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Leadership Ethics versus Ethical Leadership: What Is the Difference?

Leadership Ethics versus Ethical Leadership: What Is the Difference?

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By Dr. Mark Friske and Dr. Doris Blanton
Faculty Members, School of Business, American Public University

Since the advent of the term “business ethics” back in the 1960s, there have been many changes regarding ethical leadership. Ethics started with the basic rationale that most businesses were focused on themselves and did not have much regard for anything else.

In the 1970s, ethics focused on corporate social responsibility and the relationship of a business to its stakeholders. This change in focus widened the ethical stance for most businesses.

In the 1980s, ethics became a field of study. Human resources formally partnered with companies to assist them in both developing and maintaining ethical policies and standards.

In today’s society, ethics and ethical policies are a significant part of most businesses.

Ethics Continue to Be a Part of Quality Leadership

Most of today’s leaders grew up in a society with some ethical standards. Even though ethical standards and policies continue to evolve, most leaders do understand why ethics exist and see their importance within our business culture. In fact, many leaders can quote ethical company policies word for word.

If all leaders fully understood and maintained ethical choices, we might ask if there is a true need for a continuation of ethics within our business community. Do we need the further development of ethics?

One looming question plagues our business community: If leaders know ethical policy, then why do current problems still remain in today’s business culture? Either these leaders do not yet fully understand ethical policies or these leaders make deliberate choices that simply sidestep these policies.

Some Leaders ‘Talk the Talk,’ but Do Not ‘Walk the Walk’ When It Comes to Ethics

Most leaders are known for talking ethical policies, but are these leaders also known for walking in ethical ways as well? Some people might argue that leadership has also had its developments, with some leaders stepping out of the picture and passing along the position to newer and possibly less educated successors regarding ethical behaviors. While these leaders might be very qualified to lead a business, they might have less experience regarding ethical issues and being the ethical central focus for a company.

Leadership style has also evolved. The strict, disciplined leaders of the past really cannot be compared to today’s leaders, who are concerned not only with their shareholders but also with social responsibility. The addition of the Internet and the ability to gain information almost instantly about ethical problems and leadership has reshaped how the public views our business community.

Like Leadership, Leadership Ethics Have Evolved

Granted, most of today’s current ethical issues are somewhat different than the ethical issues of the 1960s. What leaders now face is quite different from what earlier leaders faced. Some basic ethical issues were fraud, theft and sexual misconduct.

In each decade, it seems that ethics change. New and unique questions are raised, which require new policies and procedures for solid solutions.

Clearly, ethics and leadership are an important part of our business community. Both have changed drastically over the years, due to need and the evolution of our business culture.

Our society shows no reason to start ignoring either ethics or leadership. As recent examples have shown, both ethics and ethical leaders are vital to business success. Uber is a good current example of a company ignoring ethical issues.

The key for organizations and human capital is to continue the expansion of both ethical policies and standards, along with current, logical leadership expansion and development.

Some leaders like Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill have embraced ethics as an important aspect of their leadership skills. Others still need to embrace proper business ethics. Business success depends on those leaders who are willing and able to accept change and adapt.

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About the Authors

Mark Friske, Ph.D., is a part-time instructor in the School of Business at APU. He holds a M.B.A. in business administration and a Ph.D. in organization and management, both from Capella University. In addition, Mark has a B.A. in pre-law from Bob Jones University.

Mark is a U.S. Navy veteran and has 25 years of management and leader experience with Apple, Citibank, UPS and other companies. He is a management and leadership consultant with Disney.

Doris Blanton, D.Mgt., is a faculty director and an associate professor in the School of Business, teaching classes in business, organizational behavior and leadership. She holds a doctor of management in organizational leadership and a master’s in organizational management, both from the University of Phoenix.



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