“I hope I shall possess firmness and virtue enough to maintain what I consider the most enviable of all titles, the character of an honest man.”
Washington at Newburgh
SHORTLY AFTER THE END of the Revolutionary War, the Continental Army was on the verge of insurrection. The core grievance was that neither soldiers nor officers had been paid by Congress.
A group of officers who had gathered at Newburgh, New York, invited George Washington to address their assembly. Their intent was to offer him the position of emperor or even king if he would lead a military coup against the newly founded nation. Washington saw the peril to the new republic for what it was—a direct threat to the country’s hard-won liberties.
As Washington stood to address the assembled officers, he slowly pulled a pair of spectacles from his pocket. The room fell suddenly silent, for no one knew the great general required eyeglasses. Even such a simple device to aid the aging Washington was met with disbelief. As he fumbled to adjust his glasses, Washington said, “Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray but nearly blind in the service of my country.”
On hearing Washington’s words, many in the room broke down in tears. In such a simple act, Washington told those assembled that what they all had fought for was far more precious than whatever grievances they might have. Any thought of a coup was instantly dissolved.
The precedent Washington set ensured that young country would avoid the peril of a military coup. Washington took a moral stand. He acted ethically in the service of the great principles for which the war had been fought. Had he acted differently, a ruinous course would have been set in motion.
Like Washington, you will face moral and ethical challenges throughout your leadership career. Unfortunately, they are unavoidable.
I discovered this all too quickly as a young lieutenant on my first assignment in Germany. I worked for a captain who was having an affair with our married branch chief—a crime under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. What’s more, we all worked for a division chief who was discovered smuggling crystal glassware into the country. Eventually, he was fined an entire year’s pay.
This kind of behavior was contrary to everything I had been taught about the behavior expected of Air Force officers, not to mention to the way I had been raised.
Deeper Insight into Moral and Ethical Leadership
The cold, hard reality is that moral failures and ethical shortfalls are part of the world we live in. It’s not a matter of if but of when an ethical dilemma will present itself to you.
Not only that, you will be faced with multifaceted situations that will challenge your sense of right and wrong. These situations will require you to have a refined moral conscience so that you can discern what’s best for your organization and your people. You will be expected to behave ethically despite any pressures placed on you to do otherwise.
Complicating your challenge is that we live in a culture that tilts toward moral relativism—the belief that there is no right or wrong, only a variety of ways to “look at” things. This has created an environment in which many are unwilling to make value judgments. However, leaders are required to make such value judgments because of the very nature of their role.
If you aspire to success as a leader, you must be able to reason beyond categories of black and white. Moral reasoning requires nuance. Stepping into the leadership role demands that you make value judgments about the foundational principles that underlie standards of conduct. These judgments inform decision making, which, in turn, precedes ethical conduct and enables moral leadership.
It’s easy to preach about ethics but far more difficult to live ethically, especially when you are faced with moral ambiguity.
When it comes to what people expect from their leaders, research in the emerging field of ethical leadership indicates that ethical leaders are thought to be honest, trustworthy, fair, and principled. They are also expected to care about people and the broader community and to conduct their personal and professional lives in a manner consistent with these principles. This is the moral aspect of ethical leadership (Treviño et al., 2000, 2003).
In other words, as an ethical leader, you are expected to “walk the talk.” This includes making an effort to positively influence the behavior of those around you by communicating consistent ethical messages, intentionally modeling ethical behavior, and holding people accountable for ethical conduct.
Further, you are responsible for instilling a positive ethical climate in your organization. This responsibility challenges you to answer questions about the kind of climate that you want to permeate your organization.
Such questions include (Thornton, 2006):
- What are the specific ethical behaviors that are required of all organizational leaders?
- What are the consequences for you and your organization if you don’t behave ethically?
- What are the situations you may encounter that could lead you into a moral gray area?
- How should you handle these gray areas?
- What does it look like when you perform according to the organization’s stated values?
- How should you make decisions when you encounter difficult situations?
- Where might you fall into gray areas as you implement your goals and values?
- In what areas will you not tolerate compromise?
- What are your areas of flexibility?
- Where do you need to clarify your mission and values, to make it apparent that this is an ethical organization, and ethics are not negotiable in an ethical organization?
- How can you more effectively recruit, recognize, and retain ethical leaders?
Ethical culture follows from ethical leadership. It takes leaders who are willing to implement value-based messages, policies, training systems, and personnel-selection processes that support ethical behavior. This approach has been shown to be the most effective in sustaining a morally just, ethically founded organizational culture (Brown & Treviño, 2006).
Also, ethics that are specific to leadership can be developed, especially given the proliferation of university-level courses following the scandal-ridden business history of the past twenty years. These courses share similar structures in that they seek to define the theory and practice of ethical leadership and an ethics-based culture. Methodologies and tools include self-assessments, personal reflection, and feedback, as well as the application of knowledge gained through the use of case studies.
You probably will never have to face an imminent coup as Washington did, but you will find yourself dealing with situations that will have far-reaching consequences for the future of your organization. It is your job to make sound decisions, lead with integrity, and build an ethical culture in your organization.
Recap for Ethical and Moral Leadership
- Moral and ethical behavior is an integral component of leadership.
- As a leader, you will be faced with situations that will challenge you personally, as well as having significant implications for your organization.
- Your personal behavior has a direct impact on those around you and the organization.
- Leaders have a responsibility to instill and sustain an ethical climate in their organizations.
- Moral judgment and ethical behavior can be taught.
- It’s your job to be morally sound and ethically fit.
- What score do you give yourself when it comes to modeling ethical behavior?
- What does your behavior communicate to others?
- What moral issues do you anticipate encountering in your leadership role?
- How well prepared do you think you are for dealing with these issues?
- Will you have the courage to live out your values when you experience pressure to compromise or rationalize?
- What can you do to build and strengthen the ethical climate in your organization?