The Ethical Challenges Faced by Leaders Ethical Challenges Faced by Leaders
 “Divorced from ethics, leadership is reduced to management and politics to mere technique.”
-James MacGregor Burns

We all face ethical challenges and dilemmas, and all the more so if we lead. Think how you would act in the following scenarios:

  • You give the cashier a $10 bill, and she gives you change for a $20. You realize it in the parking lot. Do you trudge back and give her the money?
  • You incur some personal charges on a business trip. Do you fudge some expenses to help cover these costs?
  • Do you overestimate your charitable contributions on your tax form to minimize your reported profit and taxes.
  • Your boss asks you to cover for him with some false excuse while he is absent from work for some private reason. Do you refuse and risk his wrath?
  • The customer asks if the product you sell can do a certain function. It’s the end of the quarter with the pressure on to make the sales numbers. You don’t know the answer, and if you say so, the sale may be lost. How do you answer?


Ethical Rationalizations

Rationalizations for poor decisions are legion:

  • “Everyone is doing it.”
  • “It’s just this once.”
  • “No one will notice.”
  • “I won’t get caught.”
  • “Business is business.”
  • “It’s just a small amount.”
  • “I deserve this.”

How you approach these scenarios is essential, especially if you want to be a leader.

 “Integrity is the most important characteristic of a leader,
and one that he or she must be prepared to demonstrate again and again.”
-Warren Bennis, leadership scholar

Do you want to do the right thing and sleep with a clean conscience? Then how can you better prepare yourself for the ethical pitfalls that await you as a leader?

Leadership Derailers Assessment

Take this assessment to identify what’s inhibiting your leadership effectiveness. It will help you develop self-awareness and identify ways to improve your leadership.


Preparing Yourself for the Ethical Challenges Faced by Leaders

Here is our counsel:

  • Commit. Commit to act ethically in everything you do. No excuses. No rationalizations.
  • Anticipate. Be ready to deal with ethical challenges before they occur. When you face them, you may be under emotional or financial stress. Clear thinking may be difficult then. Prepare in advance.
  • Personal Values. Write down your personal values. (Use our Personal Values Exercise.) They can serve as your moral compass.
  • Shared Values. In your work group, collaboratively develop your group’s shared values based on each person’s personal values. Then commit to hold each other accountable to act accordingly.
  • Counsel. Have a small, trusted group of advisors, perhaps outside your work group (and with people from non-competing industries), with whom you can discuss ethical dilemmas in confidence and gain their counsel. Sorting it out alone is often impossible because of our ability to rationalize our actions. (For a model for how to do this, see Bill George’s work on True North Groups.”)
  • Legacy. As Bob’s friend and former business colleague, Jeff Powers, tells us, you can leave a legacy or a stain. What is your choice for your children to remember you by? By thinking about your intended legacy tomorrow, you’re more likely to make better decisions today.
  • Sanctuary. Have a place of sanctuary where you can reflect in solitude. Your inner voice gets shut down in our frenzied world, so find a place to meditate, hike, bike, or just relax. Build this into your routine as a sacrosanct, regular practice.
  • Courage. Recognize it takes courage to speak up. Being a “voice of one” in defense of values and principles is rarely easy. Courage is not the absence of fear; it is the willingness to proceed in the face of fear. Summon your courage to do the right thing, even when it’s costly or hard. If you do, you will build character and start developing trust.

As a leader, you will face ethical challenges. Are you ready for them? Why not make your ethical commitment now?

 “No one is more valuable to the organization than the subordinate willing to speak truth to power.”
-Warren Bennis, leadership scholar and author

Personal Values Exercise

Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.


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Gregg Vanourek and Bob Vanourek are leadership practitioners, teachers, and award-winning authors (and son and father). They are co-authors of Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations, a winner of the International Book Awards. Check out their Leadership Derailers Assessment or get their monthly newsletter. If you found value in this, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps! Ethical Challenges Faced by Leaders