Week 4 Leadership as ethics

Introduction

To introduce the subject of this week, watch the following video, an interview with Nik Winchester, an expert on ethics.

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Transcript: Video 1 Nik Winchester on ethics and leadership.

NIK WINCHESTER:
Defining ethics is actually quite tricky. But as an academic, or probably, say, generally it's about judgments about right and wrong and the good and the bad.
Organisational ethics can be understood in perhaps two ways. It could be considered of us thinking about what we think people in organisations ought to do. Or it could be about understanding what are the foundational beliefs of those within organisations. So there's a sense in which we think about the obligations of business. But there's also a sense of what people really believe, what are their core ethical principles within organisations.
Saying there's such a thing as leadership ethics, an ethics appropriate for leadership, doesn't really help us understand. What we need to understand is the relationship between ethics and leadership. As people, we're ethical beings. So as leaders, we bring in those ethical understandings as we practise leadership.
Now in terms of actual formal leaders, ethics can be really important, not only because these people often have a lot of influence. They make decisions that affect people. So there's always an ethical component in there. But there are also broader issues we might explore about how ethics resonate in leadership, how ethics itself can, one might say, do leadership.
The idea of ethics doing leadership seems quite odd, ethics actually doing anything. It's about people, surely. But imagine I was sitting in a boardroom and we were discussing what we should do. And imagine I was a bit uncomfortable, I mean, emotions are part of ethics, and I said, I don't think that's the right thing to do. People might turn around and look at me and say, that's interesting but that's just one view.
But what if I said, I'm not sure this should be what we should do? I'm actually saying there's something about us as an organisation, our values, our principles. And actually, that's quite a powerful statement. Because it's saying these ethical values are really important and they need to drive our behaviour.
In my view, ethics theory is important. It's been talked about for thousands of years. And we can't ignore it. But it doesn't provide us answers. I think it's best way to treat ethical theory is to see it as lenses of understanding the problems and then explore different ways in to understand some of the ethical dilemmas we experience in our daily life, as leaders, or enacting leadership.
Perhaps if I was going to say one thing about ethics, it's that practicing ethics is difficult. It can be uncomfortable. It can be unpleasant at times. But it's all important in terms of our leadership practise, and indeed, us as humans and our human condition.
End transcript: Video 1 Nik Winchester on ethics and leadership.
Video 1 Nik Winchester on ethics and leadership.
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Nik discusses in this clip how the ethics of an organisation can do real leadership work – that ethics can guide people’s behaviour and decisions. He also emphasises how applying ethics to the workplace is not about coming up with a single correct answer – instead, it is a way of feeling a way through the opportunities and pitfalls of organisational life. These are all dimensions you will consider throughout this week.

This week you will learn about two practices that can help voluntary organisations be led by their ethics. These are leadership through purpose and leadership through dilemmas.

After completing this week you will be able to:

  • distinguish between ethics and morality
  • define and describe an organisational ethical purpose
  • critically analyse your and others’ organisational purpose
  • interpret an ethical dilemma drawing on ethics theory
  • critically reflect on the aftermath of decisions with ethical implications.

1 What does ethics mean?