To introduce the subject of this week, watch the following video, an interview with Nik Winchester, an expert on ethics.
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:
Before considering ethics in practice, let’s first reflect on what is meant by ‘ethics’.
Make brief notes in the box below on what you understand ‘ethics’ to mean. Try to write your own definition.
There is no single definition of ethics. Moreover, another word, morality, is often used by writers to mean something similar. In this course, however, we use ethics to mean judgements about what is right and wrong and it is almost certain that your definition would have been close to this definition. Ethics can therefore cover anything that involves judgements about right and wrong – in both private reflection and relational work between people. A sense of right and wrong can be shaped between people in their everyday work and also in a more distanced, reflective sense by people thinking very carefully about situations.
When we use the word ‘morality’ we will mean an underlying system of belief that informs ethical choices. For example, a person can be a committed Christian, socialist, capitalist, aesthete (or a mixture of many of these and others). These moral commitments inform how one approaches ethical judgements about what is right and wrong. The course now moves on to consider how voluntary organisations can be led by their ethical purposes.
For the homeless charity Crisis, eradicating homelessness is a clear purpose underlying all of its work:
Homelessness is devastating, leaving people vulnerable and isolated. We believe everyone deserves a place to call home and the chance to live a fulfilled and active life.
Note the strength of the language used here by Crisis: ‘devastation’; ‘vulnerability’; ‘isolation’. Through these words, a picture emerges of shattered lives. Furthermore, Crisis believes that ‘everyone deserves’ a home. ‘Deserves’ signals the sense of a home as a fundamental right. There is a strong sense of ethics at play here. Having a home is a fundamental right and not to have one is a wrong – this is about ethics. Furthermore, this is about a sense of ethics leading the organisation.
In the UK, charities are legally obliged to state their purpose. Registering the purpose of a charity is to ensure it is working for public benefit as it will receive the tax and other benefits that come with charitable status. However, the focus of this course is not on the legalities of purpose but on how a voluntary organisation’s purpose can do leadership work.
In a leadership sense, an organisation’s purpose sits somewhere between its morality and its ethics, in other words, between the underlying system of values of an organisation and its judgements about right and wrong. That is what makes thinking about purpose so intriguing.
But a purpose does not result in an automatic set of ethical prescriptions: X is right, Y is wrong. There is significant room for interpretation of a purpose and what it means in practice. Moreover, a purpose may not always be fit for purpose. Sometimes a purpose may lead an organisation in a direction that is consistent but still wrong.
Purposes can also lead people to pursue certain activities over others. Yet purposes are also contested (debated, argued over), which is what makes them such a lively and interesting point of focus for practice and research.
Take a photograph of something that you believe captures well the ethical purpose of your organisation. Post your photograph to the correct thread for this activity in our discussion forum. After posting your picture, try to answer the following questions in no more than 20 minutes:
Note, we will delete photographs borrowed from elsewhere, i.e. Google images. We want you to take your own picture, either with your own camera or by borrowing a friend’s camera or mobile phone.
Why did we ask you to take a photograph rather than simply describing the purpose of your organisation? For two reasons. The first is that it is good to exercise a different part of the brain, to think differently about your organisation. Thinking about ethics should mean that you engage differently; ethics is about more than instrumental thinking. The second is that we want you to pay attention to how you feel about an organisation’s purpose. Purpose should engage the emotions as much, if not more than, logic. Being reminded of an organisation’s purpose can be difficult as well as positive, especially if you feel that you or your organisation has strayed somewhat from its purpose.
The course now moves on to consider organisational purpose in more depth.
Let’s now reflect on leadership as purpose in a little more depth. Kempster et al. (2011) make the case that purpose is a greatly overlooked dimension of leadership studies, which, as you saw in Weeks 2 and 3, are usually preoccupied by the personality of people in leadership. The authors draw on the philosophy of Alasdair MacIntyre, someone who reflected a great deal on the role of purpose in society. MacIntyre (1988 and 1997) makes the case that purpose is driven by two forces. First, it is driven by what he calls external goods. External goods are ‘possessed by people’– things such as ‘money, or gaining power’ (Kempster et al., 2011, p. 321). So, for instance, one person might do good, charitable things with power and money but another might choose to do otherwise, buying a terrific new Lamborghini sports car instead of donating to a local homeless shelter.
Second, purpose is shaped by internal goods, those things that are good in and of themselves. These internal goods are good beyond individuals and can be interpreted as ‘a good for the whole community’ (Kempster et al., 2011, p. 321). For example, preventing homelessness could be considered an effort that comprises several internal goods. Crisis would argue that reducing homelessness improves people’s health (mental and physical), their education and skills, as well as the broader economy. For example, there may also be a less tangible internal good of generating community spirit – seeing vulnerable homeless people on the street can be distressing and improving people’s lives may make everyone feel that little bit better about themselves and their communities.
Organisations tend to veer towards a preference for external goods (perhaps understandably because organisations need to be able to survive in the short-term and doing so requires external goods, primarily money) and so a key aspect of leadership as ethics is keeping the organisation focused on and aware of its internal goods. For example, a volunteer might raise a question about why a charity chooses to fundraise in a particular way; or a board member might query an organisation’s partnership with a business organisation. Having a strong purpose, however, does not mean that organisations are able to avoid tough ethical dilemmas and the next section moves on to explore leadership in relation to dilemmas.
At the beginning of this week we provided a definition of ethics as concerning judgements about right and wrong. The simplicity of this definition conceals a range of more complicated issues. In reality, ethics is mostly not about right and wrong but about ‘wrong and more wrong’ or ‘almost-right and a-bit-wrong’. In other words, organisational ethics is often about dilemmas that:
Ethical dilemmas are those problems for which there is no straightforward answer: the problem cannot be solved as such, merely acted upon in one way or another. Truly ethical problems do not disappear once a decision is made. However, it can help to have a range of approaches in order to do justice to the complexity of ethical dilemmas.
In the following section we will first rehearse some approaches that are commonly used in relation to ethical dilemmas. We will then make the case, in Section 5, that while reading and assessing ethical dilemmas is important, what may be even more important from a leadership perspective is how one comports oneself within and beyond the dilemma.
In the following activity you will read a case study of a typical ethical dilemma and three separate ways of thinking about the case will be presented. Each of these approaches suggests a way that you and your leadership team might read and discuss an ethical dilemma.
Read the case study below.
As you have seen, experiencing ethical dilemmas is an important part of leadership. However, in this section you will reflect on leadership within ethical dilemmas. Note the word ‘within’ is deliberately selected. It is our belief that in leadership you cannot escape ethical dilemmas as such. Leadership is therefore as much to do with the quality of how you engage one another within the dilemmas (the processes of interaction) as it is about the final decision made. To flee in the face of a difficult choice and its aftermath does not count as leadership, as you would not really be leading anyone – other than yourself, in the opposite direction of the tough choices.
Read the case study below and make a note of the main options that you have, and the pros and cons of pursuing these options.
What would you do? What might some of the risks and benefits be of either selling or keeping the properties mentioned in the case study?
You work for a charity whose focus is helping people pull themselves out of poverty and alleviating the lives of people in poverty. Your organisation is interested in one-off and short-term assistance for people in need. For example:
The problem is that, increasingly, your charity is being forced to turn people away because the funds are not available to finance as many grants as you would like. You attend many meetings where people speak about the situation in language you believe to be quite fatalistic: ‘What can we do? These are difficult times’.
You have been aware for some time, however, that the charity has much of its capital invested in a number of properties, rent from which helps to finance your core operations. The properties are occupied by people in need, who are able to take advantage of guaranteed lower rents. However, the properties, which were situated in an area of relative poverty initially, are now amidst a ‘gentrified’ neighbourhood, where property prices have increased exponentially. You know that if the charity were to sell these properties it could secure its future for many years to come and could afford to provide more grants to people in need. You weigh up whether or not to raise this issue with the rest of the charity’s staff.
The core purpose of this charity is to encourage longer-term self-sufficiency, or helping people ‘help themselves’ to get out of poverty. The charity was never established as a housing charity. Therefore, purpose (and logic) dictates that these properties should be sold in order to maximise the core purpose of the organisation. But what about the people who live in these properties? Might they suffer and be forced into poverty if the new owners decide to evict them or raise rents?
Assuming all alternative fundraising options have been exhausted, the dilemma appears to be: continue as an organisation with a different purpose (a short-term assistance and housing charity), or maintain the purpose and sell the homes, with possibly negative effects for current tenants. There is no easy answer.
The situation outlined in the case study is a fictionalised version of something similar that recently faced the charity Glasspool and a decision it took to sell 63 properties that it owned in the Walthamstow area of east London. Tenants were reported to have discovered that the properties they were renting had been sold when they received eviction notices from the new owners. The case was highlighted by the local MP, Stella Creasy, who referred to the situation as ‘a new low for gentrification’ (Creasy, 2016).
Nevertheless, was the charity not in a difficult position? Its press release of 9 February 2016 says as much:
We are very saddened to hear that tenants have been or are in the process of being evicted. As trustees of the Glasspool Charity Trust we sought assurances regarding our tenants, their rights and protection from our selling agents at the time of the negotiations. We were assured that they would be protected within the law. We have no power to prevent a new owner from reviewing their position with the existing tenancies post-sale.
Our founder bequeathed his estate with the sole aim of helping people out of poverty. That charitable aim has continued with the use of investment income to provide grants directly to individuals and families in need. In order to be able to provide these grants the trustees realised that they had to sell the charity’s directly held properties to maximise the amount of money the charity could give away. It was a difficult decision to take but the Trust was not established as a social housing provider. The sale of the remaining 63 units in Butterfields were the last directly owned properties of the Trust.
However, the sale of the properties has meant that in the last 15 years the Trust has been able to increase the amount of money it gives away from around £200,000 a year to nearly £1.5 million a year, a 750 per cent increase. In 2014/5 this resulted in 5,300 grants, supporting more than 11,000 individuals and families in hardship at a time when government and local authority are cutting back.
As trustees, we take our responsibility to our staff and to the communities we serve very seriously.
The defence of the charity to a charge of an ethical lapse appears to be an assertion of ethics, which is what makes the case so interesting. The charity’s case is that it acted ethically by sticking to its ethical purpose. Its critics maintain that it suffered an ethical lapse for not thinking enough about the people affected by such an ethical stance. What the case highlights effectively is that leadership involves working through such ethical dilemmas very carefully. An important part of working through and within ethical dilemmas, we argue, is sticking around to lead through the fall-out of any decisions made. This is an overlooked part of leadership but a critical one, nevertheless. The next section considers this aspect of leadership as ‘leading through tragedy’.
Now that we have thought a little about the process of making decisions related to ethical dilemmas, it is time to think about the aftermath of these decisions. This is a dimension of leadership rarely considered, but we argue that this aspect is just as important as the decision itself. The ethical dilemma, as most experienced practitioners will tell you, never fully disappears – its effects linger.
The case study you reflected on in the previous section is in fact an adaptation of a dilemma posed by the philosopher Bernard Williams (1973). In Williams’ dilemma you would be faced by the prospect of being asked to shoot dead a single innocent person in order to save the remaining 19, with no option of simply walking away. This is clearly a far more extreme dilemma, but people in leadership positions across sectors do frequently encounter decisions that hold serious consequences for individuals and society as a whole.
Williams (1973 and 2008) refers to these situations as ‘tragic’ because there is no single, correct answer. In these situations you feel the discomfort, the distress and remorse associated with the decisions made. Feeling and emotion are good signs that you are capable of functioning as a mature ethical practitioner – if you did not feel it, then you should start to truly worry. Looking at situations from this perspective, it is important that you and the organisation survives with its sense of ethics intact.
Adopting this perspective tells us that we need to ‘stick with’ (Ladkin, 2011) and stick around to participate in the leadership that follows any difficult decision. This is about thinking how you can contribute to rebuilding and re-energising the organisation in the face of a very difficult decision. Thinking of the tragic suggests an element of sacrifice on the part of those who would act as organisational leaders. You have to absorb some of the pain and act as a kind of lightning rod for the emotions of those who work in the organisation, if that is what the organisation needs.
Sticking with a tragedy can of course become self-indulgent. Again, though, there is no formula that tells you when it is time to start moving on and putting a decision to one side: it is a matter of feeling your way through. You will know better than most what your organisation can tolerate and when.
We therefore conclude this week by reflecting on your experiences in leadership ethics and thinking in more depth about some of the things you can do in leadership to get through a tragic situation.
Recall a time when either you or one of your colleagues had to make a difficult ethical decision. Reflect on the following questions in your learning journal.
Make sure you title the post with the week number and the number of this activity, Week 4 Activity 5.
The point of this activity was not to explore a correct way of approaching the aftermath of a decision. Rather, it was to prompt you to start paying attention to the physical and emotional aspects of organisations that follow on from difficult ethical decisions. How you find yourself responding to others and the spaces you inhabit can provide you with important clues about what is important to respond to, to talk about and to address with others.
Reflecting on how you feel and what you notice in yourself and others can form the basis of important conversations with colleagues about the sense of ethics you share and value. Having considered the ways in which ethics can lead an organisation and how you can work within ethical dilemmas, we conclude the week by drawing out a key practice, one you have done a lot of already.
You have already engaged in lots of ethical reflection this week and we now want to underline it as an important practice for leadership. You have reflected ethically by:
In summary, ethical reflection is important because it deals with dilemmas and problems for which there is no straightforward or satisfactory answer.
Ethical reflection allows you to approach a problem from a number of different perspectives. It also invites you to think about problems from the perspective of a number of different people. The idea of ethical reflection is to make a problem more complex and difficult, to see more sides of the puzzle, rather than solving the puzzle itself. Ethical reflection is also very much an emotional and embodied task. It asks you to pay attention to how certain options, issues and people make you feel.
This week we started with the proposition that the ethics of an organisation can do leadership work – that ethics can lead. We explored how the purpose of an organisation can provide significant ethical leadership if it is able to remain open to change and adaptation.
We then switched focus to decision-making within organisations, introducing the idea of an unresolvable ethical dilemma. The week’s learning concluded by putting decision-making to one side and reflecting instead on the aftermath of a decision, something we stated is as important as the decision itself. The week ended by you thinking back on the key practice of the week, that of ethical reflection.
Next week we end the course by offering a way of thinking about and practicing leadership that captures its rich relational dynamics: that of leadership as practice.
Go now to Week 5.
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