The difference between ethical leaders that cast light and unethical leaders that cast shadows when faced with the same ethical challenges is based in how they handle the challenges of leadership. I have worked with both types of leaders and know their characteristics well.
Ethical leaders have a strong sense of right and wrong and have standards that guide their decisions. They make informed decisions and have a moral compass. Ethical leaders foster trust and are focused on the greater good of the community.
Unethical leaders have an inflated sense of self and are extremely insecure. They like to think they are the smartest person in the room. They are focused on their own agenda, not the greater good of the community. They abuse power, hoard privileges, and tend not to trust their followers. They fail to take responsibility for their actions, and their bad deeds go unpunished due to their power and influence.
I try to cast more light than shadows through leading by example and emphasizing the greater good of the community in my actions. I empower my team to do their jobs and encourage them to get out of their comfort zone. If they make a mistake, I meet with them and we discuss how we could do things differently in the future. This is how they learn and develop their skills.
I try to be as consistent as possible with each of my direct reports, knowing that there may be extenuating circumstances that need to be addressed on a case-by-case basis. For example, our receptionist is a single mother with a child that has an ongoing medical condition. She cannot control when her child is sick and needs a doctor’s care. There have been occasions when she needs to take her child to a specialist and has run out of sick leave. Instead of docking her pay, I let her make up the extra time. This has taken a great burden off her shoulders and as a result she has become one of the hardest workers on our team. I have done the same when other employees have a similar situation caring for a family member or have special circumstances. My team knows that they can come to me and I will work with them on finding a solution that is consistent with what I have done for others. This instills a high level of trust and loyalty between us.
As Johnson (2018) states, there are leaders who have a battleground mentality of win at all costs. I worked in a private secondary school as an assistant athletic director in charge of administration. This included ensuring student athletes were academically eligible to participate in athletics by tracking their grades on a weekly basis. The Virginia High School League has strict requirements of a “D” average to be eligible. Because the school was known for strong academics, we required a “C” average for eligibility and each student athlete signed a form stating they understood the rules of eligibility at the beginning of each athletic season. The boys’ basketball team was in the state playoffs and one of the best athletes on the team was ineligible due to his weekly grade report. When I informed the athletic director and coach of the student’s ineligibility, they asked me to go back to the history teacher and request a grade change. I did not feel comfortable doing this and refused because it would violate the honor code that the students, faculty and staff signed at the beginning of each academic year. The next day I was told by the coach that the student had received a grade change after he spoke with the history teacher at the request of the athletic director. I requested a meeting with the headmaster to discuss the situation. During the course of that meeting, the history teacher was asked to join the conversation. She confirmed that the coach had asked her to change the grade and that she felt pressured to do so since this was the first time the team had made it to the state tournament. This is a good example of the coach trying to use moral justification for his unethical behavior. The headmaster overrode the grade change, suspended the coach for one game and a letter of reprimand was put in the athletic director’s personnel file. Ultimately, they both did not receive a contract for the next school year. This was a very difficult situation to be in, but I knew I made the right decision. It was not fair to the student athletes that maintained their eligibility. An interesting side note is the student athlete in question knew he was ineligible and took full responsibility and told his teammates he was the one that let them down. I like to think he followed my good example.