Blogs & Comment

The value of ethical leadership

A new program teaches business ethics.

(Photo: Dave Delay/Flickr RM)

(Photo: Dave Delay/Flickr RM)

On the occasion of the launch of the Jim Pattison Ethical Leadership Program, a new effort for which I’m the director at the Ted Rogers School of Management, I want to take some time to talk a little bit about the program and ethical leadership.

At the program we’re aiming to go beyond the “mom and apple pie” aspects of ethical leadership, to look not just at the values and skills of ethical leaders, but also at the particular institutional mechanisms that ethical leaders use to shape institutional culture and to put their vision into practice throughout business organizations.

Leaders are by their very nature fascinating people. The news is replete with stories of the victories and foibles of leaders in the worlds of business and politics and entertainment. From an ethical point of view, the decisions they make and the values to which they subscribe are disproportionately important. Not only do they make crucial decisions, but they influence the decisions of others, both directly through the instructions they give and indirectly through the examples they set and the atmosphere they foster.

So ethical leadership is a compelling issue—even among those who don’t bother to think critically about the topic. It is all too tempting to think of ethical leadership as a question only for CEOs or for top-tier executives. And while I have high hopes and high expectations of my undergrad business students, not all of them will go on to leadership positions at that level. But what I’ve been teaching my students is this: leadership is an activity that goes on at all levels of a business organization. Whether you’re leading a publishing empire or a small sales team, you face the challenges implied by the term “ethical leadership.” You are faced with not just doing the right thing, but also with helping others to do the right thing and building organizational contexts that will foster people in doing the right thing.

The question, of course, is whether a program like ours can make a difference. And I think it can. And the reason has to do with how I understand the goal of ethics education itself.

I’ve long argued that an ethics course at a business school isn’t designed to make you into an ethical person, to teach you to be good. If making you ethical was the aim, then ethics education would be either redundant or hopeless: critics are probably right to think that a basic understanding of right and wrong is either there by the time kids enter university or it isn’t.

Ethics courses should assume a basic desire to do the right thing, and focus on giving students the ability to understand the special kinds of ethical issues that arise in business, along with the tools of teamwork and leadership that let them put their ethical understanding into action.

Students don’t come to business school to be educated on how to be employees. They come to learn how to be managers, and a manager with vision is what we call a leader.

Chris MacDonald is Director of the Jim Pattison Ethical Leadership Education & Research Program at the Ted Rogers School of Management.