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Effective and Ethical Leadership

I was having a discussion with a very dear friend and mentor about leadership and organizations. The conversation centered on top level organizational leadership and the impact it has on the organization. In one of my more cynical moments, I asked if just being placed into a leadership role within the organization automatically resulted in ineffective leadership at best and unethical leadership at worst. My friend immediately wanted to say yes, but quickly hesitated and began to explore my inference that there is something inherently negative about leadership positions. This resulted in a great conversation and my continued reflection about effective and ethical leadership.

I began to revisit a number of resources that have helped me over the years and refocus my thoughts and energy on what is effective and ethical leadership. I reviewed the work of Stephen Covey in his book, Principle-Centered Leadership. I reviewed Peter Block’s work in Stewardship: Choosing Service Over Self-Interest. I also looked at the resource Forceful Leadership and Enabling Leadership: You Can Do Both by Robert Kaplan. And finally I reviewed the work on “adaptive work” as described by Ronald Heifetz in Leadership Without Easy Answers. All four of these great resources are very relevant to the situations facing leadership in organizations today.

As I re-read the characteristics of principle-centered leaders (which includes being continual learners, being service-oriented, radiating positive energy, believing in others, living balanced lives, viewing life as an adventure, being synergistic, and exercising for self-renewal) I realized the importance of the individual and his or her character development. Peter Block says it well when he states that the ultimate choice for leaders is between service and self-interest. When asked, most employees don’t question the specific talents or skills of their leaders. When employees have doubts about their leaders, it centers on the leader’s trustworthiness. Can we be certain the leader is serving the best interests of the organization or is the leader serving his or her own interests?  Robert Kaplan says that leaders must be able to be both forceful and enabling. Leaders must have the ability to assert their vision, use their own skills and push others to perform; while at the same time bring out and show appreciation for the capabilities of others. Ronald Heifetz describes it in terms of adaptive work, which he describes as work that involves the learning needed to address conflicts in the values people hold and the reality people face. “Adaptive work requires a change in values, beliefs, and behavior.” Heifetz states that James MacGregor Burns believes that “socially useful goals not only have to meet the needs of followers, they also should elevate followers to a higher moral level.” He calls this transformational leadership.

As I continue to study these resources and reflect upon their messages, I am struck by the importance of the individual leader and his or her healthy character, personality, and mental stability. Effective and ethical leaders are healthy human beings with healthy egos. They care about others and demonstrate this caring by engaging, enabling, and serving others. They are not concerned about their own desires or power to control the outcome.

If I go back to my cynical comment that most leaders are not healthy, caring individuals and that it is the position that causes that, I am forced to correct my view. First, I do see healthy caring leaders in organizations all the time. I have worked with and for some of these very effective and ethical leaders. At the same time, I also see some very unhealthy leaders who appear to be in it for their own sense of power and control. I now realize it is not the position that results in this behavior; it is what the individual brings into the position. Thus, all the more reason for organizations to create leadership development programs for employees that challenge the employee to really assess who they are and what their goals are for their own development.

If you aspire to be in an organizational leadership position some day, begin by taking advantage of any leadership development opportunities you can. Remember you are in charge of your own developmental process. Choose wisely.

Until next time, strive for effective and ethical leadership within your own role or position within the organization.

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