One of the more provocative ideas about leadership ethics that I have come across is from Terry Price, a professor of leadership ethics at the University of Richmond. In his most recent book, Leadership Ethics: An Introduction, Price poses a central question of leadership ethics: Do the distinctive features of leadership justify rule-breaking behavior? His essential idea is that, despite the stories that make the news, most unethical behavior does not happen because a leader is intentionally acting in their own personal self-interest. Instead, most everyday ethical failures happen because of something we all value – the intense commitment we expect effective leaders to feel towards the collective ends of the groups for which they are responsible. With this responsibility goes the belief that leaders are sometimes allowed to do with the rest of us are not allowed to do.
We all expect our leaders to stand up for our collective best interests – be those the interests of our group, organization, community, or nation. When they are seen as not doing that effectively, we want them fired, demoted, or not reelected. All groups tend to see their own goals as more important than the goals of other groups, and leaders measure their own effectiveness by their ability to accomplish agreed upon and important group goals. In this context, it can be easy to justify decisions based on the special obligations the leader owes to his/her group, or based on perceived special circumstances in the moment.
Followers can use similar justifications to rationalize and be more comfortable with the means used to accomplish important group goals, when a more objective view might show those to be in conflict with generally agreed upon moral principles. The point is that there is an important sense in which the way we typically think about effective leadership can set the stage for unethical behavior. In the face of morally difficult situations, leaders and their followers can sometimes find it easy to justify what would otherwise be seen as rule-breaking or unethical behavior because of the perceived importance of the ends they are trying to achieve — something to think about the next time you find yourself pushing hard to achieve a group goal.
What are your views? Are leaders ever justified in breaking moral rules in the service of important organizational, community, or national goals? I’m interested in your examples and comments!