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Beyond Integrity: How To Hire Ethical Leaders

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by Richard B. Swegan and Claas Florian Engelke, authors of “The Practice of Ethical Leadership – Insights from Psychology and Business in Building an Ethical Bottom Line

“If you could hire ethical leaders, would you?” It’s an intriguing question. The answer appears obvious — of course you’d hire ethical leaders. But would you hire an ethical leader over a great salesperson, a world-class scientist, and a tried-and-true businessperson with an extensive history of success?

We understand that the answer isn’t always an either-or choice. Most hiring managers would say they want both, ethics and business acumen. While that assertion seems clear, the reality is that most organizations either assume their potential hires are ethical or they rely on a single competency to assess ethical behavior — integrity. Of course we’re all for integrity, assuming it involves honesty combined with assertiveness. Yet as a construct it’s notoriously difficult to evaluate. Psychologists will be quick to tell you that they can test for integrity but they’re often suspicious of the answers as people will recognize what the socially acceptable answer is. More importantly, passing an integrity test isn’t predictive of how an individual will behave on the job.

Integrity as the sole measure of ethical leadership potential is a limited notion. Difficult to measure, hard to interpret, and consequently ignored in hiring systems, the idea of hiring leaders who will be ethical or moral isn’t addressed or else is ignored in the process of identifying future leaders.

We think ignoring ethics when hiring is a major mistake with potentially catastrophic consequences for organizations. They may inadvertently select leaders who are unethical.

The problem lies not with integrity or the intent of hiring managers, but with an incomplete understanding of ethical leadership. We all want leaders with strong personal values, honesty, and other traits that often get described as “character.” To hire ethical leaders with strong personal character, we believe the understanding of ethical leadership needs to be expanded into competencies that can be measured accurately. Our research suggests the following:

First, an ethical leader needs first and foremost to be an effective leader. Being moral, having high integrity, and possessing a burning sense of right and wrong, while terrific qualities, are meaningless if you can’t lead people. So, the first step in hiring ethical leaders is ensuring that they’ll be good leaders. Fortunately, there are many tools that can help with that endeavor.

Second, organizations need to pay careful attention to what traits ethical leaders exhibit or practice. Our research and thinking suggests that while there may be differences between organizational cultures, there are fundamental behaviors that ethical leaders engage in.

These include:

An awareness of right and wrong.

That seems simplistic, but it’s often ignored in the interest of the bottom line. Ethical leaders think about issues of right and wrong when making decisions — something not everyone considers in their decision-making capacity.

Critical thinking ability.

Leaders often have to make decisions in ambiguous situations. Being able to sort through assumptions, consider options, and make good decisions is crucial.

Taking a stand in the face of opposition.

Ethical leaders need to be able to challenge the status quo and make decisions about right and wrong in the face of disagreement.

Openness to disagreement.

Effective ethical leaders need to be able to listen to dissenting voices. Openness and transparency are critical to gaining buy in and support, while building trust and credibility.

Considering the impact of decisions.

Ethical leaders need to have both strategic vision and empathy as they consider the consequences of their decisions on others within and beyond their organization.

Evaluate these fundamental behaviors for yourself. Think of someone you consider to be an ethical leader. It could be someone you know or a historical figure (such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. or Gandhi). Do they exhibit the above? While there may be some variance, we think you’ll find the answer is yes.

The good news is that it’s possible for organizations to create selection systems that systematically measure these characteristics. Using a combination of behavioral interviewing, psychometric and personality tests, and simulations or case studies, organizations can map a variety of measures against the characteristics of an ethical leader. In this way, organizations can identify individuals who will embody the powerful combination of effective and ethical leadership.

 

Richard B. Swegan is an author and the founder and principal consultant of ARCH Performance. With a background in human resources and safety, Rick provides consulting to a variety of organizations on the developmental needs of potential leaders. Claas Florian Engelke provides consulting services in the fields of leadership advisory, assessment, and development through Korn Ferry. He invites clients to question themselves in order to foster incessant learning and aspire to be the best versions of themselves. Their new book, “The Practice of Ethical Leadership – Insights from Psychology and Business in Building an Ethical Bottom Line” (Routledge, March 28, 2024), offers effective suggestions for developing ethical leaders. Learn more at ethicalbottomline.com.