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Week 4 Leadership as ethics


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.

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?

Before considering ethics in practice, let’s first reflect on what is meant by ‘ethics’.

Activity 1 Your definition of ethics

Timing: Allow about 5 minutes

Make brief notes in the box below on what you understand ‘ethics’ to mean. Try to write your own definition.

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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.

2 Leadership as purpose

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.

(Crisis, 2015)

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.

Described image
Figure 1 The charity Crisis is driven by a clear sense of purpose

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.

Activity 2 Your organisation’s ethical purpose

Timing: Allow about 30 minutes

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:

  • Why does this photograph represent the ethical purpose of your organisation?
  • What does this location/person/object (or all three) say about how you relate to your organisation’s purpose?
  • How does this picture make you feel? What does it make you want to do in or on behalf of your organisation?
  • After posting and commenting on your photograph, please go and ask two other people a question about their photographs.

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.

2.1 The forces driving purpose

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.

3 Leadership and ethical 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:

  • have to take into account complex contexts
  • acknowledge that people very often operate from a basis of incomplete information
  • acknowledge managers often operate from a basis of insufficient time
  • look very different depending on the position from which they are viewed.

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.

Described image
Figure 2 Voluntary action to help people in poverty (e.g. soup kitchen)

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.

4 Three approaches to reading an ethical 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.

Activity 3 Approaching an ethical dilemma

Timing: Allow about 15 minutes

Read the case study below.

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5 Engaged leadership ‘within’ ethical dilemmas

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.

Described image
Figure 3 Supporting people is not without its ethical dilemmas and choices

Activity 4 Tough choices

Timing: Allow about 10 minutes

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?

Case study 2

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:

  • you will offer someone transport to a job interview and for a short period of time after securing employment
  • you will provide people with the learning materials necessary for passing an exam
  • you can arrange one-off home alterations for people who have become disabled
  • you might even provide kitchen and white goods when the absence of these appears to be causing people distress or ill health.

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.

(Glasspool, 2016)

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’.

6 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.

Activity 5 Ethical leadership decisions

Timing: Allow about 30 minutes

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.

  • How was that situation handled in the aftermath of the decision?
  • What kind of things did the people making the decision do after the decision to strengthen the ethical integrity of the organisation?
  • Or, to adopt a less optimistic stance, what did people not do to strengthen the ethical integrity of the organisation?
  • Do you remember how your actions or the actions of others made you feel? Describe those feelings and explore what they meant to you.
  • If you could rewrite the past, what would you have done differently, or wished others had done differently?

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.

7 Key practice: ethical reflection

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:

  • reflecting on organisational purpose as something powerful yet also as something that can be contested and that can and ought to adapt
  • considering the complexity and multiple dimensions of ethical dilemmas
  • engaging with how you can, in a present and embodied way, stick around after a decision has been made to help your colleagues through the consequences.

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.

Summary of Week 4

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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Creasy, S. (2016) ‘A charity selling off its housing is a new low for gentrification’, The Guardian, 20 April. Accessed at
Crisis (2016) About Crisis [Online]. Available at (Accessed 21 August 2016).
Crisis (2016) What we do [Online]. Available at (Accessed 21 August 2016).
Glasspool Charity Trust (2016) Press release, February 9th. Accessed at
Grint, K. (2007) ‘Learning to lead: can Aristotle help us find the road to wisdom?’, Leadership, vol. 32 no. 2, pp. 231–46.
Kempster S., Jackson, B. and Conroy, M. (2011) ‘Leadership as purpose: exploring the role of purpose in leadership practice’, Leadership,, vol. 7, no. 3, pp. 317–34.
Ladkin, D. (2011) Rethinking Leadership: a new look at old leadership questions, Cheltenham, Edward Elgar.
MacIntyre, A. (1988) Whose Justice? Which Rationality?, London, Duckworth.
MacIntyre, A. (1997) After Virtue: a study in moral theory, London, Duckworth.
Rhodes, C. (2012) ‘Ethics, alterity and the rationality of leadership justice’, Human Relations, vol. 65, no. 10, pp. 1311–31.
UK Government (2013) Charitable Purposes [Online], Available at (Accessed 21 August 2016).
Williams, B. (1973) ‘A critique of utilitarianism’, in Smart, J. and Williams, B. Utilitarianism: for and against, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, pp.77-150.
Williams, B. (2008) Shame and necessity, Berkeley, California, University of California Press.


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