Opinion: skills to look for in an ethical leaders

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Written by Dr Matt Beard

In times of uncertainty, especially when the stakes are high, people look to their leaders with a greater sense of urgency and expectation. And right now we’re living through about as much high-stakes uncertainty as any time in living memory.

Because these times tend to make us feel afraid, we often expect our leaders to do whatever it takes to guarantee our safety and survival – whether in terms of physical health, economic wellbeing or providing some sense of assurance about what the future holds.

However, leaders need to be careful about the ways they provide for these needs. Crisis leadership needs to be about preserving more than just safety and certainty – it needs to be about preserving our moral character, too.

This isn’t easy to do, but there are some basic skills leaders can aim to develop that will help them practice a more ethical form of leadership. And these are the same skills we should be looking for when we’re deciding who deserves to lead us in times of crisis.

Let’s start with the obvious – great leadership requires creativity.

Leaders will often find themselves in what seem like impossible situations, and good leadership is the art of navigating through those situations. Finding a path in these apparent no-win scenarios requires leaders to be imaginative.

However, the more important function of imagination is that it allows what philosophers call “moral imagination” – the ability to bring into our attention the needs, interests and experiences of people who aren’t like us, who we’ll never meet and never see. Moral imagination is a non-negotiable for ethical leadership. Without it, we unfairly leave some people behind in our decision-making – and those people are usually already vulnerable, under-represented or disadvantaged in other ways.

Ethical leaders need to be learners. They need to be open to discovering new things about the world, their work and the choices they face.

Curiosity ensures that leaders don’t lose contact with the people whom their choices affect. It ensures they’re listening to the people around them and respecting the wisdom and experience that different individuals can bring to a particular problem.

What’s more, curiosity enables us to consider new ways of doing things – new systems, solutions and opportunities. Unfortunately, many people rise to leadership positions because they’re experts in the status quo. They’ve always done things a certain way, adopted a particular world view or prioritised a specific set of values. As leaders, they end up showing loyalty to the things that have rewarded them, rather than looking for ways to improve the things that most need improvement.

Curious leaders can be disruptive, revolutionary leaders – if they’re open to new, uncomfortable and challenging ways of working and living.

Humility is the sister of curiosity – and we should never try to develop one without the other.

Humility, particularly intellectual humility, enables leaders to be open to the possibility that they’re wrong; that their habitual way of doing things is not the only way, nor is it the best way. Humility also protects leaders – and the people they impact – from the “great man” model of leadership, whereby leaders believe that great social change happens because of a leader’s force of will alone.

Ego is the enemy of ethical leadership, which means we need to cultivate leaders who are able to take themselves out of the picture and focus on the people who need them and the problem that needs to be solved.

Think about someone you admired when you were growing up – whether it was a parent, teacher or a friend – and the first attributes of theirs that come to mind.

It’s likely your first thoughts were about how the person genuinely cared about you.

Leaders should bear this in mind for two reasons. First, leaders who care are leaders who listen – particularly to the experiences of those who have been negatively affected by a difficult decision. I’ve seen plenty of leaders make decisions that disadvantage one group of people, with good reasons, but who have failed to show that they care about the group who have been disadvantaged. So many ethical problems occur not because the wrong decision was made, but because the way that decision was announced and executed left people feeling disrespected, left behind or alone.

What’s more, leaders who care are invested. Investors use the term “moral hazard” to describe situations where one party holds all the financial risk if something goes wrong. The party with no risk – or no moral hazard – isn’t likely to care about the outcome one way or the other, as they have no real stake in what’s happening. Leaders can find themselves in a similar situation – the choices they make won’t affect them personally, which can mean they fail to properly consider all the relevant variables. True care is an emotional investment – it gives a leader some reason to be rigorous and careful about the decisions they make, and makes the people affected feel understood, even if they don’t get the outcome they’d like.

There’s a lot of talk about trust at the moment.

Organisations, governments and leaders want to “build trust”. They hire consultants to measure how much people trust them and to give them a “trust score”. But often they’re not paying enough attention to the reasons why people trust or don’t trust them.

People trust for all kinds of different reasons, so if we’re being trusted for bad reasons, then the trust we’ve built is a dodgy asset – it’s not as valuable as we think.

Instead, leaders need to aim to be trustworthy. That means thinking about whether they’re being trusted for good reasons. Trustworthy leaders don’t rely on authority or status for their legitimacy, they prove their leadership credentials by being open about what they’re doing and the reasons why.

What did this list make you feel about your own attributes?
Do you see an opportunity to focus on building new skills?
Do you think we should shift our focus to different skills?

It’s important to remember that by the time leaders are facing a crisis, it’s too late to be developing these skills. Our social and moral lives are full of competing, contradictory beliefs, ideas and values – developing the ethical clarity that helps us get past all this noise to make careful, reasonable and just decisions takes time.

That means even as we work through today’s crisis, we need leaders – today’s and tomorrow’s – to be putting in the work to ensure they’re ready for the moral tests that lie ahead.

If these ideas resonate with you, we invite you to join the leaders among us who are ready to be more imaginative, curious, humble, caring and trustworthy.
Explore our upcoming programs – now taking place in more locations across Australia:

This article was adapted from an article originally written for the Sydney Morning Herald, 2021

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