The Emerging Importance of Ethical Leadership
26th July 2021 | Sakis Tassoudis
A modern-day Odyssey in search of ethics and purpose in leadership.
I have observed increasing concerns about the potentially unfortunate fate of organisations and society in the event of ethics and purpose not playing an important role in leadership, human relationship and our behaviour. Therefore, I strongly believe that it is the responsibility of today’s leaders to communicate to the workforce the need for developing behavioural models based on ethics and purpose in organisational life. The importance of ethics and purpose in leadership is at the centre of my inquiry. My research aims to delve into the significance of leaders acting as an “ethical role model” and being an “important antecedent of ethical leadership”, as Brown and Treviño (2006:600) point out. Next to persuasion, which is based on ethics and purpose, leaders should demonstrate congruity in their words and actions.
Using ancient Greek literature, Greek philosophy and the work of leading authors in the field of leadership, ethics and purpose, my research uses metaphors from Homer’s Odyssey and the Iliad, to illustrate my business journey and experiences.
My research aspires to produce findings based on honest rendering from an autoethnographical perspective about ethics and purpose that might inspire leaders and upcoming leaders in my company. I hope to inspire leaders to embrace ethics and purpose as part of their leadership style and also hope that they will inspire their followers as well.
Nostos (Ancient Greek: νόστος) is a theme common in Ancient Greek literature. It was brought to life in Homer’s Odyssey. Nostos concerns an epic hero returning home by the sea and retaining both his status and identity. In a metaphorical sense, I planned to use Homer’s Odyssey to draw upon my business life experiences and journey.
Little did I know about the nostos of leaders and what I would experience throughout my career aiming for great leadership when I was first baptised in the waters of business 25 years ago. The nostos of my business life has allowed me to meet many influential leaders. By some of them I was impressed, and I observed high levels of ethical virtues, the power of sharing personal values, the importance of a purpose-driven attitude, integrity, vision and the courage to lead. I praised them like Odysseus in Homer’s Iliad praised Achilles, the greatest of all Greek warriors (Markantonantos and Tsangalis, 2017:3).
Other leaders in my business life have been influential too but to a lesser degree, as examples of what to avoid rather than to emulate. Leaders guided by narcissism, self-love, megalomania and cyclothymia have behaved like Poseidon when Odysseus blinded his one-eyed giant son, Polyphemus as Morrison (2011:3) explains. Odysseus had to deal with many narcissistic characters in the Iliad and the Odyssey as well as Olympian gods and goddesses, great warriors and kings.
Known for his cunning intelligence, he employed ruse and the weakness of narcissists, their extreme hatred of being embarrassed, against them. But Odysseus behaved himself with narcissism too, as in the case of Polyphemus. Before Odysseus blinded Polyphemus, he was asked about his name, he replies that his name is “Nobody”. After getting Polyphemus drunk and blinding him, he wakes with a shriek, and the other cyclops come to see what is wrong, but they leave as soon as he tells them that, “Nobody” blinded him. As Odysseus and his men escape from the cave, unseen by the blind Polyphemus, Odysseus calls from his ship to land and reveals his true name. Polyphemus lifts up a prayer to his father, Poseidon, calling for vengeance on Odysseus, (Cliff Notes to Book 5, 2020).
My resistance to abandoning my principles to follow narcissistic leaders has been the reason I earned their wrath and the cyclones of their hatred, like Odysseus after getting released from the captivity by the “bewitching nymph” Calypso and then spotted by Poseidon on the open sea (Cliff Notes to Book 5, 2020). I do not regret my courage to stay true to my personal virtues and my will to not compromise and leave toxic leaders in my career. I have also accepted instances that resulted in me not getting a promotion to excellent jobs.
In my life, I have also met mentors such as Athena, the ancient Greek goodness who advised Odysseus with wisdom, handicraft and warfare. One of these mentors was my professor at university, Professor Dr Kreuzer, who helped me understand that I need to create opportunities to grow. Mentors like Professor Dr Kreuzer made me understand that I needed to welcome the breeze of business-life freedom when leaving a toxic leader, and embrace the odyssey to lands of new opportunities.
Looking back at some of these toxic leaders, their actions sometimes appeared to me like pursuing self-annihilation due to their emotional isolation and distrust, as Freud explained as being the dark side to narcissism, as Maccobi (2004:1) describes. And for some who I still happen to know, their careers ended just as Narcissus died.
However, I have to acknowledge that I still see many narcissistic leaders to be very successful in large organizations. In my career, I worked, and I competed with many narcissistic leaders. I might have some characteristics which they admire and cause them to choose me for their teams. Perhaps it is my audaciousness? My conclusion is that I can´t avoid them, I rather need to learn how I can thrive and grow next and above them.
As Stein (2013:282) explains, many world leaders rely on their “grandiose belief systems” that makes them motivational and constructive. However, narcissistic leaders might incubate problems that are uncovered at a later stage as seen by Stein (2013:281) in the Lehman brothers’ case he uses for his analysis. In my view, the potential problem of narcissistic leaders is the ethical component of leadership. I believe that narcissistic leaders often have to deal with ethical grey areas in corporate life due to their ambition to have positions of power and a desire for a manifestation of their belief system that is strongly based on feeling special and seeking power for themselves as the priority while sacrificing their employees if necessary for their own benefit.
Narcissus, in Greek mythology, is the son of the river god, Cephissus, and the nymph, Liriope. He was known for his beauty. According to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Book III, Narcissus’s mother was told by Tiresias, the blind seer, that he would have a long life, provided he never recognised himself. Narcissus died by pool gazing at his own reflection with which he fell in love.
The leaders I have met, the human relationships and the development of virtues through my learning have shaped my understanding of leadership. In my view, all of us have the potential to become leaders. It is our choice which leadership style we will choose or develop. I believe that the catalyst to becoming an outstanding leader relates to devotion to virtues, ethics with purpose for doing good, next to humanness in our leadership style: all of these aforementioned qualities have to be the integral parts of any leadership style. In this context, while reading Adler’s story (2008:6), I was intrigued by the words of David Krieger whom she quotes: “We are all born with the potential to become humans. How we choose to live (and to lead) will be the measure of our humanness.”
Today, in moments of critical reflection about leadership, I recognise the importance of ethics and purpose. They are undoubtedly paramount in my understanding of leadership. The “why?” needed to be answered in this project. Do ethics and purpose have an emerging importance in the 21st century leadership approach? How does this impact not just my own but also my teams’ and my company’s effectiveness? The “how?” needed to be clarified.
Finally, my recently discovered passion for communicating effectively and coaching, backed by real-life business experiences, has become a crucial element of my leadership practice. But can communication and coaching in leadership illuminate to my team and future leaders the emerging importance of ethical and purpose-driven behaviour of a leader? The “what” is related to the influence of using communication and coaching in leadership for inspiring others, by acting as an ethical role model, about the importance of ethical and purpose driven behaviour.
My research question is: “Can the behaviour of a leader who reasons well and is guided by moral principles be construed as a behavioural model that supports the development of more ethical leaders?”
My hypothesis is that by believing ethical behaviour and purpose to be components of leadership, with a growth mindset and an ambition to use communication and coaching as elements of my leadership style, I will be able to elicit ethical behaviour in my team and the teams I´m working with.
The elicitation of ethical and purpose-driven mindsets in my organization will positively influence the ethical culture in my organization by role modelling and encouraging others to follow. I further believe that ethics and purpose in leadership support the effectiveness of the workforce. Effectiveness is related to the satisfaction and psychological well-being of the workforce and is related to the positive effects of ethical leadership within organizations, as Avey, Wersing and Palanski (2012:32) conclude. Figure 1 illustrates my hypothesis and research theme.
The core of my research is mirrored in my research question: “Can the behaviour of a leader who reasons well and is guided by moral principles be construed as a behavioural model that supports the development of more ethical leaders?”
Inspired by Aristotle’s Rhetoric, the later rhetoricians created the rhetorical triangle as described by Lutzke and Henggeler (2009). Similarly, I have formulated the “triangle of ethical and purpose-driven leadership (ETL)” (Figure 2).
ETL highlights the three main traits of ethical and purpose-driven leadership. In this context, Ethos appeals to the morality, character, and the moral principles by which a leader should be guided. Telos appeals to the purpose or motive of the leader, his sense of resolve or determination. Logos is the term for the words, thoughts, and principles of speech for a leader, and his main argument when appealing to others with reason. Coaching is a modern complementary way of using Logos.
My hypothesis that relates to my research question is that the behaviour of a leader who reasons well, with a purpose (telos), and is guided by moral principles (ethos) can be construed as a behavioural model that supports the development of more ethical leaders. The role of the leader as a coach in this context is the transactional component that involves using communication (logos) to emphasize ethical behaviour.
To crystalize the emerging importance of ethical leadership, I analysed my leadership identity in the cultural environment of my team and organization, relying on my experience as the basis for the exploration. Autoethnography, being “an approach to research and writing that seeks to describe (graphy) and analyze personal (auto) experience to understand cultural experience (ethno)” as Ellis, Adams, and Bocher (2011,273) state in their overview of autoethnography. That is the approach that I used for my research.
I focused on the following main means of data collection:
- Personal interviews – I gathered data from four types of informants. First, senior executives (including board members) from my company. Second, my peers in business, meaning people who are on the same level as I in the hierarchy in my organization and with whom I frequently work face to face. Third, my direct SAP reports, people who work closely with me every day. Fourth, the members of the wider SAP team who work directly with other managers in their countries but report to me from a functional perspective (indirect reports).
- The second source of information has been my observation of the so-called watercooler or coffee-corner discussions in which people are open and enjoy the informal discussion. Observations that I have from my experience, my past projects, and actual discussions that happen in any way are reflected and analysed.
The following four formats were used for data collection: 1) semi-structured Interviews, 2) team and group interviews, 3) water-cooler discussions with individuals and teams that engage with me frequently, 4) observation and epiphanies that aim to support that recollection of moments that had significantly impacted my understanding of ethical and purpose-driven leadership before and during the period of the research.
The key themes that I used in the interviews and that were relevant to the observational elements of my approach have been the following:
- Ethical leadership
- Purpose-driven leadership
- Leadership communication and leadership coaching
- Ethical leadership as a behavioural model and the attitudes of the subordinates
Through thematic analysis, I obtained clarity on the main themes of my research. Coaching was an anticipated theme, which I expected to be important from my perspective in the context of communication, but a leader acting as a coach was not thematised at all by the majority of my interviewees. Without neglecting the importance of coaching in the context of leadership, I stayed true to the input I received through my data collection and therefore, excluded coaching as a major theme. With thematic analysis, the following three themes, which are linked to my research on the importance of ethics, purpose, and communication in leadership, emerged:
In my hypothesis, these three themes are considered the main components of ethical leadership behaviour, and this can be a behavioural model for the next generations of leaders and workforce to follow. This leadership behaviour has potential to contribute to a corporate ethical and purpose-driven culture based on shared beliefs about ethics and purpose from the members of our organization.
Some of the interviews combined with my autoethnographically experienced situations in my journey in business life uncovered the unfortunate fate of organisations and our society in neglecting and negating the important role ethics and purpose need to play in our lives. The emerging concern about the significance of ethics and purpose in leadership, in organizations, in human relationships, and our behaviour is more vital and crucial than ever before.
The fact that the majority of the people I interviewed and had discussions with have clear indications about the importance of ethics, purpose, and communication in leadership gives me hope. It also illuminates the fact that most of the leaders I interviewed in my company are aware of the importance of their purpose and behaviour as a good role model for ethical behaviour.
Regarding the first part of my hypothesis (the behaviour of a leader who reasons well with purpose and is guided by moral principles can be construed as a behavioural model who supports the development of more ethical leaders), I found that this is a perspective accepted and practised by many of the interviewed groups and people. With regard to the second part of my hypothesis, it is recommended that further research be conducted on the role of the leader as a coach and whether it can be described as the transactional component that involves the use of communication to emphasise ethical behaviour.
It is my belief that leadership must contain a rich component of ethics and morality, and that this component must be never compromised. I believe that my research might become a contribution to highlight the inevitable requirement of ethics and purpose in leadership in our corporate world. A behavioural model based on ethics and purpose needs to become the intellectual legacy that leaders and each one of us follows and passes onto the next generation and followers – in corporate or private life. An effective persuasive communication form is needed in leadership to influence the corporate culture to embrace and devote attention to the importance of ethics and purpose in business.
“Ethics has to become the epitome of leadership and organizational culture”
Conclusions of my research Odyssey
In my research, I aimed to investigate the emerging importance of ethics and purpose in leadership. More specifically, my research intended to shed light on the significance of the leader acting as an “ethical role model” for the workforce and setting an “important antecedent of ethical leadership”, as Brown and Treviño (2006:600) point out.
I conducted 16 semi-structured interviews with executives and managers in my organization, three group interviews with my own teams and extended teams within SAP and 18 watercooler discussions, which have been combined with my learning over 25 years of professional experience. My accumulated data and experiences have been synthesised as the empirical evidence that supports my hypothesis.
As seen through my autoethnographical lens, the findings confirm that the behaviour of a leader who reasons well and is guided by moral principles can be construed as a behavioural model that supports the development of more ethical leaders. The emerging significance of communication in the context of leaders conveying an ethical and purpose-driven behaviour model to followers and organizations has been crystalized in my findings as well.
In my research, I have asserted the emerging importance of ethics and purpose in leadership in my company. My research findings also highlight the relevance of ethics and purpose in leadership to the behavioural framework of the workforce and the organizational culture in my company. Ultimately, I conclude that leaders represent and shape the ethical culture of an organization. However, further investigation is needed on the specific influence of ethics and purpose in leadership with respect to the creation of an ethical and purpose-driven corporate culture.
Elaborating on the importance of communication and based on my findings, I would recommend that leaders use their preferred types and channels of communication and to integrate them into an ethical and purpose-driven communication. It is of vital importance when using communication to aim to generate and sustain trust, constancy, congruity, reliability and transparency as ingredients of an ethical and effective communication. The findings of my research further suggest that communication has to be used to stimulate the workforce to get inspired by trust and empathetically help them develop their own ethical framework for the greater good. The predominant opinion among the participants in my study has been that through this process, leaders shape the corporate culture.
Overall, my research on ethical leadership and purpose contributes to a growing body of scholarly opinion that supports the importance of ethics in leadership being related to employee effectiveness, as Kalshoven, Hartog, De Hoogh (2011:61) mention.
Significance of defining ethical leadership
Ethics and purpose in leadership represent a sensitive topic. All organizations, leaders and workforces understand the importance of ethics and purpose in business, but probably only a few could define these values. Therefore, based on the definitions provided by leading authors in the field of ethical leadership, I have developed my own definition with the aim of using it as part of my ethical framework, alongside my actions, and in my communication. Hence, I aim to implement my findings to act as an ethical role model for the next generation of leaders and those in my organization.
I define ethical leadership as the leader’s disposition to act and continuously sustain fundamental notions of morality such as honesty, fairness and respect for others, and promote an ethical behavioural framework by communication in the corporate, social and global context.
The data collected in my research also revealed indications of ethical precariousness. Leaders have to be aware of how they deal with the grey areas of ethics as they have to uphold certain expectations – to behave ethically and act as an ethical role model for their followers and the entire workforce. I believe that leaders’ ethicality is reflected in the representation of their business as an ethical business.
Implications for leaders: leaders as the ethical compass of the organization
Whether we like it or not, as leaders we are the ethical compass of a company. We have to embed ethicality in our behavioural framework. Our understanding of moral and ethical leadership can be reinforced by viewing the inextricable tangling of moral leadership with transformational leadership, authentic leadership and trust in leaders. Leaders in the corporate world can become ethical role models by developing and being guided by a purpose-oriented ethos, manifesting that ethos in interactions with others, engaging their workforce in the co-creation of a purpose-driven leadership through interactions with the larger community. Understanding the importance of ethics and purpose in leadership will become their legacy for the next generation of leaders and our workforce and will, in effect, lay the foundation for an ethical and purpose-driven corporate culture.
Implications for leadership, future leaders and the workforce
As an immediate action, my research suggests initiating “triage” by offering leaders training on ethical leadership based on their level of ethical leadership awareness. In my case, the term “triage” pertains to the process of prioritising the need to reinforce the importance of ethics and purpose in the leader’s ethical framework. Considering Ciulla (2009:325) who states that the examination of ethics in leadership has many interdependent dimensions, I have used the four dimensions that she describes in my approach to classify the actions according to the leader’s awareness of the importance of ethical leadership. The dimensions that Ciulla recommends are a) the ethics of a leader as a person, b) the ethics of the leader’s/follower’s perspective, c) the ethics of the process of leadership, and d) the ethics of what the leader does and does not do.
Considering the aforementioned aspects, I observed the following three categories of recommended actions based on a leader’s ethical awareness:
- Leaders who act ethically and with purpose need to also act as the organisation’s ethical role model and support their followers in prioritizing and adopting an ethical framework, using communication as their main tool.
- Leaders who might have an ethical awareness but do not proactively promote the importance of ethics and purpose in leadership need to be given the opportunity to dive deep into the significance of these values for leadership. This can be achieved via training sessions and workshops that will solely focus on ethics, purpose and communication.
- Leaders who either have no ethical awareness or do not consider ethics and purpose as relevant dimensions in leadership are recommended to undergo individual training and coaching based on a professional assessment. Recommendations for the subsequent steps for this category need a deeper investigation.
The leadership styles that I detected in my research, pertaining to the leaders in the first and second categories were mainly authentic, transformational and spiritual. Brown and Treviño (2006:596), in their review and proposal for ethical leadership, confirm that the above-mentioned leadership styles share a common concern with respect to the moral dimension of leadership. Identifying a leader’s leadership style in relation to her/his awareness of ethics in leadership might allow us to better recommend the coaching and training needed for the leaders in the third category.
Despite the almost unanimous agreement on the importance of ethics in leadership, there is no set formula to incorporate ethics in leadership. Neither can it be formulated as a one-size-fits-all concept. Blurred lines exist between a person’s purpose and personal moral code in terms of leadership and in private life. At the end of the day, how we behave as leaders and as individuals, and how we are guided by our values and our ethical framework, declares who we are.
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