The idea of ethics dates as far back as Plato’s era. Ethics comes from the Greek word ‘ethos’, which means character and customs. It revolves around the morals and values that are considered appropriate by individuals and society as a whole. Individuals are faced with many different situations and it is the choice of right or wrong that defines ethics. Ethics can also be defined as the standards that govern a person’s conduct, especially in a profession. Therefore, involves a person’s decisions and actions. When our actions are consistent with our beliefs, we are considered to be acting ethically. These morals, norms and beliefs ought to be consistent in our work and in our personal lives.
In leadership, ethics is about character, actions, and behaviors. A leader is defined by their character, their actions, what they stand for, their morals and values. Ethics determines these components. It is the leader who sets the ethical tone for a group or community to follow. A leader is regarded to have higher moral standards than their followers, which inspires them to emulate their leader. Over the past years, society has taken interest in the integrity and ethical standards of their leaders, especially in government as it sets the pace for a nation and promotes trust in the system.
The Importance of Ethics
Ethical dilemmas have been a common occurrence since the establishment of societies. Many communities and organizations are discouraging unethical behavior and the friction they cause in relationships for obvious moral and practical reasons. Healthy relationships in professional settings are necessary for growth and they can only be established through an agreed set of values, norms, and principles. Human cooperation is easier when there are accepted rules in society. In the healthcare profession, for example, caregivers receive the right training and skills to ensure they uphold their legal and moral standards as they attend to patients (Hassan et al, 2013). A healthcare professional cannot be prejudiced to a patient by refusing to give treatment even though the patient’s suffering is self-inflicted. A suicidal patient, for example, cannot be denied treatment by a doctor simply because they have tried to take their own life before, as the doctor’s code of ethics considers this as murder. Ethical standards also prevent professionals from discriminating against clients according to race, religion, color or ethnicity.
Ethics also define the relationship between professionals with each other and the people they offer their services to. In the relationship between physicians and patients, there are set codes that set the boundaries. These are meant to protect a patient from manipulation by the doctor, especially when they are in a vulnerable mental state. In organizations, the code of ethics often prevents relationships between coworkers especially when one is in a higher ranking position than the other. This is based on the fact that such a relationship could either be rooted in manipulation or control, which is unhealthy for either party. Ethics, therefore, not only provide an equal playing field for different types of people in a professional setting, but also protect the vulnerable from exploitation.
The Composition of Ethics
Ethics are a system that differentiates right from wrong and provides us with philosophies that help us with the everyday decisions we make. Ethics are based on actions and not necessarily debates and discussions on the issue. As such, personal ethics play a huge role in the decisions and actions we take each day. When faced with an ethical dilemma, the decision one chooses to makes depends on one’s personal ethics. For example, if one went to a grocery store and received excess change for the goods they bought, they can either choose to return the money to the cashier or be quiet about it and go home with it. The decision one takes strongly depends on their personal ethics, beliefs, and values. Personal ethics form the basis for societal ethics as they influence our decisions and actions when no one is watching.
Unethical behavior not only revolves around your beliefs on what is right or fair but also reflects your personal brand and what others come to expect from you both personally and in your profession. Unethical behavior brings down the morals a leader stands for in the eyes of their followers. It breaks the trust that followers have in their leaders and they may no longer remain loyal. Making ethical decisions is not an easy task and personal ethics play a huge role in ensuring that a leader always makes the right moral decisions.
In business, ethical practices revolve around abiding by the set laws and regulations, operating with integrity, competing fairly and providing a reasonable and conducive environment for employees. The business also has to create partnerships with customers, investors, and vendors by ensuring that all the decisions made are in the best interest of their stakeholders. Ethical businesses have characteristics such as: being respectful and treating stakeholders fairly, having honest communication with stakeholders, ensuring all dealings are upright and ensuring high levels of personal accountability. Unethical practices in a business organization often bring down the name of the entire organization regardless of the number of parties involved. A business, therefore, has to ensure that it promotes the right ethical culture in the organization through sound leadership and a working reward and discipline system.
Ethics and Leadership
The perspective of ethical leadership has changed over the years to include the idea that not only should leaders be able to make decisions and take actions that are in accordance with their values and norms but also they should be able to inspire and cultivate the same level of decision making in their followers. Ethical leadership revolves around motivation and inspiration of a group of followers who are under a great leader. Ethical leadership rests on three important pillars that define the practice (Jordan et al, 2013). The first is known as the moral person. It can be defined as the leader’s personal integrity and how they are able to apply it in every aspect of their lives. The second is how well the leader is able to cultivate that integrity in their followers. As mentioned earlier, it is important as a leader to be able to lead followers in the right direction. This can be done through nurturing and cultivating the behavior of making the right moral decisions at all times. Lastly, the third pillar revolves around the relationship between the leader and their followers and its quality so as to bridge the gap between the moral person and the moral manager. A relationship between followers and a leader defines the status of the leader and their influence.
A Moral Person
Both empirical and theoretical studies have stressed the idea that ethical leadership is founded on a leader’s personal convictions and values. As a leader, one should have the courage to uphold these values even when faced with the harshest external pressures or risks. There are many moral qualities that are associated with ethical leadership such as being modest, trustworthy, fair, respectful, honest, upright and reliable (Crane & Matten, 2016). These traits also need to be embedded in the decisions made by the leader and their behaviors. An ethical leader is able to understand the ethical elements of a decision they are making and oversee the consequences of their decision. As an ethical leader, one should be able to understand the moral implications of the goals they set and the means they will use to achieve them.
There have been large debates on whether a leader needs to have a certain level of self-awareness and authenticity to be considered ethical. An ethical leader has genuine interest in the wellbeing of others, an enduring interest in their followers’ needs and an interest in the common good. They are committed to a higher sense of purpose and hold on to altruistic values. These altruistic values are the basis of what makes the leader reputable and emulated by a large following of people. If a leader’s morals and beliefs are similar to everyone else’s beliefs, then there ceases to be that special component to their leadership and this leads to a lack of following.
An Ethical Leader as a Moral Manager
An important element of the reputation and perception of ethical leadership is role modeling. It is quite necessary as a leader for one’s decisions and behaviors to be observable by their followers to enhance their place as a role model. Ethical leaders have to be careful as they can send out a negative or conflicting signal to their followers. Studies have indicated that leaders are often likely to lower their subordinates’ ethical standards rather than uplift them. This can be caused by the fact that they exert pressure on their followers and engage in behaviors that are perhaps considered questionable by their subordinates. Often, people are not aware of the leader’s intent and make inferences based on the actions they have witnessed. Since a leader is not always presented with the opportunity to explain their thought process, they have to ensure that they are always on the right path.
The onus is, therefore, on the leader to ensure that their decisions and actions go hand in hand with their morals. An ethical leader should be aware of how their decisions will be perceived by their followers. They should then make an effort to ensure that their norms, values, and rules are consistent with their conduct and, thereby, remove the need for reasoning or explanations for their actions (Price, 2017). Also, as a moral manager, one should be able to reinforce ethical standards through reward and discipline. When followers are greatly rewarded for behaviors and actions that support the ethical standards set by their leader, they are more likely to base their decisions on these good behaviors and create a strong ethical culture within the organization.
A Strong Relationship between the Leader and Followers
The ethical decisions and behaviors of a leader often include actions that affect their followers directly or indirectly. This inevitably has an effect on the relationship between the leader and their followers. How a leader treats their followers is an important determinant of how the followers perceive their ethical standards. In order to cultivate a good ethical culture of decision making and behavior, a strong relationship needs to be built between a leader and their followers (Rosch et al, 2016). Cultivating such a relationship is a continuous process that is cyclic. A leader’s integrity earns them trust, loyalty, and credibility from their followers. They are then able to set the organizational values on ethical standards. On the other hand, for them to influence their followers, they have to instill the same level of trust and loyalty. Leaders who are attentive and loyal to their followers, treat them fairly and are supportive are more likely to see the followers reciprocate the desired behaviors in the organization.
Ethical leaders enhance the quality of their relationship with their followers by empowering them and encouraging them. A leader may empower their followers by expressing his or her confidence in their output and assuring them that they are competent enough to handle the tasks handed to them. Indirectly, this can be done by giving the followers the opportunity to participate in decision-making processes and allowing them to air out their perspectives and concerns on matters concerning the organization (Wu et al, 2015). It is also important to help them set realistic and achievable goals that will motivate them to work harder. Empowering followers builds their trust and stimulates their minds to question any assumptions they may have and to think creatively. It additionally builds the ability of the leader to influence the decisions and behaviors of their followers.
Ethical Leadership under the Clintons
Bill Clinton was the 42nd president of the United States after he defeated George Bush. In his leadership, the country was in bliss with a surplus budget, reduced unemployment, low crime rates and many more. His presidency was the mark of great leadership and was highly reputable. He was more so admired for using the necessary resources to defeat Bush. He was seen as a referent and an expert. Under his presidency, he led the country to send a man to the moon, a feat that had not been achieved ever before. Nuclear armory also began and he managed to balance the budget while creating 23 million jobs at the same time. His presidency was the longest peacetime economic expansion had seen in the history of the United States. All these achievements were fulfilled because he believed in individual liberty and the chance for every person under the U.S. flag to achieve the American dream.
Nonetheless, his leadership was haunted by ethical controversies. A series of issues including gay rights, , questions of healthcare and attacks on his personal morals.. The Clintons were investigated for three major scandals; the Whitewater controversy, the Travelgate scandal, and the Monica Lewinsky scandal. The Monica Lewinsky scandal was especially remembered by the public after President Clinton initially came forward denying ever having any relations with her. However, only seven months later, the president retracted that statement and that put a stain on his reputation as a leader. These different scandals that his leadership endured overshadowed the great strides the country had taken under his leadership and his ethics were constantly in question.
It is important to remember that President Clinton was simply human. As a human, one is bound to have certain flaws in their character alongside their good behaviors. Through the errors that Mr. Clinton made one is able to see his human nature. However, it is important to note that as an ethical leader, there are some expectations from followers that put a leader on a higher pedestal. The country’s attention was taken from his achievements to the scandals and investigations he was under, which undermined his leadership and ethical standards.
Ethical Leadership under Jimmy Carter
While President Clinton was recognized more for his works during his leadership, the opposite is true for Jimmy Carter. Jimmy Carter was the president of the U.S. between 1977 and 1981 but is recognized more for his work after his presidency. After the Watergate scandal, Mr. Carter appealed to the nation as an honest, common man who had high standards of personal principles and integrity. However, his presidency was seen to lack specificity and a vision or purpose. It wasn’t until he was out of the presidency that the public began to see the consistency in his vision and goals and his capability to be successful in a different setting.
Jimmy Carter presented the country with a morally upright leader at a time when citizens felt the government had been lying to them for a lengthy period of time. There were lies about Vietnam, Watergate, the pardon of Nixon and many other incidents that had lessened the public’s trust in the presidency. Mr. Carter was an authentic outsider which built the trust of the public in him. He led by example but always spent his time as a loner, in the hope that others would at some point be won to his way of thinking. To top it all, he was a born-again Christian and was viewed to be righteous. His character and ethical standards are what got him into government as he gained the trust and loyalty of the public. He continued his legacy long after his presidency, building himself as a peace activist and a crusader against poverty and disease.
It is rather important to note that his ethical leadership was, however, not enough to keep him in office. First, his Christianity rubbed people the wrong way especially the Democrats in the Congress. Washington simply would not agree with him or his manner. This was pushed further by the disasters in economic and foreign policies plus the sabotage effort by Ted Kennedy. His presidency was doomed and after it eventually fell, he worked on reinventing himself post-presidency. He is currently a champion of human rights and has found a more fulfilling cause as a leader.
From an ethical standpoint, it is easy to see how decision making and behaviors determine how followers view a leader. Under the leadership of the Clintons, the country enjoyed great economic relief, jobs were created, the budget was achieved and the country prospered. The citizens had great faith, loyalty, and trust in their leader and their ethical standards. At such a point it was easy to emulate Bill Clinton and view him as the epitome of inspiring leadership. However, all that changed once he was faced with numerous scandals and investigations. In my view, this was especially after the Monica Lewinsky scandal as this is when the public began to question even his personal decisions. In the other investigations, the whole government was in question but the Lewinsky scandal was more personal and, therefore, his followers lost trust in his decision-making skills. His leadership is a perfect example of the high pedestal that leaders are viewed on and why it is crucial for them to have high ethical standards.
On the other hand, Jimmy Carter’s ethical standards were not questioned because of any political scandals but simply by the fact that his words did not align with his actions. During his campaign and at the beginning of his presidency, Jimmy Carter promised Americans an honest relationship built on transparent communication. He also relayed the fact that he was a born-again Christian and would uphold the right morals in government. After all the scandals the country had been through, the public was looking for a trustworthy man and found him in Mr. Carter. However, Mr. Carter did not deliver as he had promised. While he did manage to be the righteous man he had promised his followers, the country was hit by economic disasters and problems with foreign policies that made his leadership questionable. His leadership teaches that a leader must learn to deliver what they have promised to their followers. A leader needs to be all rounded and capable of applying ethical principles in all aspects of their lives not just in their personal decisions.
The topic of ethics raises a lot of debate, whether individually or in society. All of society, however, agrees that it is important for a person to have a set of principles that guide them in making the right decisions and choosing good behaviors. There are several components to ethics and it is important to remember them when faced with an ethical dilemma. Ethical leadership involves the combination of good ethics with leadership that can be emulated. A good and ethical leader must have certain personal ethics they abide by. They must also be able to cultivate these characters in others and influence them to follow their example. A sound relationship must then be built between the leader and their followers based on mutual trust, loyalty and empowerment.
There are many lessons to be learned from the leadership of Bill Clinton and his wife Hillary Clinton. Their leadership began on solid ethical grounds and they were the perfect role models. However, after the scandals that rocked the leadership, we learn that it is quite easy for leadership to be questioned when followers no longer trust the leader’s ethical standards. In the case of Jimmy Carter, we see a man who was clothed in righteousness, but equally lost his admiration as a leader when his decision-making skills were brought to question. From him, we see the need for leaders to apply their ethical standards in both their work and their personal life as their followers look on both for inspiration. Therefore, it is evident that to sustain the trust of followers, a leader must have solid ethical grounds and great decision making skills, but more so, apply them all round.
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