Leadership and ethics go hand in hand. I am a fan of analogies so I present the following: perhaps ethics are the proverbial horse to the leadership carriage. Leadership cannot move without the ethical horse to pull it and/or guide it.
Imagine having a stallion pulling a decrepit carriage, or possibly even a sickly horse pulling a Glass Landau. While there is still a ride, the ride is not an enjoyable one. In other words, you can be a highly effective leader, but at the same time, completely unethical. On the other hand, it is also possible to be an ineffective but ethical leader. In the end, followers prefer the package - a highly effective as well as ethical leader.
We can further this idea and simplify by saying that ethics are nothing more than morals and/or principles that guide someone. Theoretically speaking, everyone is guided by some set of morals or principles, be they good or bad. So essentially, everyone has ethics, even though they are not always good per say. It’s the very old debate over what is right and what is wrong. However, the truth of the matter is that you can have neither without action.
“Good or bad” is merely a perception based on those who are doing the evaluation. Hence it is entirely possible for one to be guided by a set of principles they believe to be good, when perception of others may suggest otherwise. We see this interesting paradigm often in the world of politics. An example of this may be Communism versus Capitalism, where one side truly feels they are doing what is morally right for the betterment of the people, yet the other side often views the first as ignorant and out of touch.
Continuing the previous analogy, the carriage will not get far without a strong horse to pull it. So while you can have the best carriage ever, if you can’t move it, what good is it? Flip that; you could have the best horse and a broken carriage, and what do you get? The end result is not good.
Effective leaders need a strong set of guiding principles. Regardless of whether or not those principles are deemed ethical or unethical, an effective leader would find it difficult to make sound decisions not knowing what direction they were wanting to go. We could reference Hitler; were his actions ethical or unethical? There are still cultures around the world that view his actions as just and morally sound. Perception and/or frame is key. This is much like asking whether or not Pope Urban II was ethically sound for his decisions or if leaders during the mid 1700’s were ethical.
The foundations of our lives are constructed by many things that help us navigate the world around us. To an extent, we can become a product of our environment which may present the opportunity to skew the ethical substrate. Regardless of what occurs in our lives, this substrate is constantly calling at us. For many, it reminds us to not take what is not ours and to treat others like we prefer to be treated. For others, it is a reason to go against the grain and rebel from the common or simply to do something that is easier instead of “right”.
Can we have effective leaders without an “ethical” underpinning? No. Can we have effective leaders with an unethical underpinning? Absolutely. Take for example gangster Enoch “Nucky” Johnson, or Bernard L. Madoff for that matter. These people have ethics; but most would suggest that they are just not good ethics.
I am also compelled to clarify and express that ethical virtues are not necessarily religious overtones. One can be deemed a good person with a strong moral character without being religious per say. Two very strong examples of this may be in folks like Thomas Jefferson or Ben Franklin, who believed in God, but were not religious in a classical sense, or even "pure" men by some standards. Still, they were highly effective leaders and generally good men.
I believe ethics have a solid place in all leadership; past, present, and future. This is because every leader must make decisions about what is right and wrong for their followers and themselves. I'm suggesting that if you find yourself in a leadership position of any kind, that you take a moment to evaluate your motives, reasons, and direction. Are your decisions right for you, or are they for your followers? You are a part of history, and it is the perception of that history that will be your legacy. The one thing you don't want to be considered is a Pseudo-Transformational Leader.