When I speak with leaders about organizational ethics, they often ask whether I think we're in the midst of a moral crisis in leadership. They want to know whether I think the conga line of leaders busted for wrongdoing in recent years signifies the end of ethical leadership, and they wonder what the heck some of those leaders were thinking.
Well, we certainly live in an age when it seems commonplace to read headlines about leaders busted for one type of deviance or another. The transgressions of infamous leaders from once reputable companies like AIG, Arthur Anderson, Bear Stearns, Countrywide, Enron, Lehman Brothers, and WorldCom are well documented, so I’ll spare you those history lessons. Besides, there are plenty of newer examples.
Warren Buffet’s protégé (and heir apparent to his Hathaway throne) David Sokol resigned amidst insider trading allegations, former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich was convicted of corruption for trying to sell the President’s former Senate seat, ex-New York Governor Eliot Spitzer stepped down in disgrace after it was discovered he regularly patronized high-end prostitutes, and former US Congressman Anthony Weiner was pressured to resign after he sent lewd photographic self-portraits to underage women. The list goes on and on, but I won’t.
The fact that Spitzer and Weiner are currently vying for new political offices says less about their lack of personal shame than it does about their belief that the public no longer expects leaders to act ethically; but they're wrong. A Harvard University study several years ago found that a majority of Americans believe leaders in business, religion, and government lack honesty, integrity, and ethics. And a more recent survey by Marist College revealed that a staggering 76% of respondents think the moral compass of corporate America as “pointing in the wrong direction”. As for Spitzer and Weiner, the Washington Post says Spitzer isn’t really sorry and ABC News says neither of them deserves a second chance. (editorial note: after this post was written Weiner admitted he continued tweeting naked photos to women he didn't know AFTER he resigned from Congress.)
If we conclude there is in fact a moral crisis in leadership, then we must acknowledge that leadership is not values-free. After all, if values didn’t matter then everyone would want
Weiner-like leaders. If declining leader ethics is bad, and if the absence of morality is what is wrong with the state of leadership today, then a return to leaders who emphasize and demonstrate values may be exactly what we want and precisely what need. We’ve definitely seen our share of leaders who lack scruples, but I’m not ready to concede an end to ethical leadership as we know it. As for what the heck some of these guys were thinking, one can only speculate.