Leadership literature has not remained the same as over the years it has been developed by various researchers and there has been a strong belief that leadership is something that is modifiable as there is a transformation constantly happening in the way people think over the years. The principal theories appeared throughout the 19th century such as the Great Man Theory, the Trait theory, the Behavioural theory amongst many others. Leadership theories are adjusted due to the changes happening in the world however, it does not mean that any of the theories are completely irrelevant as it is important to apply them within a suitable context. According to Brown et al. (2005), ethical leadership is associated with the behavior, trust, and honesty of the leader. Following the downfall of ENRON, ethical leadership has become a crucial part of organizations as unethical practices have the ability to destroy the culture of an organization.
The study of leadership is complex and vast but also important to practitioners and academics as it helps the practitioners to gain knowledge and expertise through practice and helps the academic gain knowledge and understanding through research. The complexity of leadership can be understood through the words of Bennis and Nanus (1997) who state the following “Leadership is the most studied and least understood concept of any in the social sciences “and by Dan Wren (1994) who stated, “Despite the mountains of literature on leadership, we still know very little… leadership is still much of an art”. However, even though leadership is complex it is also flexible and can be applied in relevant contexts as mentioned above. Ethical leadership is according to Northouse (2016) a structure of guidelines that gives direction to leaders in order to make decisions and analyze what is right or wrong to do. For instance, Kanungo and Mendonka (1996) mentioned that when moral values are corrupted by leaders then the moral health of society is also corrupted. While Derr (2012) highlighted the importance of ethical leadership as without it there is a high chance of chaos happening in organizations which will also likely affect the world.
There are various approaches to ethical leadership such as:
Virtue based ethics
Virtue-based ethics is described according to Oakley (1996) as an act of action that an individual will perform either right or wrong which can only be justified through an example of a “virtuous agent”. The description of a virtuous person would be a person who seeks to do what is right and has positive characteristics such as honesty and fairness and would not fail at practicing these virtues when facing critical situations (Timmons, 2012). This suggests that a person must act based on the right motives for the actions to be right however, it is not enough for one to act with the right motives as it may fail to achieve a high standard of desired results and thus an appropriate motive before the action should be considered (Oakley, 1996). This, therefore, means, if the motives are right then the action will also follow suit. Moreover, Keller (2007) says that it is not enough to act as a virtuous agent but a person should rather focus on becoming the virtuous agent.
Utilitarianism mainly focuses on the consequences of one’s action which will determine whether the action was right or wrong. For instance, if a person’s actions have been wrong but the results were good, then his actions may be considered as good and ethical. This can be called an act of consequentialism developed by utilitarians such as Jeremy Bentham (1789), John Stuart Mill (1861) as well as Henry Sidgwick (1907). Bentham (1789), emphasizes the value of pleasure against pain, however, Hinman (2013), criticized this logic and called it a pleasure-seeking theory that uses pleasure as a means of measurement. Mill (1861) adjusted Bentham’s philosophy by making a difference between the higher and lower quality of pleasure and stated that in utilitarianism the importance is not in the quantity of pleasure but in its quality.
Deontology comes from the word “duty” and is largely associated with the philosopher Immanuel Kant (1785), who believed that a person must act with kindness and treat people the way the person would like to be treated rather than acting on self-interest. His work further says that even if the outcome of the actions is good, some acts are always considered bad regardless of the outcome. The Kantian perspective differs from Betham’s philosophy because it highlights the importance of the “duty to do what is right” compared to the selfish nature of humans seeking pleasure. However, there is some criticism of this theory which comes for instance from Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831) who criticized this philosophy as unclear and focusing only on mere duty which does not give specific guidance on moral duties.
Justice based ethics
As Northouse (2013) states, there are five principles of ethical leadership which include the respect of others, serving others, practicing justice, be honest, and strengthen the community. This, therefore, makes Justice another ethical principle which according to Northouse (2013) is about the leaders acting in a fair and just manner because only with justice can followers be treated equally. This could also be understood as an egalitarian concept that traces back to ancient Hebrews where Jesus Christ said “Love your neighbor as yourself” which according to Goodman (2008) was classified as the “Bible’s core ethical imperative” emphasizing equal treatment of people.
Ethics of care
The ethics of care is largely associated with Nel Noddings (1984) who highlighted the importance of caring and sympathizing as a solid foundation for ethical actions. In this theory, Noddings (1984) states that a person should act with commitments to perceive the need and act with empathy to fulfill each other’s wellbeing. It has also been described as a feminist philosophy as other approaches to ethics were male-centered and focused on the masculine experience and Noddings (1984) states that other approaches such as utilitarianism and deontology did not provide adequate knowledge on how women address ethical concerns.
Furthermore, a critical view on ethical leadership has been written by Knights & O’Leary (2006), who mentioned the failure in ethical leadership that is attributed to the supremacy of individualism whose focus is on the self-image. The critical view emphasizes the need to change self-centered leadership as without it is not possible to achieve ethical leadership. After the scandal of large companies such as ENRON, the influence of business schools to educate managers have been questioned. However, Goshal (2004) stated the following words “’We – as business school faculty – need to own up to our own role in creating Enrons” which means that managers mostly learn from the various theories they have been taught. While Mintzberg (2004) claims that there has not been adequate training for MBAs to act as managers and therefore when they find themselves as leaders they eventually fail.