Leadership & Ethics


by Claudia de Castro Caldeirinha

Making decisions is rarely simple, making GOOD decisions is even more difficult. Between right and wrong there are multiple options and “grey zones”, so how can managers and leaders make the right decisions and resolve the ethical dilemmas they frequently face?

How can those who hold power and influence take effective decisions in our competitive world while preserving (economic, socio-political, environmental, etc.) sustainability and ethical principles?

Ethical dilemmas and decision-making

As part of this broad reflection, I have recently had the pleasure to exchange ideas with Professor Paul Woodruff, leading philosopher and Dean of the University of Texas. In this panel, organized by the Vlerick Business School and chaired by Prof. Katleen De Stobbeleir, Paul delivered a powerful message for leaders (and managers): “Leaders have the responsibility to become their “best Self”, to be courageous and speak up for what they believe is right.”

In his book “The Ajax Dilemma”, Paul Woodruff examines one of today's most pressing moral issues: how can a leader distribute rewards and public recognition without damaging the social –human- fabric? How should we honour those whose behaviour and achievement is essential to our overall success? Is it fair or right to lavish rewards on the superstar at the expense of the hardworking rank-and-file? How do we distinguish an impartial fairness from what is truly just?

We live in a world where CEOs give themselves million dollar bonuses even as their companies go bankrupt and ordinary workers are laid off; where athletes make millions while teachers struggle to survive; a world, in short, where rewards are often unfairly meted out.

Paul Woodruff builds his answer to these ethical questions around the ancient conflict between Ajax and Odysseus over the armour of the slain warrior Achilles. He argues that while a leader can never create a perfect system for distributing just rewards, s/he should recognize the essential role that wisdom, compassion, moderation, and respect must play if are to restore the basic sense of justice and ethics on which all communities depend. He also distinguishes the tyrant as opposed to an ethical and democratic leader. He elaborates in these distinctions below.

Characteristics of tyranny as opposed to democracy

Tyranny Democracy
Power by fear Communication
Ruthless Compassion
Injustice Justice
Arrogance Reverence/Humility
Does not listen Listens Listens
Cutting down potential leaders Promotion of talent & potential
Competition Wisdom

About Tyrants, Managers and Leaders

Both management skills and leadership skills are necessary in today’s world. Leadership is about long term perspective, sustainability and vision, so it might not deliver immediate results and/or might not be implemented on the spot. The management toolbox is important for short term mission and goals, in order to keep the organisation running.

  1. The Toolkit of the tyrant: His/her most important tool is fear in order to obtain his/her goals.
  2. The Toolkit of the manager: Most important tool are the incentives and sanctions in order to obtain the goals of management (targets).
  3. The Toolkit of the leader: Most important tool is communication (listening and speaking) in order to support and reach shared goals.

The limits of tyrants

Many people like tyrants, as we can see in some of the trends emerging in today’s world. Tyrants are appealing because they can do things very effectively and simply.

They impose their views and can manipulate through charm and fear. But tyrants have very strong limits:

  • Leading by fear is not sustainable;
  • They do not inspire people to be willing followers, so cannot retain nor nourish talent;
  • They do not spark a lot of innovation because they fear failure;
  • They do not bring up future leaders;
  • They cannot give new perspectives (no one dares to take a leap);
  • They do not trust others (they are afraid, just as others are afraid of the tyrant)

Tyrants cast shadows around them when they (1) abuse power, (2) hoard privileges, (3) mismanage information, (4) act inconsistently, (5) misplace or betray loyalties, and (6) fail to assume responsibilities.

3 Steps to take good decisions

Strategy inspired by David Lassiter’s work:

Step One: Analyse the consequences: Who will be helped by what you decide/do? Who will be damaged? What kind of benefits and injuries are we talking about? How does all of this, look over the long run, as well as the short run?

Step Two: Analyse the actions: Consider all of the choices from a different perspective, without thinking about the consequences. How do the actions measure up against moral principles (e.g. honest, fairness, equality, respecting the dignity of others, people’s rights, the common good)? Do any of the actions “cross the line?” If there’s a conflict between values or between the rights of different people involved, is there a way to see one principle as more important than the others? Which option offers actions that are least problematic?

Step Three: Make a decision: Take both parts of your analysis into account and make a decision. This strategy at least gives you some basic steps you can follow.

The Leaders we need

Leaders that meet the goals of their countries and organisations, while creating principled cultures and values-driven processes. Leaders who take ethical and social responsibility and invest in sustainable decisions. Leaders who provide justice. As Paul says, “justice heals the wounds and make people re-connect. It heals the rifts.”

The best Leaders are those who operate in four dimensions: vision, reality, ethics, and courage – these are the leaders who make our world a better place and their organisations a better space to work. In today’s world, we very much need these –women and men- leaders with Creativity, sense of Purpose and Empathy, who can see what is admirable and necessary in the different human profiles they have around, and who can make the best of this diversity to accomplish collective objectives.

We all have the capacity to be great. Greatness comes with recognizing that your potential is limited only by how you choose. And we are all free to choose.

Peter Koestenbaum