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There Is No Magic Recipe for Good Leaders (Part II)

By Dr. Gary Deel, Ph.D., J.D.
Faculty Director, School of Business, American Public University

This is the second article in a two-part series about good leaders.

In the first part of this article, I discussed the trait theory of leadership and how 20th-century leadership research proposed a list of eight qualities that were loosely associated with effective leadership. Those qualities were drive, desire to lead, honesty and integrity, self-confidence, intelligence, job relevant knowledge, extraversion, and accountability.

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None of these traits are strictly negative insofar as leader success is concerned. But in this second article, I’ll discuss how each quality might affect the ability of a leader to behave ethically and make sound moral decisions.

How Leadership Qualities Could Affect the Ethical Conduct of Good Leaders

Drive might be considered an admirable quality, but what if a leader’s drive for success is placed in higher priority than ethical conduct? In other words, what if a leader’s goals are considered to be more important than altruism?

Additionally, what if someone’s goals don’t align with ethical conduct? This is not an uncommon situation, as professionals who are paid for their performance — such as in commission-based positions — are frequently pushed to deliver results without much regard for the means by which they are accomplished.

Desire to lead is usually a prerequisite for successful leadership, but one should also consider the motivations behind such a desire to lead. If the purpose is to help followers achieve more together, this is ostensibly an ethical reason for wanting to be a leader.

But if a desire to lead to is borne out of a wish to control others and wield power, without regard to the well-being of followers, then such a leader might pose an ethical danger to the teams he or she leads. Adolf Hitler is a great example. His promises inspired many followers, but his selfishness and lust for power ultimately brought ruin to Germany.

Provided that a leader is genuinely honest and a person of integrity, then these are probably ethical qualities to possess. However, are there ever cases where lying is a superior ethical choice to honesty?

As an example, what if embellishing the truth about the state of a business’s financial solvency is necessary to keep employees comfortable, motivated and productive? Is such dishonesty truly unethical if it serves to benefit employees by preventing such a company from going under? These are difficult questions to be sure, but — as I’ve argued in other articles — absolute rules of conduct are rare in the world of ethics.

Self-confidence may be a powerful force of persuasion for followers, but overconfidence can lead to dangerous positions of underestimating threats and rendering a team vulnerable to failure. Additionally, as I discussed in my first article, confidence can be faked.

Creating false impressions of confidence may give followers an imprudent sense of trust in their leader. In the post 9/11 Iraq War, for example, both President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney expressed extreme confidence that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). Our nation rallied around our leaders in patriotic support. But it turned out in the end that Iraq didn’t have WMDs, and our country paid a high price in terms of American lives and dollars on a war most people today agree did not need to be fought.

Intelligence can hardly be described as an unethical quality for leaders to possess. However, as with some of the other qualities discussed in this article, intelligence is something that may be effectively feigned by a talented charlatan.

This ability to fake intelligence always presents a unique danger to the stability of teams. In another way, intelligence possessed by a leader which is genuine but vastly superior to that possessed by the typical follower may be used to take advantage of followers and manipulate them for personal gain. Consequently, exceptionally talented leaders must self-regulate their own conduct in this respect.

Like intelligence, job-relevant knowledge is something that may also be faked for personal gain at the expense of a team, or used in a way that takes advantage of those who are less knowledgeable. For example, financial experts who grow to understand accounting procedures at a level that other employees and investors do not or cannot may be tempted to use this knowledge to commit nearly undetectable theft.

Cases of such behavior are not uncommon. In 2003, executives at the energy company Enron were caught “cooking the books” and falsely inflating their reported profits to try to deceive investors about the company’s performance.

Many of these executives were convicted of criminal fraud, and some of them are just now getting out of prison. But their unethical actions caused much more harm for the employees and investors of Enron, which ultimately succumbed to financial collapse.

As I discussed in Part I, extraversion is a typical quality among successful leaders, but not among all successful leaders. Extraverted leaders must be conscious of the way in which their personalities may be perceived as overly assertive, aggressive or even overbearing by more introverted followers.

This kind of leadership dynamic can sometimes lead to a culture of resentment or fear within teams. For example, a whole list of American presidents had well-documented tempers that led to unhealthy atmospheres in the White House.

Finally, accountability is perhaps the one quality which is unlikely to lead to unethical behavior, regardless of its degree of influence over an individual’s behavior. Accountability is essentially the very embodiment of ethics. As long as one’s own perceptions about right and wrong, good and bad, etc., are reasonable and appropriate, an emphasis on personal responsibility and even guilt-proneness is unlikely to lead good leaders to unethical conduct.

The only potential downside to an overemphasis on accountability is that an obsession with consequences and guilt could render a leader unable to make the difficult decisions that are often required in such positions. Good leaders should not be blind to the potential effects of their actions, but they shouldn’t be paralyzed by them either.

Certainly, the eight qualities discussed in this article can sometimes lead to successful leadership. But those qualities in good leaders can also become twisted and cause leaders to behave in ethically untenable ways. By studying the trait theory of leadership — but not taking any of its implications as absolute gospel — good leaders can better address any deficiencies in their own characters and plot a course that maintains morality in their leadership.

About the Author

Dr. Gary Deel is a Faculty Director with the School of Business at American Public University. He holds a J.D. in Law and a Ph.D. in Hospitality/Business Management. Gary teaches human resources and employment law classes for American Public University, the University of Central Florida, Colorado State University and others.

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