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Ethical failure: Why do leaders behave badly?

Leadership ethics

It is a fairly simple rule. Yet so many of our leaders – in politics, business, media, the church, sport, schools and just about any other sector you care to name – fail to observe it. And it is no use claiming, as some have tried to, that community standards have changed and that’s why they are suddenly being held accountable. If some of the people who have been accused of serial sexual abuse thought what they were doing was fine, why did they do it in secret? And why did they only victimise those with little power to fight back? It is shocking to hear church leaders who have covered up child abuse excuse their inaction by claiming they didn’t know that raping children was a crime! They covered up such behaviour precisely because they didn’t want it on the front page of the newspaper.

Here’s another ethical rule of thumb. If you wouldn’t want someone to do it to you, don’t do it to anyone else. Such a simple concept, yet it covers stealing, rape, murder, violence, corruption, cheating, sexual harassment, discrimination and gaming the system. Most of us – unless we’re actual sociopaths (who are, terrifyingly, statistically more likely to end up in leadership positions) – will be nodding along with my little sermon. Yet, if most of us instinctively know what is and isn’t ethical, then why is it that we so often find ourselves derailed?

Self-interest can make behaving ethically – doing the right thing – very difficult. You may have to decide between behaving ethically or keeping a client, your job or a promotion.

Why did so many people stay silent about Jimmy Savile’s horrific abuses of disabled kids, only speaking up after his death? Why did it take a male comedian to bring Bill Cosby’s alleged abuse of women to light when some of his female victims had been trying to hold the man to account for years? Why do we turn a blind eye to business leaders who bully subordinates or harass female employees? Why do we admire the entrepreneur who makes big bucks suspiciously quickly? Why do we now almost expect match fixing and performance-enhancing drugs in sport? And why do we positively encourage tax ‘minimisation’ which may stray dangerously close to avoidance?

Power, corruption and doing the right thing

Partly, it is one of the ways power works. Those in power can take liberties; those without power ignore it as much as they can precisely because they feel powerless. Another reason is self-doubt. No-one else is making a fuss, so maybe the behaviour is okay. It becomes what psychologists call a ‘norm’ and people almost stop noticing. In healthy organisations this may mean a blind eye is turned to nicking stationery. In unhealthy ones, people may learn to ignore corrupt practice, bullying and even rape.

Most of us don’t call out wrongdoing when we see it for understandable reasons. We have all seen what happens to those who blow the whistle on the very powerful. The punitive response to whistleblowers is designed to silence others – and it works.


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