Breaking Down Ethical Reasoning


I think it’s important to be able to articulate the importance and implication of ethical reasoning for today’s leaders. Specifically, ethical reasoning is critical in regard to leader/follower theory for a number of reasons. I believe that a leader must be able to speak to and answer ethical questions concerning judgments of right and wrong, good and bad, as well as matters of justice, fairness, virtue, and social responsibility. This could include but is not limited to events or issues in the face of tough opposition or peer pressure. This is vital because followers want and need strong and just leaders. They want to know the person they are following will the do the right thing and for the right reasons because the decisions and actions of the leader are most often directly shouldered by the followers.  

While there are plenty of theories, concepts, and practices that could be discussed in regard to this, there are a few that stick out in my mind as directly related to or concerning this particular outcome. This is not to say, however, that these are the apex, but rather just examples of the many. Perhaps at the very least, things like ethical failures, altruistic behaviors, bogus empowerment, and ethical challenges should be provided deliberate thought. Let me provide a few things to chew on.

The concept of “Ethical Failures” sounds just like what it is. It is all about the bad decisions that intentionally or unintentionally break a law, transgress a compliance mandate or violates an organization’s policy or code of conduct. As we learn about this concept though, we were focusing on the information and means necessary to avoid bad decisions in an effort to avoid making bad decisions in the first place. This is obviously important from an organizational standpoint because you want your leaders to be equipped with the knowledge, but also the certain context necessary to ensure thoughtful decision-making which will result in ethical outcomes. This, of course, will save the organization in the long-run in numerous ways.

The preceding may sound simple enough, but it actually requires a great deal of emphasis on the concept of “Altruistic Behaviors” in leadership. Leaders, in general, have a strong sense of self. This equates to selfishness for some. For instance, when we discuss the idea of the Pseudo-Transformational Leader, we are probably talking about a very selfish person. So the concept of altruistic leaders is important to cover if you are seeking to be a genuine transformational leader. Essentially, this is the concept of the disinterested versus the selfless concern for the well-being of your followers and other people. If your position is truly one of altruism, then your decision models will undoubtedly lean more towards the ethical side, which will result in a much cleaner outcome. 

Of course, being altruistic has a great deal to do with ethics in regard to that leader’s character. Essentially, the mental and moral qualities distinctive to that individual, ultimately defines if that leader will be ethical, but may also determine exactly what type of leader he or she may end up being. This is generally related to differences between the authentic leaders and unauthentic leaders. To further explain this; in regard to outcomes a leader might be professing, is that leader able or willing to keep promises or to tell the truth? Is that leader able or willing to truly empower their followers or is it all a set-up for the betterment of the leader? These elements are critical to examine; not only from a moral standpoint but also from a reputation standpoint for the organization as a whole – understanding of course that leaders are also representatives of the organization.

ethical behavior

Another concept that I feel is important is that of “Bogus Empowerment”. Basically, this is when a leader lies or “bends the truth” in such a way to make their followers feel better about themselves. Perhaps it is to eliminate conflict or increase a sense of belonging. The ultimate goal of this tactic is to get people to willingly and freely choose to work towards the goals of the organization.

This may not sound too bad at first but what I have discovered is that such tactics are unethical and that the leaders who use such tactics are generally thought of as inauthentic, insincere, and disrespectful. In other words, this tactic often backfires on the one using it. You wouldn’t like it if someone lied to your face about something and neither would your people. Do you want to be remembered as unethical or transformational? Act accordingly.

Finally, the concept of “Ethical Challenges” is also important. In regard to ethical reasoning, I believe it’s important to pay homage to the idea that sometimes we are faced with decisions where sacrifices must be made. After all, we do not live in a perfect world.

So let’s say that the board of directors has a deadline for closure of a merger. And let’s also say that the investigatory process had a few snags and is taking quite a bit longer than anticipated. The board is responsible for the ultimate decision but because of the snags, the board does not have a clear picture of the company potentially being acquired. Okaying the merger without the proper investigation may have horrible effects on the company. Not accepting the merger may also mean a loss of profit in the long run. What do you do?

In this particular case, we are looking at an ethical challenge. However, putting a stop on the merger wins out because failing to investigate the matter properly could impact everyone negatively and may even be viewed as gross negligence and/or a breach of the ethical and legal duties in regard to the company. Tough call… but entirely necessary.

Ethical reasoning can be hard to wrap your head around at times. As you can see, leadership isn’t always so cut and dry. Applying reason and purpose to learning various concepts (such as the ones provided) can provide amazing insights into how one might lead and what tools might be used. Of course, these are just a few things to chew on as the discipline itself is vast and there is still much more to consider.

Lead on!

Want to learn more about ethics? Be sure to read my article titled “Ethical Leadership.