Breaking Down Ethical Reasoning


I think it’s essential to articulate the importance and implication of ethical reasoning for today’s leaders. Specifically, for several reasons, ethical reasoning is critical regarding leader/follower theory. 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 facing 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 do the right thing and for the right reasons because the leader’s decisions and actions are most often directly shouldered by the followers.  

While plenty of theories, concepts, and practices could be discussed in regard to this, a few stick out in my mind as directly related to or concerning this particular outcome. However, this is not to say 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 the law, transgress a compliance mandate, or violate 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 to avoid making bad decisions in the first place. This is important from an organizational standpoint because you want your leaders to be equipped with the knowledge and the 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 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 seek to be a genuine transformational leader. Essentially, this is disinterested versus selfless concern for your followers’ and others’ well-being. If your position is truly one of altruism, then your decision models will undoubtedly lean more towards the ethical side, resulting in a much cleaner outcome. 

Of course, being altruistic has a great deal to do with ethics regarding that leader’s character. Essentially, the mental and moral qualities distinctive to that individual ultimately define 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 authentic leaders and unauthentic leaders. To further explain this, regarding 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.

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 as 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 organization’s goals.

This may not sound too bad at first, but I have discovered 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. Regarding ethical reasoning, I believe it’s important to pay homage to the idea that sometimes we are faced with decisions that require sacrifices. After all, we do not live in a perfect world.

So let’s say that the board of directors has a deadline for the 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 a 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 to 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 of 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.