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Leadership Forum: Ethics – the heart of leadership


September 15, 2015
By E. David Hodgins

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In March 2003 I wrote about integrity, describing it as the soul of leadership. If integrity is the soul, then ethics is certainly its heart. Ethical behaviour is acting in ways that are consistent with one’s personal values and the values of the organization in which one functions. “Values” refers to an individual’s or organization’s system of beliefs which define what is good, right and fair. “Ethics” refers to how those values are enacted.


In March 2003 I wrote about integrity, describing it as the soul of leadership.  If integrity is the soul, then ethics is certainly its heart.  Ethical behaviour is acting in ways that are consistent with one’s personal values and the values of the organization in which one functions.  “Values” refers to an individual’s or organization’s system of beliefs which define what is good, right and fair. “Ethics” refers to how those values are enacted.

Programs designed to teach leadership may pose the question: Was Adolf Hitler a good leader?  Hitler told the German people he was going to change Germany and he did.  He had many followers and a sizeable number of supporters – enough to win elections.  On that basis, he could be considered an accomplished leader.  Don’t misunderstand me; I am not pro Hitler. The real question is: What is a good leader in the context of behaviour that relates to actual performance?  

Ethical leadership is characterized by principles that govern a person’s conduct. Values include honesty, trustworthiness, sincerity, truthfulness, reliability, responsibility and accountability.  Each of these descriptors defines ethics as it relates to leadership. The point of reference for a person’s ethical leadership behaviour is often rooted in their past.

Where you were raised, the culture and environment of your youth, the activities, values and attitudes of your family and close friends all have an impact.  They contribute to the foundation of your internal tape, and yes we all have an internal tape.  Our tape plays over and over, repeating messages that impact our decisions and actions.  Someone takes advantage of our generosity and we decide to get even or to forgive and forget. Pre-recorded messages are at work.  Accepting the fact that we have a pre-recorded message system and understanding that a knee jerk or automated response to a challenge or issue may not be the right one is an important first step when choosing how to react.  

Ethics is not always about the obvious.  The devil is often found in the details.  For example, we would all agree that it is not acceptable to steal money from a co-worker.  However, many believe it is okay to fudge the numbers when reporting a business expense, effectively stealing money from the employer. 

For these people it’s about getting even with the big bad organization because they believe they are owed. The dilemma is that their head is saying “get even” and their heart is saying “don’t go there.”

Much has been written lately about situational leadership and the importance of executing a particular decision based upon the immediate. It is imperative, however, to realize that the application of ethics should not be dependant upon the situation.  Leaders need to come to grips with the fact that there are tough choices and many challenges associated with the strict application of ethics.  It is imperative we don’t confuse situational leadership with ethical leadership.  

It has been said that moral dynamics give leadership its life every day. Leadership is a complex moral relationship between people that is based on trust, obligation, commitment, emotion, and a shared vision.  Ethics lies at the very heart of leadership.  Leadership can not exist in the absence of ethics; therefore, an individual void of ethics is not a leader.  

So was Adolf Hitler a leader?  No, Hitler and his kind are tyrants and despots.

You have a role in shaping your behaviour and your organization’s ethics.  Regardless of your position, title or rank you can make a difference.  

And remember, it’s all about “respect and passion.”

E. David Hodgins is the Fire Commissioner for the province of British Columbia.  A 29-year veteran of the fire service, Hodgins is a graduate of the University of Alberta’s public administration program and a certified emergency and disaster manager and fire services instructor. He has held senior fire officer positions in Manitoba, Alberta and Ontario.


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