Ethical leadership is described as “the demonstration of normatively appropriate conduct through personal actions, interpersonal relationships, and the promotion of such conduct to followers through two-way communication, reinforcement, and decision-making” (Brown, Treviño, & Harrison, 2005, p. 120). Ethical leadership brings credibility, respect, trust and fosters a positive environment. According to Mayer, Kuenzi, Greenbaum, Bardes, and Salvador (2009) the social learning theory proposes when there are role models in the work setting, individuals will strive to emulate these models. We will discuss two of those leaders and the behaviors displayed that made their leadership unethical.
Rod Blagojevich is a former American politician who served as the 40th Governor of Illinois from 2003 to 2009. In March 2012, Blagojevich began serving a 14-year sentence in a federal prison in Colorado following conviction for corruption. His unethical acts included the soliciting of bribes for political appointments including the vacant U.S. Senate seat of President Barack Obama, while in public office. Then there is Bernard Madoff. He is the former non-executive Chairman of the NASDAQ stock market, and the admitted operator of a Ponzi scheme that is to be the largest financial fraud in U.S. history. Madoff’s firm offered reliable returns, and his client list included celebrities like Steven Spielberg. Madoff’s son reported him for securities fraud and Madoff pleaded guilty to 11 felony counts. In 2009, the 71-year-old was sentenced to 150 years in prison for his acts of unethical behavior (Bio, 2013). These are listed as facts and not opinion to spark a political debate (my disclaimer for those who are ready to defend the actions of the individuals listed).
The recipe to promoting ethical conduct is (1) moral leadership, (2) ethical practices, and the (3) moral climate. Ethical behavior is early on in the recruitment and selection, orientation and training, policies and codes processes for new hires. Hence after, the ethical behavior should be modeled in everyday acts by leaders for followers to emulate. Further displays of ethical behavior can be modeled by providing positive feedback and rewards for making ethical decisions, measuring and tracking ethical behaviors, disciplining employees who violate ethical standards; holding employees accountable for their actions, taking responsibility for the outcomes of one’s own actions, questioning authority if unethical behavior occurs, and in taking ethical issues into account when making decisions, discussing ethical concerns at meetings, talking about whether something is the “right thing to do”. Achieving ethical behavior is not just a focus of weeding out some “bad apples,” but involves supporting others achieve high ethical standards through the exhibit of ethical leadership.