Leadership can be defined as influencing others in pursuit of a shared goal. Leadership is often distinguished from management, although the two clearly overlap. One possible way of describing the difference is that while managers coordinate and motivate employees toward the pursuit of goals set by someone else, leaders are expected to possess the vision required to set high-level goals of their own. Good leaders may be thought of as ones who are able to set goals that have the ability to inspire employees, such that they want to follow, rather than simply following because they have been ordered to.
Within the scholarly literature on leadership, there is a serious debate over the relationship between leadership and ethics. Some scholars prefer to treat the term “leadership” as ethically neutral, such that we can legitimately contemplate whether a person is a good (effective) leader without considering whether he or she is ethically good. (On this view, it makes perfect sense to say that “Hitler was a great leader,” while at the same time acknowledging that he was an evil man.) Others prefer a understanding of leadership that weaves ethics in from the start, such that one can only be a true leader if one leads ethically toward ethically-good goals.
The role of leadership in ethical business conduct is widely recognized. The leaders of businesses have two key roles in promoting ethical behaviour. One involves setting appropriate policies and, where appropriate, providing suitable ethics training for employees. The other has to do with creating and fostering a culture within the organization that encourages and enables employees to do the right thing. One key way of fostering the right culture is through the example that leaders set, both in the things they say and in the things they do. This is often expressed in terms of the importance of “tone at the top.”
See also in CEBE:
- Joanne B. Ciulla, Ethics, the Heart of Leadership, 3rd Edn. Praeger, 2014.
- Al Gini and Ronald M. Green, Ten Virtues of Outstanding Leaders: Leadership and Character, Wiley-Blackwell, 2013.
- Peter G. Northouse, Leadership: Theory and Practice, 6th Edition. Sage, 2012.
- Terry L Price, Leadership Ethics: An Introduction. Cambridge University Press, 2008.
By Chris MacDonald and Alexei Marcoux
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