secondly “the ethics of how a leader leads (or the process of leadership”; and thirdly “the ethics of what a leader does—the ends of leadership”. None of these however refer to the effectiveness, the skill level of the leader qua leader. Ciulla (2005), p. 332

  15. 15.

    Ciulla (1995). Kellerman refers to this as “Hitler’s Ghost”. In both cases, the reference is to the familiar idea outlined above—the concern over whether we must categorize Hitler as a leader.

  16. 16.

    Ciulla (1995), p. 10.

  17. 17.

    Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, Book 2, ch. 5.

  18. 18.

    Cox personal correspondence.

  19. 19.

    See the discussion of integrity as a virtue in Cox et al. We leave aside the question of whether leadership as a virtue is the kind of “cultivatable and admirable” trait that admits of a mean between two extremes. At least for neo-Aristotelian accounts of virtue, the putative virtue must be expressible as a mean between two extremes—a balance representing neither of the vices represented by either extreme of the continuum.

  20. 20.

    This distinction and the discussion of it owe much to the generous comments and suggestions of Cox.

  21. 21.

    Aristotle, Politics, (1996), pp. 15–20.

  22. 22.

    Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, Book 2.

  23. 23.

    Driver (1989), p. 378, 380.

  24. 24.

    See the Tao Te Ching (1963), ch 60. “Ruling a big country is like cooking a small fish.” Lao Tzu talks about “ruling” or leadership in ways that suggest the doctrine of the mean does apply.

  25. 25.

    Aristotle (1260), pp. 15–20.

  26. 26.

    Taylor (1975), p. 132 (emphases in original).

  27. 27.

    Hursthouse (1991), pp. 225–226.

  28. 28.

    The Aristotle scholar might well point us toward Book 1, Chap 2 of the Nichomachean ethics and Aristotle’s treatment of politics as the master of these arts and sciences since it aims at the good for all, not just for the one individual. While the topic at hand is leadership as distinct from the formal role of statesmanship or headship that Aristotle refers to when discussing politics, the point is salient in discussing why we have reason to think that leadership might be a virtue and if so what kind of virtue it might be.

  29. 29.

    Kellerman (2004).

  30. 30.

    Ünal et al. (2012), pp. 5–19.

  31. 31.

    Slote, 1993, pp. 5–37.

  32. 32.

    Hoopes (2003), pp. 273–282.

  33. 33.

    Hoopes (2007).

  34. 34.

    Bass (1990).

  35. 35.

    House and Howell (1992), p. 102.

  36. 36.

    Rost (1991).

  37. 37.

    Kellerman (2004).

  38. 38.

    Burns (1978).

  39. 39.

    Burns (1978), p. 20.

  40. 40.

    Den Hartog et al. (2012), p. 35.

  41. 41.

    Den Hartog et al. (2012), p. 44.

  42. 42.

    Den Hartog et al. (2012), p. 45.

  43. 43.

    Hoopes (2007).

  44. 44.

    See, for example: Smircich and Morgan (1982), DePree (2010) and Takala (1998).

  45. 45.

    DePree (2010), p. 5.

  46. 46.

    DePree (2010), pp. 8–9.

  47. 47.

    Smircich and Morgan (1982), p. 261.

  48. 48.

    Takala (1998), pp. 785–798.

  49. 49.

    Ciulla (1995), p. 15.

  50. 50.

    Burns (1991), p. xii.

  51. 51.

    Avolio (2002), p. 8.

  52. 52.

    Avolio (2002), p. 8.

  53. 53.

    Avolio (2002), p. 8.

  54. 54.

    Avey et al. (2012), p. 22 Elsewhere in their article the authors note that ethical leadership yields increased “psychological ownership” by followers (p. 35), by which they mean a feeling of responsibility among followers (p. 24) which in turn “encourages them to take responsibility for work projects at a time when restructuring managers are being asked to do more than ever” (p. 32).

  55. 55.

    Den Hartog et al. (2012), p. 35.

  56. 56.

    Den Hartog et al. (2012), p. 36. The authors note this value-driven leadership lead followers to focus more on the needs and the good of the organization beyond their own individual needs and interests, “increases attachment to the collective and their willingness to make personal sacrifices”.

  57. 57.

    Ünal et al. (2012), pp. 5–19. Note though that despite expressing such a need, the authors themselves are not very robust in their ethical grounding of the issue. Their treatment of the ethical evaluations and grounds of leadership decisions essentially reduces to a brief, cursory introduction of teleological, deontological and virtue ethics and then treating these as a checklist of criteria that an action needs to meet in order to qualify as “ethical”.

  58. 58.

    Liden et al. (2008), p. 174.

  59. 59.

    Liden et al. (2008), p. 162.

  60. 60.

    House and Howell (1992), p. 81.

  61. 61.

    House and Howell (1992), p. 81.

  62. 62.

    House and Howell (1992), p. 82.

  63. 63.

    Note that this account also operates at the level of the character and traits of the leader, thus fitting another of the ways that we argue accounts of leadership preemptively assume that leadership and ethics go together.

  64. 64.

    Mumford (2006), p. 275.

  65. 65.

    Mumford (2006), p. 275.

  66. 66.

    Mumford (2006), p. 276.

  67. 67.

    Mumford (2006), p. 281.

  68. 68.

    Mumford (2006), p. 280.

  69. 69.

    Mumford (2006), p. 280.

  70. 70.

    House and Howell (1992), p. 102.

  71. 71.

    Kouzes (2010), p. xvii.

  72. 72.

    See Popper (1957), for what is perhaps the best known critique of Plato’s philosopher-king in the 20th century. For a limited defence of Plato, see Graham (1983, 2002).

  73. 73.

    See, for example, Hursthouse (1991), pp. 225–226.

  74. 74.

    Oakley (1996), p. 132.

  75. 75.

    See, for example, Avey et al. (2012), p. 22, 25, 32.

  76. 76.

    Oakley (1996), p. 133.

  77. 77.

    Ciulla (2005), p. 325.

  78. 78.

    Hursthouse (1991), p. 226.

  79. 79.

    Oakley (1996), p. 131.

  80. 80.

    Avey et al. (2012), p. 21. In positing that good ethical character is instrumentally valuable in serving business motives, Avey et al. fall short of both of these marks.

  81. 81.

    Hursthouse (1999), p. 13.

  82. 82.

    House and Howell (1992), p. 87.

  83. 83.

    Kouzes (2010), p. xvii.


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Thanks are due to several anonymous referees for their comments and feedback. Earlier versions of this paper were read at a public lecture hosted by the Institute of Advanced Studies at the University of Western Australia and at the 2012 Australasian Association of Philosophy conference. Thanks are due to both of these hosts and to the comments are question of audience members on both occasions.

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Correspondence to Jacqueline Boaks.

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Levine, M.P., Boaks, J. What Does Ethics Have to do with Leadership?. J Bus Ethics 124, 225–242 (2014).

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  • Leadership
  • Virtue
  • Ethics
  • Machiavelli
  • Aristotle