5 Components of Ethical Leadership

Take5 Mason recommends that we pause and “Take5” to follow 5 steps for ethical living and leading. Living and leading ethically are lifelong processes. Rushworth Kidder talks about the idea of “Ethical Fitness®”. Just as there are many benefits of ongoing efforts to become physical fit, the same is true for ethics. We cannot workout for a few weeks and then say “Sweet, I’m physically fit for life!”.  It also helps to have well-researched steps for how to workout so you can be more efficient and effective without getting hurt. We can use the 5 steps below for a particular issue we are considering, but also to better understand ourselves and others. This can help with our journey to become more ethically fit.

5 Steps: Identify, Gather, Multiple, Act, Reflect

Step 1. I: Identify the ethical issue (and your typical approach)

Are you aware of the ethics involved in the situation? Are you aware of how you and others typically approach decisions about what is right? It is important to recognize that many of our decisions have an ethical component. Not just very large or complex dilemmas like the death penalty or euthanasia, but also daily decisions such as “Should I share my true feelings about my friend’s new haircut the day before their big interview?”, “What should I recycle?”, “Should I get up and workout or sleep longer?”, “Should I steal a jet and fly to Indonesia for a hot stone massage?” (Spoiler alert: hopefully that last one is not an everyday decision for you.) As Prentice mentions: “Studies demonstrate that people are more likely to make poor ethical choices when they are barely aware that a decision has an ethical aspect.” Take5 each day to observe your emotions, gut reactions and thought processes. This will help you identify the ethical components of your decisions. Click HERE for a video and more information about identifying ethical issues.

5 Steps: Identify, Gather, Multiple, Act, Reflect

Step 2. G: Gather facts

Do you really have all the relevant facts? What evidence can help with our decisions?  Where is the weight of that evidence? Do our facts come from good and reliable sources or are they mostly from unconfirmed internet postings, misinformation, fake news, personal biases (e.g. self-serving bias) or that guy who’s always looking under tables for used gum? (Yeah, we know one of those guys too.)

5 Steps: Identify, Gather, Multiple, Act, Reflect

Step 3. M: Multiple approaches (see Ethicspectrum)

Not sure what’s right? Look to the 5Cs on the back of the Ethics Card. Rushworth Kidder talks about Right vs. Wrong decisions and Right vs. Right decisions. Sometimes we clearly know what is right, but need the wisdom and courage to act (see Step 4 below). Other times we are not sure what’s right. This may be because there are good aspects of multiple options and/or because we are biased in some way. There are some very well-respected approaches from the field of moral philosophy that can help when we are unsure about what’s right. The 5th C “Consult” emphasizes the importance of recognizing harmful intuitions or biases that can affect our ability to make decisions, including social and organizational pressures (also know as Behavioral Ethics). Each of the 5Cs has pros and cons. Considering multiple approaches can help us take advantage of the strengths and balance out the weaknesses of these well-respected approaches.

5 Steps: Identify, Gather, Multiple, Act, Reflect

Step 4. A: Act

Know what’s right, but need to move to action? Seeing the right path doesn’t necessarily lead to taking the right path. We need to actually follow through and act ethically (moving from theory to practice), often in consultation with others. Once we know what we should do, we must: 1. be motivated to actually do it (care about doing the right thing) and 2. follow through with action. This may be easy at times and at other times may require great courage. Click HERE for a video and more information about the motivation to act. Click HERE for a video and more information about following through with action. During this step it is once again essential to be aware of harmful biases and social and organizational pressures that can greatly impact our behavior. For a series of entertaining videos and information about these biases and pressures see: Ethics Unwrapped, Concepts Unwrapped

5 Steps: Identify, Gather, Multiple, Act, Reflect

Step 5. R: Reflect

What can you learn from this process? After we have acted it can be essential to pause and “Take5” to reflect so that we can learn from our experiences for the future. Taking time to think about what happened, and how we decided to act, can help us to continue to make positive changes. Then we can start the 5 step process over as we continue to work to become ethically fit. Note: Reflection should be infused throughout all 5 steps.

Note: Remember that when you put the 1st letter of each of the 5 steps together it spells IGMAR. Also see our Ethics Card.

How long should this 5 step process take? The more familiar we are with these steps, the more quickly we can implement them. Remember when you first learned to read, drive or play a sport (or that time you trained to become a ninja)? It took a lot of concentrated effort at first, but over time certain things became habit and you could do them much more quickly (like silently climbing a tree and camouflaging yourself with foliage). It’s the same with ethics. Practice over time can help a great deal. You may be doing many aspects of these 5 steps unconsciously already.

There is also strong research based evidence for the power of taking time to reflect about ethical decisions:

“Experiment 2 examined both reflection and reasoning by examining the effects of argument strength and deliberation time on moral judgment. Consistent with the influence of reasoned reflection, we found that a strong argument was more persuasive than a weak one, but only when subjects were encouraged to reflect… these results suggest that it is possible to persuade people by appealing to their ‘heads’ as well as their ‘hearts.’” (Paxton, Ungar and Greene, 2011)

Understanding what IS vs. what OUGHT to be: In order to increase our chances of living and leading ethically, it is important to consider how we should live and lead and how we actually do live and lead (i.e. how the world “is” is not always related to how it “ought” to be).

For example, just because we know that we should workout:

  • “Working out really gives me an energy boost and helps me feel like a responsible person”
  • “Working out helps to reduce health care costs”

… does not mean we will understand the factors that affect whether or not we actually do workout…

  • “I’m much more likely to workout if my friend is going too”
  • “I sometimes trick myself into thinking I’ll work out later in the week, when deep down I know I won’t”

On the other hand, just because we know what factors impact whether or not we actually do workout…

  • “If I get my workout clothes out before I go to bed I am much more likely to get up to workout”
  • “I’ve learned that I workout more often when I reward myself with a special snack only if I worked out at least 3 times that week”

… does not mean that we will understand why we should workout…

  • “If everyone worked out at least 30minutes a day we could really reduce the incidence of heart disease”
  • “Working out improves my mood and increases my ability to be there for my friends and family”

The same is true with ethics. Just because we understand what we should do, does not mean that we will actually do it. On the other hand, just because we understand what factors impact what we actually do, does not mean that we understand what we should do.

Take5.gmu.edu is committed to focusing on both how we should live and lead and how we actually do live and lead (theory and practice), since they are both indispensable. The 5 steps above incorporate ideas about how we should live and lead and how we actually do live and lead.