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.

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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.

2.1 The forces driving purpose

4 Three approaches to reading an ethical dilemma