How organizations can create a climate for ethical decision-making

We’re in the midst of a crisis of leadership — a situation that has weighed down economic development in the public and private sectors, says H. Eric Schockman, Ph.D., chair and associate professor at the Center for Leadership at Woodbury University, where he focuses on nurturing the next cadre of leaders coming up through the ranks. 

“We know that leaders aren’t born,” he says. “There’s an evolutionary process of skills, training and maturation that defines leadership development. There’s now a burgeoning demand for better skilled, analytically-trained people to move into positions of leadership.” 

Smart Business spoke with Schockman about the state of leadership development and how the current crisis might subside. 

How has this crisis of leadership manifested? 

The crisis of leadership begins with questions around ethical decision-making. When people enter leadership positions in the public or business realm, they carry a toolkit of their own values and structures, and sometimes those values conflict with each other. At the end of the day, leaders have to make decisions — they can’t just sit on conflicting values.

So, at some point along the way, it becomes a lose-win situation. The crisis lies in the simple fact that too many leaders don’t understand how to achieve ethical decision-making. As you move from there, leaders become distracted by the myriad minutia that they encounter. The visionary piece gets lost.  
A lot of good visionaries become 
functionaries, which signals another death knell for leadership. 

In broad terms, how is leadership taught?

You need to look at both the theory and the reality of how leaders become leaders. There are a great many ‘happenstance’ leaders out there. These happenstance leaders are situational — they’re leaders who come to a particular organization and find themselves empowered, yet remain inept. The more enlightened leaders recognize this and embrace leadership training as a tool they can use to develop a more sophisticated skill set. 

How do you get a leader to acknowledge, mid-career, that leadership training is appropriate? 

Leaders need to recognize that this is about lifelong learning, about the undulating mind wanting to absorb more at any stage in one’s lifespan. Leadership doesn’t reside in a single silo. It carries over into your personal life, your community/volunteer life, your religious organizations and so on. You become a person who is a übermensch — someone who has big understanding of how leadership moves in a holistic manner. 

In the private sector, you’re typically looking at a command structure, where followers become geared to the bottom line and management enlists a particular skill set to get people there. Ultimately, the question is, how can you get ahead of any changes?

That segues to a discussion of the hallmarks of effective leadership. What might those be, generally speaking? 

The 12th century philosopher Maimonides wrote that the highest form of giving is doing so anonymously. In that way, the person who’s receiving your money doesn’t owe you a favor. And that’s what today’s leadership often lacks. It’s always this climbing on top of each other, of trying to out-do each other, without a sense of the bigger mission, the bigger picture. 

What other models epitomize that big picture approach? 

Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln was a walkaround leader. He was at the battlefield. He was directing General Grant. He was talking to troops. He knew what was happening in the war. And yet, he had the bigger vision piece of, ‘I’m not only going to hold the Union together, but I’m going to end slavery.’ 

It comes down to communications skills. Leaders need to be storytellers. Leaders need to develop a contextual basis for their narrative. Lincoln was also very clear about not doing this alone. He cherry-picked his cabinet carefully, as a CEO would, and made sure his team executed and implemented.

H. Eric Schockman, Ph.D., is Chair and associate professor for the Center for Leadership at Woodbury University. Reach him at [email protected]
Insights Executive Education is brought to you by Woodbury University