Lexical semantics of ‘Ethical Leadership’ drives me to believe that the very activity of leading should be ethical. Ethics are generally accepted moral principles to be followed by individual/s. Leadership as such is a group activity but ethics have to be followed by individuals. The broader message that I get from these two words is that the leaders should follow moral principles and thereby expound their discourses through ethical practices. So ethics have an important role to play in the behavior of a leader and in the whole process of leadership. We need to look beyond just lexical semantics and explore as to the role of ethics in leadership.
Success or failure of an organization depend on the person who leads it. It is a general belief that an organization has three types of people working for it - 10% belong to the category of hard working group (highly committed employees) and 10% belong to hardly working group (laid-back employees) and remaining 80% follow the leader (Convertibles). These 80% employees move like a pendulum with the leader. And they make all the difference. So if the leader belongs to the first 10% group, the organization excels and if s/he belongs to the other 10%, the organization fails.
It is the followers who make the leader. The choice between right and wrong, between moral and immoral, between legal and illegal leads to ethical or unethical decisions. The call has to come from the leader and that is where s/he becomes highly vulnerable. The most important aspect of ethical leadership is having honest intention. Surprisingly intentions cannot be just observed or gauged. This is the reason why one needs to work on developing strong credibility so that the intentions can at least be perceived and predicted by others.
Credibility cannot be established in a day, hence the leader has to prove worth and pose with strong performance before the people to be led and the management. Intentions get reflected through general behavior during the course of earning credibility. This is loosely known as self-branding.
Leaders are not made in a day. Ill intentions, dishonest behavior, immoral activities cannot leave a person in leading position for long. We have not forgotten Phaneesh Murthy of Infosys - bad habits die hard. Who does not know Ramalinga Raju of Satyam - greed is the opium that kills slowly. Subhinder Singh Prem of Reebok India might have got a place in Future group, but his acts as reported, have tarnished his image forever - one cannot carry heavier baggage than oneself. Vijay Mallya might have ruled like a king and must have had strong acceptance but his ill-intentioned acts have driven him out of the country. Though in politics it is believed that people memory is short but in the corporate world, one can never isolate oneself from his/her past.
We also have exemplary business leaders like GD Birla, Jamnalal Bajaj, Jamsetji Tata, JRD Tata, Narayanmurthy and alike who have proven record of their ethical behavior. So a successful leader is one, who has followership on the basis of his ethical behavior and well perceived honest intentions. A sense of humility as advocated by Jim Collins would certainly add flavor to one’s acceptance and in enriching follower base.