September 17, 2017

Ethics, Morals and Laws: Their Role in Leadership

The notions of ethics, morals and laws are often used interchangeably. It is an error to do so. Professor David Conklin states that “corruption constitutes a major obstacle to democracy and the rule of law. In a democratic system, offices and institutions lose their legitimacy when they are misused for private advantage” (Conklin, 2009, p. 1). Thus it follows that a leader must be driven by a higher good than those precepts which can be corrupted. Laws can be corrupt. Judges, in defining laws, can be corrupt. Their verdicts can be corrupt. Laws are malleable and often times rulings can be rescinded or made null by higher courts. Courts can be divided and their judgments decided by a fractious body with one vote determining the rule of law for a nation for a moment in time. Laws serve as an anemic purpose for those leaders who wish to do “the right thing”.

“Ethics” and “morals” are more reliable constructs. “The term ‘ethics’ or ‘ethical’ is often used to refer to good behavior and the term ‘morals’ sometimes refers to the mores or norms of a particular community” (Werhane, 1994, p. 1). Thus the former is employed to determine “right” from “wrong” while the latter is the universal consensus guiding and/or assessing the decision maker.

Business leaders are called to make decisions in the best interest of shareholders and stakeholders. When these are in conflict, the leader musters their armamentarium of ethics to lead the organization up a hill or into a ravine. Badaracco proposes that leaders search inwardly in times where consensus is lacking, and make a decision that they can defend in the future. “Or perhaps managers should simply consult their moral instincts and intuitions, and then pursue a course of action that they can live with in good conscience” (Badaracco, 2009, p. 16).

Ethical leaders are not born but molded. Like a Murano glass pitcher, it is formed by the sculptor, fashioned by the hands of others, baked in a fiery oven and then provided a glaze. Leaders are influenced by a confluence of powerful forces so that they too can display their wares. George and McLean propose that leaders are shaped by their personal upbringing and their organizational cohorts (George & McLean, 2010, p. 8).

Few objects in life exist in a vacuum. Wind, sun, water and atmosphere all chip away at the inhabitants of the Earth, and business leaders are no different. If leaders come from a nurturing environment where they were molded by persons who polished their raw material, then these recipients become by-products of their mentors. So too are their historical development. Personal challenges and stressors, events that happen to all organisms of the world, also leave their mark on an individual. If they evolve and prove to be fit in their milieu, they survive and become leaders of the pack. If they do not have the will to grow and adapt, then they become extinct or acquire a defect of sorts that will prove to be malignant down their journey.

As a leader steps onto the global field, they are challenged to pivot and flex in ways that they would never have done had they stayed in a smaller, local environment. Global influencers are also able to shape a leader as much as the caregivers that raised them as children.

Ethical decision making is achieved by individuals in as much as they embrace a path of ethical living. If their persona is one where they believe ethics are important, then they arrive at their decisions by any number of individuals models of ethical thinking or a mixture therein. Several ethical frameworks exist.

Goodpaster elaborates on several frameworks that include egoism and utilitarianism both within the realm of theology, existentialism and contractarianism also both within a deontological framework, or a mixture of some of these frameworks (Goodpaster, 1983, p. 15). More germane to my ethos are the frameworks of Utilitarianism and Deontology, since a complete review of ethical frameworks lies outside the scope of this writing.

Goodpaster describes Utilitarianism as a philosophical paradigm that uses a “principle of utility”; that is to say that it is a lens where one should “act only to promote the maximum net expectable utility for the widest community affected by their actions” (p. 6). The Utilitarianist approach is a practical framework for a business leader for the purposes of achieving sales, large market shares for their products and a wide reception of a share of voice in the markets. Clearly a business exists to foster revenue and this can be done only by appealing to an audience that is receptive to the message of the firm. Consequently the leaders of such businesses thrive only if they advance their messages (e.g. marketing, sales, features and benefits, etc.) where the greatest number of potential customers will “buy-in” to their promotional efforts. Alienating such customers would defeat the entire purpose. How should such a business leader make decisions for the firm? Their decisions depend completely on placating the greatest number of audience members (i.e. shareholders and stakeholders) which is essentially Utilitarianism.

Likewise the framework that employs Deontology is not necessarily in conflict with a business environment. Given that Deontology believes in duty or a sense of “ought”, Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperatives are easily applicable. Most audience members would agree that specific crimes against humanity are deplored: murder, endangering the environment, causing suffering to innocent people, etc. Hence, a business leader who ascribes to a framework of Deontology would be well served in a business setting by ensuring that their firm’s code of ethics protects those members of society that would be adversely impacted by their business transactions. Causing suffering amongst workers in a foreign land where the firm’s product parts are assembled, discharging toxic chemicals into the environment from a firm’s factories that would risk harming the public, using children to manufacture parts for products that remove those children from families, and so forth, are all examples of “Thou Shall Not”. These resonate well with Immanuel Kant’s two overarching principles as put forth by Goodpaster: “act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that is should become a universal law, and act so that you treat humanity …always as an end and never as a means only” (p. 8). Consequently the manger can navigate ethical decisions using Kantian reasoning while also employing Utilitarianism: achieving the greater good for the larger number of stakeholders. By doing so the manger also make decisions by which they can live by.

Pope Francis has led the Catholic Church for five years in ways that have given nearly all global leaders pause. Heads of State have requested private audiences with Pope Francis in droves whereas his predecessors never enjoyed such a following of disparate, indeed, morally bankrupt leaders. While all Popes of the Catholic Church are ostensibly devout Catholics, the leadership model of Pope Francis is different in his approach to decision making. Pope Francis’ method is a more inclusive approach, going to his audience with open heart (Spadaro, 2013). He does not appear to have an agenda per se so as to bludgeon his audience with Catholicism. As Professor Bryant notes in his list of desirable leadership qualities, Pope Francis operates in a world of Love and not Fear, Inspiration instead of Coercion, a sense of We as opposed to Me (Bryant, 2010). The ethical approach, in this case, is one of acknowledging the greatest good for the largest number of people to get unity around an issue. This Utilitarianism construct is blended with a solid Deontology that includes a list of laws based on historic sacred religious texts. Thus taken together, a business leader can uphold religious principles while not allowing them to interfere with business decisions given that they are based on ethics.



Badaracco, Jr., J. L. (2009). Right versus right: When managers are faced with tough ethical choices. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Publishing.

Bryant, J. (2010). Leading with love in a fear-based world. Leader To Leader, 2010(56), 32-38.

Conklin, D. W. (2009). Corruption: The international evolution of new management challenges. London, ON: Ivey Publishing.

George, W.W. & McLean, A. N. (2010). Ann Mulcahy: Leading Xerox through the perfect storm (A). Boston, MA: Harvard Business Publishing.

Goodpaster, K. E. (1983). Ethical frameworks for management. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Publishing.

Spadaro, A. (2013). A big heart open to God: A conversation with Pope Francis. America Journal209(18), 15-38. Retrieved from

Werhane, P. (1994). A note on five traditional theories of moral  reasoning. Charlottesville, VA: Darden Publishing.