Leadership Defining an Ethical Leader Jeffrey Immelt, Essay

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Defining an Ethical Leader

Jeffrey Immelt, General Electric

The nature of leadership is multifaceted and often requires the continual mastery of new skills, insights, intelligence and perspectives to stay effective over the long-term. Such is the nature of ethical leadership, which requires a steadfast focus on a core set of ethical principles and values that guide a leader's judgment, ensuring consistency over the long-term. These are also the fundamental aspects of any leader's long-term credibility as well, and their ability to transform their enterprises over the long-term as well (John, 2005). Ethical leaders often resonate with credibility and the willingness to also change quickly in response to the needs of their organizations, employees, stakeholders and customers.

The purpose of this analysis is to define what an ethical leader is, how managers can progress to being more ethical in their leadership style, and how Jeff Immelt, CEO of general Electric, typifies what ethical leadership can accomplish in a very large multinational corporation. It has often been said that a leader is who one is and a manager is what one does (John, 2005). This is especially the case in defining ethical leadership and its supporting concepts including emotional intelligence (EI) and transformational leadership as well. Both of these ancillary components of ethical leadership ensure the strategies designed and steps taken by leaders stay consistent over time and bring lasting change to organizations. Only by defining ethical leadership along these dimensions can the long-term value of ethical leadership be attained within an enterprise as well. Including the concepts of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics also is supported by the integration of EI and transformational leadership as well.

Defining Ethical Leadership

The foundational aspects of ethical leadership include a continual willingness to be accountable and transparent about every decision undertaken, in addition to providing ample evidence of being values-driven in decision-making processes. All of these attributes are also critically important in transformational leadership skill sets as well. The definition of ethical leadership must include the foundational elements of transformational leadership as well, as these latter concepts are what galvanize the many aspects of ethical leadership into place (John, 2005)., Ethical leadership must include the combination of EI and transformational leadership skills for any leader to be able to evoke change in an organization, and make that change permanent (Mendonca, 2001). EI is important for ethical awareness and as these core set of leadership skills brings the ability to correctly interpret complex, often abstract ethical dichotomies throughout an organization and reach an acceptable solution.

When the factors of EI and transformational leadership are defined as the foundation of ethical leadership, the following attributes emerge as the most important. First, an exceptional ethical leader has the ability to provide individualized consideration and consultation to subordinates, tailoring the messaging and support to their specific needs and concerns. This first attribute of an ethical leader makes them more of an ethics coach that a supervisor or a manager in a purely authoritarian role. The ethical leader is one that seeks to create the optimal conditions for each subordinate to not only attain their objectives for work, but also for their professional career aspirations, all within ethical boundaries (Gonzalez, Guillen, 2002). An excellent ethical leader will work to create a culture that allows for individual initiative while also ensuring every employee has a very clear sense of ethical boundaries, and also how those boundaries give them the ability to grow professionally (Sonnenfeld, 2004). Great ethical leaders see ethics compliance not as a necessary evil or a wait of time, they see it as a means to propel both employees and entire organizations more effectively to their goals and objectives (Mendonca, 2001). When compliance is used as a means to measure the overall level of achievement against objectives, ethics and transparency become the most important value or attribute in a corporate culture (Gonzalez, Guillen, 2002). This mindset of compliance and transparency being a catalyst of achievement and accomplishment is also consistent with Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics in that both a leader and their entire team continually strive to attain happiness through the accomplishment of challenging goals and objectives, or the overcoming of a major problem (Heinze, 2010). The most effective ethical leaders realize that the greatest challenges lead to the greatest victories, and this readily applies to the ethical challenges, most likely always unseen outside an enterprise. The role of the ethical leader in this regard is to ensure that, through individual consideration, their employees have the appropriate frameworks and support to ensure they make the right ethical decisions even when managers and supervisors are not present. This is the acid test of an effective ethical leader using transformational skill sets to propel an organization to its goals. Individualized consideration is also shows in how effectively a leader provides the autonomy, mastery and purpose to an employee in their pursuit of more challenging, complex and often abstract work. It's been shown that the greater the level of abstractions and uncertainty in specific tasks, especially those that involve stakeholders and those outside the business, the greater the potential for unethical decisions to be made (Mendonca, 2001). A sure sign of ethical leadership is that when employees are in this situation they choose to abide by the concepts and frameworks as defined by their ethical, and often transformational leaders (Gonzalez, Guillen, 2002).

A second aspect of the hybrid nature of ethical and transformational leadership is the ability of a leader to provide intellectual stimulation in specific roles while also setting boundaries of ethical conduct in their attainment. This aspect of ethical leadership encourages subordinates to openly question the direction, logic and even the ethicacy of decisions in an open dialogue of trust (Gonzalez, Guillen, 2002). This aspect of intellectual stimulation fuels trust while also teaching ethic al decision making and a focus on results achieved through the use of shared insights and collaboration. This second aspect of ethical leadership also concentrates on creating a culture of continual intellectual growth, both from a personal and professional level as well (John, 2005). This attribute of ethical leadership is essential for the creating of an organization that continually strives to learn more and stay at the forefront of new technologies as well. The ethicacy of this attribute pertains to how an organization chooses to use these technologies in the attainment of goals and in the service of customers. The continual ascent of technologies as a means to gain competitive advantage in markets opens up a myriad of opportunities to abuse them from an ethical standpoint, both from a monitoring competitive and customer activity standpoint. Intellectual stimulation guided by ethical leadership and defined from a transformational standpoint to support and strengthen customers is extremely powerful as a competitive advantage in global business, as Jeff Immelt of General Electric has shown over his years as CEO.

The third attribute of an excellent ethical leader is the ability to influence outcomes within their own organization, throughout the broader enterprise and in the industry. This aspect of ethical leadership also is exemplified in the ability of a leader to shows high values awareness, high values accountability, values-driven decision making and in-sync policies with the broader enterprise (Gonzalez, Guillen, 2002). These attributes of inspirational motivation as an ethical leader are essential for making transparency a foundational element of any leadership style (Mendonca, 2001). Encouraging initiative is also a central part of this attribute of ethical leadership as well. Inspirational motivation then is more than just leading by example, it is the continual evolution of a leader from being focused on short-term to long-term results, while balancing the many needs of an enterprise to an ethical set of checks and balances to ensure steady progress is made on both the commercial and ethical levels of a business (Mendonca, 2001). In evaluating the best leaders of the 20th and 21st centuries this attribute was the most difficult to align with a specific leader given its comprehensive nature of bringing together two potentially divergent areas of ethical alignment and the need for employees to continually making significant progress on challenging goals and objectives.

The fourth attribute of exceptional ethical leaders is their ability to exert significant idealized influence throughout not only their organizations, but also through their communities and global industries. An exceptional ethical leader will use transformational leadership skills to also ensure idealized influence is perceived and acted on within the right context as well. This is challenging for many managers who have authoritarian or even transactionally-driven management styles as their approach to idealized influence is best summed up in a carrot-and-stick mentality of getting work done with subordinates (John, 2005). This approach to short-term results with immediate rewards or punishments is often counterproductive, forces subordinates to focus only on the goal, and has been shown to deliver unethical behavior when the pressure is so great for results alone (Gonzalez, Guillen, 2002). An ethical leader who is well-skilled in the areas of transformational leadership and has EI will be able to navigate subordinates…

Sources Used in Document:


Crainer, S. (2009). From Edison to Immelt: The GE Way. Business Strategy Review, 20(3), 18-22.

Gonzalez, T.F., & Guillen, M. (2002). Leadership ethical dimension: A requirement in TQM implementation. The TQM Magazine, 14(3), 150-164.

Heinze, E. (2010). The meta-ethics of law: Book one of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics. International Journal of Law in Context, 6(1), 23-44.

Immelt, J. (2010). Renewing American Leadership. Vital Speeches of the Day, 76(2), 53.

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