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Developing Ethical Leadership

Ethics are defined as principles and values that inform and guide behaviour (Walsh, 2015), with professional ethics being the application of ethical standards and principles in the workplace (Collste, 2012). In the coaching, therapy and counselling professions, ethics are governed by organisations that set specific ethical standards and principles. In leadership, ethics are generally left to the personal ethics and morals of the leader, which can be a risky proposition in the VUCA world of organisations and their highly diverse people and teams.

Why such a risky proposition? Leaders generally make ethical decisions and tackle ethical dilemmas using virtue ethics, including their unique characteristics, values, and subjective views, informed by organisational culture and policy. This approach, although important, can often miss a more objective, rational, and systemic approach to appropriate ethical decision making, known as principle ethics. It also often overlooks the importance of the socio-cultural context within which the leader, their team members, and the organisation operate.

Another issue is that although ethical decision making is imperative, it seldom forms part of any proactive leadership development or coaching aimed at developing leaders, especially at the operational level. Two areas that could be used to address this are first, the development of ethical sensitivity (Rest, 1983) and second, the use of ethical decision-making models, both of which have been shown to improve the quality of decision making, especially with new and inexperienced leaders.

The good news is that ethical sensitivity in leaders can be developed through a commitment to learning, increased self-awareness, and applying an ethical lens to how they (the leader) lead others. Ethical sensitivity also includes applied behaviours such as showing fairness, leading with integrity, being people orientated, and being willing to share power (Kalshoven et al., 2011). It is also argued that a critical driver of ethical sensitivity includes the ability of a leader to assess situations in a culturally and socially sensitive way (Langlois et al., 2018).

Ethical decision-making models that integrate virtue and principle ethics and focus on socio-cultural factors are vital to making better ethical decisions. An excellent example of a model for leaders facing an ethical dilemma would include the following eight steps.

An 8 Step Model for Ethical Decision-Making

Ethical competence as a leader can be achieved through an organisational and individual commitment to developing ethical sensitivity. In addition, leaders are more effectively equipped to tackle ethical dilemmas by using ethical decision-making models that balance virtue and principle ethics and include a social and cultural lens.

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