Features June 2017 Special Section

Ethical Behavior Through Servant Leadership


Written By: Debbie Mason, APR, CPRC, Fellow PRSA

The ultimate definition of the outcome of practicing an ethical approach in business and life is seen when people choose to do the right thing, even when no one else is looking. Ethical challenges come daily to us as humans, and how we handle small situations is often a glimpse into how we handle larger situations.

Ethical people are courageous — they are willing to say what is honest, even when it isn’t popular or comfortable, rather than lie or lie by omission. In fact, sometimes what they impart as leaders is painful for them to say and for others to hear, but ethical behavior requires honesty and courage. Effective leaders have a passion to serve, often inspiring themselves and others with their willingness to be accountable for results with a values-driven approach.

The values of ethical leaders focus on serving first — and then asking others to serve, as well. Leaders who demonstrate ethical behavior offer congruent integrity by expecting employees to demonstrate loyalty, honesty and consistent ethical behavior, as well. Respect is imbedded in ethical behavior and that, too, must be congruent between leaders and their team members.

Often, issues arise in power dynamics, and servant leadership is a great lens to apply to those situations, as reframing situations from the perspective of serving while leading is a great way to keep unhealthy power dynamics from occurring.

The approach of servant leadership, as described by Robert Greenleaf as the founder of the modern servant leadership movement, creates a work environment with consistent behaviors across the entire workforce, supporting an environment that values good listening skills and consensus building as a positive extension of using persuasion as the ethical construct for fair power.

Servant leadership values technical competence in professional disciplines and goes further to encourage research, analysis, and conceptualization of solutions, as well as making time for reflection and meditation before responses.

Webster’s Dictionary defines ethics as the discipline dealing with what is good and bad and with moral duty and obligation. A second definition is that ethics are a set of moral principles: a theory or system of moral values. In applying these definitions to the workplace and life, we see that ethics are both the principles and the actual behavior (discipline) that create the obligation for leaders to have both. Having the principles but not the discipline to actualize those creates a false sense among employees, as that incongruence is uncomfortable for everyone involved.

As a leadership and organizational development consultant, I like to offer the approach of servant leadership by sharing the principles that define it. Many organizations take that further in their own culture education about desired values and behaviors.

Corporations often take this even further when they develop corporate social responsibility programs and outward-facing communications to describe their ethical behavior pledges on how customers, vendors and community partners should be treated. When those are violated, consumers often react with significant outrage, such as the recent United Airlines debacle over how airline employees implemented standing passenger removal policies.

Ethics in the workplace are often approached through the lens of the individual leaders’ professional ethics, too. It is now commonplace to see professionals in medicine, fundraising, public relations, and many other fields who are required to sign a code of conduct that includes a pledge to values and ethics particular to situations that arise in their profession.

Enforcement when ethics are violated in the workplace has a wide span of practices, as it does within professional sectors.

At the end of our time on earth, most of us want to look back and see that we lived an ethical life — as expressed in our workplace, home and community. A periodic reflection on whether our behaviors model the ethics and values we hold dear is a good practice.

10 Principles of Servant Leadership

• Listening – to identify the will of the group in reaction both to what is said and to what is not said.

• Empathy – accept the intentions and the person even when forced to reject their behavior or performance.

• Healing – creating wholeness in the organization.

• Awareness – Robert Greenleaf describes awareness as not a giver of solace; it’s just the opposite. Real awareness disturbs. People who are aware have their own inner security. Therefore, they can observe, communicate and resolve disturbance by working through what troubles them.

• Persuasion – persuading people by creating honest debate and then consensus, and avoiding the use of unhealthy power dynamics to force answers.

• Conceptualization – being able to ”dream great dreams” but also balance the future with the day-to-day.

• Foresight – understanding the lessons of the past, realities of the present and the most likely consequences of decisions in the future.

• Stewardship – having oversight as a partner and valuing relationships.

• Commitment to Growth of People – going beyond work and looking at how we as leaders can build personal, professional and spiritual growth for everyone in the organization.

• Building Community – creating a culture within the organization and within the circles of influence.

“Ethical people are courageous — they are willing to say what is honest, even when it isn’t popular or comfortable, rather than lie or lie by omission.”

Debbie Mason, is a business strategist and organizational consultant who works with The Work of Leaders®, DiSC®, Five Behaviors of a Cohesive Team™, and other assessments used in coaching leaders and organizations to greater performance.

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