It’s no secret that many high-profile companies are facing a leadership crisis. From Uber’s public decline to Wells Fargo’s phony account scandal, the news has been rife with businesses falling from grace.
In the aftermath of all these stories, however, the conversation always seems to turn toward one party: the organization’s leaders.
The leadership team sets the tone for the company culture and charts the course for the company’s goals. However, too often we hear of the devastating consequences of a leader’s lapse in judgement or the result of a negative culture perpetuated by the leadership team. Even large, once-successful companies are not immune to this threat.
“For many individual leaders who derail, their success had created a sense of entitlement — the idea that they deserved extra perks and privileges and that the rules didn’t apply to them,” explains University of Dallas Professor of Management J. Lee Whittington, Ph.D. “Ethical leadership failures are often fueled by an obsession with a very narrow definition of success (individually and in corporations) that emphasizes short-term financial gain.”
An individual’s or a corporation’s obsession with short-term financial wins — what Whittington calls the “tyranny of the quarterly” — creates an environment that incentivizes forfeiting ethics for financial gain. This forfeiture can have devastating effects on the reputations of even the most established companies.
Ethical leadership can be strengthened by quality business education.
Ethical leadership continues to be a strong indicator of a company’s long-term success. The need to cultivate strong leadership is greater than ever before. A study published by the Harvard Business Review surveyed 195 leaders in 15 countries over 30 global organizations and found that high ethical and moral standards were identified as the most important qualities for leaders to possess.
With many executives climbing the ranks to c-level and pivotal decision-making roles after completing MBAs, business school is an important step in shaping these leaders.
Integrating Principled and Moral Leadership into the Curriculum
Traditionally, business schools focus on teaching students hard skills such as finance, accounting or marketing. While these skills are necessary, it’s becoming increasingly important for business schools to also view each of these courses through the lens of ethical and principled leadership.
“At the University of Dallas, for example, we take our mission to develop principled and moral leaders very seriously,” said Whittington. “Every degree we offer has a required ethics course. In addition to these required courses, we cover the ethical dimensions of the topics in every course we offer. We seek to immerse our students in the ethical aspects of the business decisions they’ll face.”
Cultivating a Personal “Board of Directors”
Ethical leadership failures are usually rooted in a lack of self-awareness and authentic accountability. Whittington believes every leader should cultivate a personal “board of directors.” Leaders should then invite the scrutiny of these individuals.
“Invited scrutiny is a process that subjects a leader to the evaluation of not just their behaviors, but also their attitudes, motivating real accountability,” explains Whittington, who also authored Biblical Perspectives on Leadership and Organizations. “Leaders must be humble and have a teachable spirit. They must also have people around them who care enough to confront their leadership when they see it drifting into questionable territory.”
Business school is a great opportunity to grow your “board of directors” by networking with classmates and professors.
Broadening the Definition of Success
“There is a growing emphasis in both academic and practitioner circles on enhancing sustainability, servant leadership and positive organizations,” said Whittington.
Even though ethical leadership successes don’t often make headlines, it’s important to celebrate the many leadership teams that are excelling at creating sustainable solutions that benefit more than just their shareholders. These leaders define their success not just in terms of dollars, but by the positive impact their decisions have across all dimensions of the organization.
J. Lee Whittington, Ph.D., is a professor of management in the Satish & Yasmin Gupta College of Business at the University of Dallas. He focuses his teaching, research and consulting in the areas of leadership, organizational behavior and spiritual leadership. He is also the co-director of the Master of Leadership program at the University of Dallas.