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Ethical leadership
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Ethical leadership: An in-depth look at consequentialism vs non-cosequentialism

By Colin Richardson
 

What is ethical? The topic of ethics seems to provide far more questions than it does answers. Whilst we may be able to determine trends in a person’s ethical decision making, or attempt to fit individuals into ethical molds, it must be recognised that every situation brings with it differing ethical dilemmas. With these thoughts in mind, this paper will discuss core values, the influence morality and how these may transfer into decision making processes. Examples have been used to help understand these models of ethical decision making. The paper will conclude with a discussion to determine what level of ethical leadership is necessary for good leadership.

 

In order to understand ethics, first we must look at values which essentially provide the background for making ethically based decisions. Values can be seen as generalised behaviours or core beliefs that an individual holds dear. Many if these core beliefs or values are developed throughout childhood and are largely shaped before adulthood. Values can be influenced by family, education, religion, social and professional cultural context, media, friends and any other experiences significant to an individual.  Ones values are extremely important to an individual and effect every decision they make as well as their behaviour. (Durbrin, Daglish & Miller. 2006. p 127). 

 

Morality takes an individual or a groups core values and uses them to develop a consensus on what is right and wrong. These standards provide the backbone of what decision an individual will make in a particular situation. The areas that refer strongly to morals include situations where serious injury or benefit can occur to someone, closely associating with the specials emotions of guilt, shame or remorse. (Durbrin, et al. 2006. p 128). The depth to which an individual holds their moral ground will ultimately determine the likeliness for them sticking to their principals and fighting for what they believe in. With these definitions in mind we will further discuss ethics, or the study of morality, and just how this affects an individual’s actions and their leadership characteristics. (Durbrin, et al. 2006. p 128).

 

There are a number of situations and variations to which an individual may apply their core values and principals. Due to the subjective nature of ethics as a topic, people can justify their actions to suit a number of ethical standards. Utalitarianism refers to a situation where a decision is ethical if it is seen to benefit the greater good, even at the expense of a minority. This is seen as consequentialism where justification for the decision is determined by how favourable the consequences will be. (Durbrin, et al. 2006. p 129).

 

Using an example of utalitarian leadership, we can look at the situation when a fire broke out in the HMAS Westralia’s engine room in 1998. In this unfortunate situation, four crew members where trapped inside the engine room where a fire threatened to destroy the whole ship with sixty crew members onboard if it was not extinguished. The commanding officer was faced with an ethical dilemma where he had to attempt to save the trapped sailor’s in the engine room or shut the airtight doors to the engine room and save the ship. As the fire was burning near 20 000 tonnes of flammable fuel, Commander Dietrich made the decision to lock the airtight doors with four sailor’s still inside the engine room inevitably resulting in their deaths. (Rowland Smith, 1998). Making a decision to end four peoples lives would go against many peoples core values, however given Commander Dietrich’s predicament and duty of care to the remaining sixty sailors onboard HMAS Westralia, I feel many people would make the same decision. Faced with the prospect of ending four sailors lives to ensure the safety of the ship and the remaining sixty sailors, Commander Dietrich took a utilitarian approach to this ethical decision and arguably saved many more lives for the four that were lost. (Rowland Smith, 1998).

 

Using the same situation of HMAS Westralia, a non-consequentialism model used in this ethical decision would potentially have produced a different outcome. A non-consequential approach suggests that some courses of action are always wrong and no consequential benefit can justify a decision that breaches such actions. (Durbrin, et al. 2006. p 130). It can be argued that the decision made by Commander Dietrich breaches many peoples core values of not to take another human life. This decision is easy to criticise with hindsight from a non-consequential perspective, however the values of not taking a human life must be compare to that of preserving or saving human life in this case. The utilitarian decision in this case overruled the non-consequential in an effort to benefit the majority of sailors aboard HMAS Westralia. (Rowland Smith, 1998). This situation illustrates the grey areas present in making ethically driven decisions and therefore the decision will not fit everyone’s core values. So did Commander Dietrich make the right decision? That will depend on your own personal values and experiences so as a result, the only certainty is that most people will hold a strong opinion in this example one way or another.

 

In society, laws and legislation are designed to reflect the population’s values and belief systems. Essentially, laws provide set guidelines of rights and duties that the general population believes everyone should abide by. Does this mean however that every action that does not break a law is ethical? The example of the computer manufacturer Apple provides a case that explores this issue in more depth.

 

Apple, in particular their I Pod product, has become a house hold name in recent times. With the success of their I Pod, Apple outsourced production overseas in an attempt to make their product as cheap as possible. (Burrows, 2006). In the interests of competition this made perfect sense, the companies that the production was outsourced to provided a very competitive price. By outsourcing, Apple passed over responsibility of manufacturing their products to an outside party. The Chinese based company that produced the I Pod’s paid its employees fifty dollars a week whilst housing them in cramped dormitories. (Hesseldahl, 2006). In the country where Apple originated and heads its global operations, the US forbids such treatment of employees through legislation. Apple itself has broken no laws but can turning a blind eye to such operations and claim ethical practice? I would suggest that US values reject poor treatment of employee’s in a ‘sweatshop’ environment by their minimum wage laws and health and safety standards. (Hesseldahl, 2006).

One could argue that Apple, among many other companies, have exploited developing countries for their cheap labour in the interests of making a quick dollar. Apple and other offending companies can deny responsibility for the poor conditions as much as they like, but this brings with it disastrous public relations issues through negative press. At the end of the day, Apple sell and put their name on the I Pod product and therefore are directly or indirectly responsible for how they are produced. Hesseldahl (2006) suggests that Apple could avoid any negative publicity by building its own factory in China. They could still pay the lesser wages demanded by the Chinese but would maintain sole responsibility for the working conditions. Hesseldahl (2006) has provided this ethical solution to the problem that has arisen for Apple, however concedes that this would be expensive and may effect production in the short term. This raises the question of how far does corporate responsibility go? Some consumers might be happy to buy an I Pod knowing full well that they may have been produced in a ‘sweatshop’. Others may boycott the product or choose an alternative product in protest. (Hesseldahl, 2006). These are the issues that companies must weigh up, and it becomes evident that a company that is transparent and seeks to actively pursue ethical activities find it easier to avoid public relations disasters in this field where perpetrators are at constant risk.

 

Through the examples and theory discussed it becomes clear that there is no cut and dry answer as to what model of ethical decision making is superior. What does become clear however is that a good leader must read the situation at hand and carefully choose a decision based on what facts are available. Leaders will be judged on their decisions, especially of an ethical nature, as setting the standard in their company for their subordinates to follow. It is for this reason that holding strong values within a company or group, and sticking to them, is essential to effective leadership and avoiding instances such as those encountered by Apple.

 

Leaders will often find themselves making decisions that are ethically driven, this is impossible to avoid. Their responsibility as leaders, demonstrated in the case of Commander Dietrich of HMAS Westralia, means that their decisions effect others on a larger scale than the average person. To follow only one model of ethical decision making can be quite dangerous. Leaders must act on behalf of a greater majority and this responsibility can not be overlooked. Paul Keating suggests that “all leaders should have a moral compass” and that the greatest leaders are committed to facing and tackling ethical dilemmas head on. (Durbrin, et al. 2006. p 124). I am inclined to agree with these comments, as a leader gains respect if he is seen to embrace the difficult decision and make a decision that holds true to the organisations moral guidelines.


References:

 

Burrows, P. (2006, June 15). High-Tech's “Sweatshop” Wake-Up Call. Business Week. Extracted 2007, February 8 from http://www.businessweek.com/print/technology/content/jun2006/tc20060615_484878.htm

 

Durbrin, A., Daglish, c. & Miller, P. (2006). Leadership: 2nd Asia-Pacific Edition. (2nd Ed.) Milton, Qld, Australia: John Wiley & Sons.

 

Hesseldahl, A. (2006, June 29). Fixing Apple's "Sweatshop" Woes. Business Week. Extracted 2007, February 8 from http://www.businessweek.com/print/technology/content/jun2006/tc20060629_008337.htm

 

Rowland Smith, R. B. (The Hon.) Hansard extract, NSW Legislative Council. (1998, May 19). HMAS Westralia fire tragedy. Extracted 2007, February 7 from http://www.parliament.nsw.gov.au/prod/PARLMENT/hansArt.nfs/V3Key/LC19980519053