Embodying Ethical Leadership

Jan 23, 2023

A drawing of Charlemagne with a quote in text: In order to do what is right, we must know what is right.

Embodying Ethical Leadership

Award statues and

In an age when faith in our institutions—academic, corporate and government—is at an all-time low, it behooves leaders to “do the right thing.” Paraphrasing Charlamagne, “Right action is better than knowledge, but in order to do what is right, we must know what is right.” But how do we know what is right? From my perspective, “knowing what is right” goes beyond learning “about’ ethics or the ability to apply moral reasoning to resolve ethical issues. It is the process of “becoming” ethical—what Francisco Varela describes in his book, Ethical Know-How—an embodiment of what is “right.” 

We can began understanding Varela’s admonition by differentiating among values, ethics and morality as follows: 

Values: Our individual and/or collective notions regarding right or wrong, virtues or vices, allowed or forbidden, good or bad, just or unjust…

Ethics: Codes, principles, or standards that express the values.

Morals or Morality: Actions, activities, or behaviors of individuals and/or collectives that adhere to ethical codes, principles and standards and that play out in real time.

While clarifying, these terms are helpful in theory, but not necessarily in practice. We can turn to Huston Smith, who immersed himself in each of the world’s major religions and after practicing each one, described their concept of virtues from an embodied place. In his seminal work on the world’s wisdom traditions—East, West and Indigenous Cultures— he wrote that the western traditions, when taken together, espouse the following three virtues: humility, charity and veracity—as values to aspire to. The eastern traditions, taken together, espouse the following three poisons—greed or clinging, hatred or aversion, and delusion—as poisons to avoid. As can easily be seen, each of the three values has its polar opposite in the three poisons.

Smith proffers a set of three ethical principles corresponding to each of the virtues. Here, humility gives rise to the ethical principle that everyone is entitled to their fair share of the “pot,” but not more than their fair share. Charity gives rise to the principle that it is incumbent on everyone to make sure their neighbor gets their fair share of the “pot” too. And the principle derived from veracity goes beyond merely just truth telling, but to see the world in its “suchness,” meaning free of judgements, projections and the stories we make up about people, places and things. 

While these virtues/poisons have served as the basis for ethical principles over millennia, do they still have meaning regarding ethical leadership in today’s business climate? And can they be embodied? These were questions that came up recently in my freshman ethics seminar and in my consulting practice. In aggregate, the following answers emerged as an expression of values: a set of guiding principles for ethical leadership: 

Humility: Ethical leaders do not take credit for the work of others. They are not afraid to admit when they are wrong, have made a mistake, or that they don’t know something. And they can laugh at their own foibles.

Charity: Ethical leaders see to it that others succeed. They create a culture of belonging and inclusivity. They create an environment where people are made to feel they belong, their voices heard and their ideas considered, leading to more innovative and robust solutions to problem solving. Kindness, generosity of spirit, giving credit where credit is due, and sharing information and resources are all elements of charity in the business motif.

Veracity: Ethical leaders are honest and speak the truth, whether the message is good, bad or indifferent. They offer this truth with humility and compassion. Leaders see and accept others for who they are beyond the subjective judgements, projections, and stories.

While these three principles provide a basis for a knowing “about” ethical leadership, we’ve developed a set of characteristics congruent with our current complex, and often chaotic world as a step towards “becoming” ethical. These characteristics include: a shift in mindset from one of control to one of participation, an ability to be self-reflective and transparent to self and other, and flexibility and tolerance for ambiguity. In today’s dynamically changing world, where there is little time for deliberation, ethical leadership must be predicated on an ongoing engagement with the context and circumstances of each situation. We can express these characteristics as Holism, Transparency and Responsiveness that interact with and are reflected in each other. 

Holism: An ethical leader is not separate from the “team” but a part of the team. A leader does not operate in a vacuum and recognizes that the whole (the team) is greater than the sum of its parts (the individuals) and acts in both the best interests of the team and the people making up the team. 

Transparency: Transparency requires self-awareness and occurs through dialogue with oneself and other. Ethical leaders exchange information, share their decision-making process, and are authentic, courageous and curious. They recognize the signs of their own implicit bias. 

Responsiveness: An ethical leader adapts to new issues and course-corrects based on recursive feedback loops via dialogue with the people they lead and the markets they serve. A leader reframes unforeseen challenges as opportunities for learning and growth, has confidence in identifying solutions to seemingly intractable problems, and has a positive impact on people.

These six values are aspirational—each leader can express them through ethical principles in alignment with their personal, professional and organizational aims and goals. As Varela states, when speaking of a virtuous person: 

“Such a person does not act out ethics but embodies it like any expert embodies his know-how; the wise man is ethical, or more explicitly, his actions arise from inclinations that his disposition produces in response to specific situations.” 

The principles I have described above can lead to an embodiment of ethical leadership in our modern society. They can point the way towards helping leaders embrace Charlemagne’s admonition to, “know what is right.”  


Guest blogger:
William E. (Bill) Kastenberg, PhD is a Distinguished Professor of Engineering, Emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley. During the latter part of his academic career, he team-taught a course with his wife entitled, “Ethics and the Impact of Technology on Society.” During the Covid epidemic, he taught (remotely) a Freshman Seminar entitled, “Ethics in an Age of Existential Crises.” The seminar continued for three semesters, each with a different group of students. He has consulted with companies regarding the development of company values for use in recruiting, retention and marketing. 

If you have any comments or questions for Bill, please use the contact form on the site. 

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