Ethical leadership: Definition and defence


Wednesday, April 11, 2018

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Custos Rotulorum of St James Bishop Conrad Pitkin, at his installation ceremony on Thursday, issued a call for an ethics campaign and, as reported, said: “I pledge that in this office, I will work hand in hand with you to continue instilling strong moral values and attitudes in our children and youth for them to be better-prepared citizens.” This call from the custos triggered my thoughts on the widespread need for ethical leadership which, in my view, goes beyond ordinary leadership.

If a leader is basically “a person who influences people to accomplish a purpose”, then leadership is basically the art of influencing people to accomplish a purpose. Critical, then, to the basic effectiveness of a leader, or the cultivation of basic skills in the art of leadership, would be qualitative development on the leader's part on three dimensions:

1. the person dimension

2. the people dimension

3. the purpose dimension

It should be clear that by this basic and traditional approach to leadership there is nothing clearly stated or even implied about the nature of the end in view. Similarly, there is nothing clearly stated or even implied about the nature of the means that will be employed to achieve the end in view.

Based on this approach, Adolph Hitler and Mother Teresa were and are equally deserving of compliments as successful and effective leaders, even though their purposes and means were radically different.

My working definition of ethical leadership then is, “The net result of the power of a life lived consistently on high ethical principles impacting positively on other lives and influencing them to accomplish a wholesome purpose.”

Integrity and Character

Integrity is “abiding fidelity to wholesome, abiding principles”, and borders on being an absolute. The awful reality is that unless leaders in the private and public sectors reflect a commitment in principle and in practice to wholesome, abiding principles, society pays a high ethical price — as trust will be killed or gravely wounded by cynicism and scepticism, corruption will become almost endemic, and national development will be delayed.

A few quotes from two Jamaicans and a foreigner should help:

“Where there are no high ethical standards, the cost attached to malpractices in public life becomes trivial... The values of the society are fundamentally changing, and hustling, rackets and scams are now considered as normal activity; provided you make sure that you are not caught.”

— Professor Carl Stone, The Gleaner, 7/12/92

“What we are facing today is not a crisis of economic stability, we are getting there; this is not a crisis of courage, we have the strength; this is a crisis of conscience, character and the inner spirit of man.”

Dennis Lalor, The Gleaner, 13/12/92

“During the last century, man cast off the fetters of religion. Hardly was he free; however, when he created new and utterly intolerable chains...The kingdom of grace has been conquered, but the kingdom of justice is crumbling too. Europe is dying of this disappointing realisation.”

— Albert Camus, The Rebel, 1956, 279-280

Character, as its Greek roots suggest, is the mark engraved or impressed on a coin or seal, and so metaphorically the distinctive mark of a person, the core or essential 'stuff' of a person which could be either good or bad. As Os Guinness says, character “…is the indelible stamp on a person beneath all masks, poses, disguises, and social veneers…[it] is what we are when no one sees but God.”

— ( When No One Sees: The Importance of Character in an Age of Image, 2000, p.16)

Character vs Image

Put differently, character is 'what we are when not acting under the pressure of profiling. Character is like the stuff that goes into the building of a solid reinforced concrete wall. It is being good in essence (Gk. agathos)

Image is like the attractive veneer of wood carefully painted to look like a concrete wall. It is simply 'looking good' (Gk. kalos)

Ethical leaders are more concerned about character than image. When character takes priority over image, it fosters certain crucial leadership characteristics like:

i. Commitment: Openness to taking on and completing tasks agreed on as necessary for individual or group development.

ii. Persistence: The ability to overcome obstacles while pursuing noble goals.

iii. Self-mastery: Marked by a degree of discipline and self-control.

Wholesome character in leadership is absolutely fundamental. The fruit called public leadership and the fruit called private life spring from the same root — character.

“…character in leaders is important for two key reasons. Externally, character provides the point of trust that links leaders with followers. Internally, character is the part-gyroscope, part-brake that provides the leader's deepest source of bearings and strongest source of restraint. In many instances the first prompting to do good and the last barrier against doing wrong are the same-character.” ( Guinness, op cit, p 26)

It is not an exaggeration to say that the wellspring of ethical leadership is character with integrity as the initial evidence of character's presence. Nor is it an exaggeration to say that the malaise now afflicting and affecting Jamaican leaders in all spheres of the society is the other AIDS virus (Acquired Integrity Deficiency Syndrome). [This twist on AIDS as an acronym is borrowed from Gene Antonio, The AIDS Cover-up? The Real and Alarming Facts About AIDS, 1987, p 141].

Integrity deficiency is itself an indication of the need for transformation at the level of character. We can only hope Bishop Pitkin's call will be heeded.

Rev Clinton Chisholm is the academic dean, Caribbean Graduate School of Theology. Send comments to the Observer or

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