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Leadership and ethics

In this article, Professor Mollie Painter reflects on what we mean by being "good".
Person reading a newspaper, their face is obscured by the paper.
© Roman Kraft on Unsplash

So, before we can interrogate the belief that something like transformational leadership is necessarily something ‘good’, we may need to make the distinction between ‘good’ in the normative/ethical sense, and ‘good’ in the sense of ‘being effective’.

In the transformational leadership literature, this is referred to as the “Hitler” problem:

  • Major premise: All transformational leaders are moral
  • Minor premise: Hitler was not moral

Conclusion: Hitler was not a transformational leader

Mmm, well, he had a pretty transformational impact on his followers!

The problem here is that most of us do not feel any need to contest the idea that there are bad teachers, bad doctors, or bad scientists. We take for granted that these people can fail, morally or technically. Why is such an assumption unacceptable when we talk about leaders? What makes the sheer possibility of a bad leader so horrifying that scholars of business leadership are at pains to convince their readership that Hitler was not a leader?

Since leadership is grounded in a relationship between followers and leaders, the attribution of goodness by followers becomes part and parcel of how leadership functions.

The goodness attributed to them allows them to function in the way they do.

But what if they are NOT always ‘good’?

One way in which the debate manifested was the divided opinion on whether Donald Trump was a ‘good’ leader… There were lots of allegations that some of his actions were, well, morally debatable…

  • Trump’s conflicts of interest in business dealings
  • Gender insensitivity
  • Accusations of collusion with Russia
  • Tax evasion of his whole family
  • Anti-semitism

So how do we judge what a ‘good’ leader is? We need ethical judgment…

When one asks any audience or group of students what comes to mind when they hear the word ‘ethics’, one typically gets the response that it is about right and wrong. But what does it mean to say that something is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’? There are no simple answers here. Precisely because ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ is based on finds acceptable or unacceptable in terms of judgment, conduct or institutional arrangements in a specific society.

Does this mean that ethics is synonymous with morality? Well, there are of course some overlaps between the terms: Morality can be defined as the whole of the current norms and values, i.e. ideas about ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ that exist in society. Certain beliefs about what is acceptable emerge over time and after a while, some level of consensus seems to develop.

The problem is that when ethics is just about what has emerged over time, we get stuck in one of the most basic philosophical fallacies, i.e. the is-ought fallacy. If we observe something to be the case at a specific juncture, we do not need to infer that it ought to be the case.

For example, to say that there have always been instances of injustice in our society, does not mean to say that there ought to be injustice. This brings us to an important distinction between ethics and morality. Whereas morality describes the current norms and values in society, ethics is the discipline of questioning whether we still agree with what is commonly accepted as right and wrong in society. It studies the norms and values of society, plots the factors involved in its emergence, and subjects it to critical scrutiny based on a philosophical interrogation of its validity and functioning within specific societies. If ethics loses this critical perspective, we have compromised its essence.

Now let’s think about this in a contemporary case… that of Partygate. Please watch, What is Partygate? One of the many scandals that led to Boris Johnson’s fall, then proceed to the next step.

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