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July 7, 2014

What is Ethical Leadership?

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Written by: Duane Covrig

I teach a class at Andrews University called LEAD645 Ethical Leadership. In this class, we talk about ethics, leadership and then what ethical leadership means together.

Students pay good tuition for that course and I try my best to help them. In reality, ethics is understanding right and wrong and morality is is about being and doing that right, and ethical leadership is about intentional influences that get ethical thinking and moral actions into oneself and others more effectively.

Through leadership, we steer ourselves and others to new and better paths and away from directions of actions that debilitate  Both our moral thinking (ethics) and actions (morality) and our leadership (intentional influence) are human developments tat are in progress as we are every day finding deeper concepts of right and wrong (hopefully) and more effective ways to influence.

One of my favorite quotes on leadership relates well to the internal process in leaders:

“No leader sets out to be a leader. People set out to live their own lives, expressing themselves fully. When the expression is of value, they become leaders.So the point is not to become a leader. The point is to become yourself, to use yourself completely–all your skills, gifts, and energies–in order to make your vision manifest. You must withhold nothing. You must, in sum, become the person you started out to be, and to enjoy the process of becoming,”–Warren Bennis, On Becoming a Leader, expanded edition 2003, p. 104

Authentic leadership is a crucial aspect of ethical leadership. This is being true to ourselves while at the same time have the hope that aspects of that self are being renewed and changed by the good and the right and the noble around us and from God. In the process we can start to shed more light or block the rays of God’s love and truth from spreading. We can cast light more or create more shadow (Parker Palmer’s line the Craig Johnson uses in his best selling book on Meeting the Ethical Challenges of Leadership). Once again, this is a lifetime process of development, facilitated most effectively by listening to others, especially the Holy Spirit.

I have come over the years to see the call to ethical leadership as a very important call on one’s life. It is a serious and joyful call.

As such, the course tries to be serious but I have to admit, as an online experience, I have to put more some joy into this course.  I used to teach ethics as a sort of toying around with moral puzzles and learning how to weave philosophically sophisticated sentences together. I have maybe got too focused on the seriousness. It is likely a reaction to what I see some do with ethics: use it to obscure right and righteousness. I am still naive to think that a course should have a personal and professional transformation on the participant. It is about closer alignment of thought and life to God’s ideal (I teach at a Christian university so I can say that in my classes although I hope I don’t force God on the ethical sensitivities of others). It is about growth, learning, courage and peace.

There are a lot of useful metaphors that have grabbed out of life to help explain the ethical leadership development process. My favorite, and the one I am using to write my book is on Adventist ethics is growing a good tree. The roots go down deep (foundations like theology, doctrine, philosophy, worldview enrich a leaders nourishing sources), the trunk grows (this is where our sociological processes and experiences help us draw from the sources of insight in our religious communities and experiences), and then our application and daily experiences branch from there (into varied understandings about practices and skills, topics of application), and then leaves (like the gathering of the rays of light as facts and insights) continue to nurture our whole thinking and bear fruit (good works).

The metaphor gets reused and abused but the picture of the tree has been a most reassuring image for me.

Roots our concepts and theology and the rich philosophical ideas we share with each other.

When we focus on the trunk—good decision, good professional practice, good social processes. From that we branch into topics leaders need to know about.

Kolb learning cycle has helped me reinvent moral leadership training. It focuses on complex learning, which ethical leadership involves. Complex learning requires thinking with doing and reflection. We use the Kolb learning cycle in all our leadership programs as it keeps us all (students and faculty) focused on the social and physical skill development that requires reading, writing, reflection, doing and adventure in experimentation.  see

Thanks for enduring these random thoughts. I guess I have read so much about ethical leadership I need to keep coming back to the basics.

Ethical leadership is basically aligning our intentional influence to God’s intentional love.

That is no small task.



About the Author

Duane Covrig
I teach leadership and ethics at Andrews University. I am a Seventh-day Adventist eager for the Second Coming of Christ and positive about His judgment hour work (Rev 14:6-12). I use that reality to understand morality and ethics.




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