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Ethical Leadership: Is the outcome more important than the means?

David Green is director of Green Pepper Consulting, a social enterprise working with the third sector.

In the corporate world, ethics and success are not always synonymous. If they were, then we wouldn’t have activists such as Naomi Klein, or organisations like Greenpeace. But it isn’t just big oil or multinational mining companies that should be concerned with ethics.

Indeed, I recall the furore in 2013 when Comic Relief were found, at the time, to be investing in the likes of tobacco and armaments.

The fact remains that with a constant pressure to deliver, it can be tempting to push ethics aside. The outcome, it seems, then becomes more important than the means.

But does this actually matter if the result is the same?

The only ethical response, surely, is “yes it does”. It matters because no organisation operates outside of society. Indeed, for the voluntary and community sector (VCS), creating a better society is very much central to the role. So accounting for how you do this is important; and the reasons why should be clear:

  • Greater public trust and confidence
  • Credibility with local communities and the sector
  • Better governance
  • Inspiring loyalty, motivation, and the engagement of staff and volunteers
  • More attractive to funders, donors and social partners

Of course the vast majority of VCS organisations spend their money with care; and ethical investment is certainly more commonplace. But a wise VCS leader will want to embed ethics into the organisation’s culture at every level, from trustees, staff and volunteers, to its relations with beneficiaries, funders and other stakeholders.

This means not only putting the organisation’s values and mission centre stage, but also incorporating ethics into the leader’s own role.

A good place to start is with effective communications, consulting with staff and volunteers, engaging in external networks, and taking time to explain the organisation’s message, both internally and externally.

It also means adopting good and effective systems. Ethics should be embedded into recruitment, relationships, and practices. Creating an inclusive climate for staff, volunteers and beneficiaries to thrive, to speak up, and to develop will not only build trust and reinforce the organisation’s values, but help ensure sustainability in the longer term.

The leader’s personal behaviour must also reflect the organisation’s ethical values. Shouting and bullying, setting unrealistic targets, keeping people in the dark – none of these are compatible with ethical leadership. Instead empathy, honesty and respect should prevail.

Underpinning all of this should be basic principles of trust, honesty and integrity. As such, a commitment to model individual behaviour on the Nolan principles on standards in public life seems appropriate.

Clearly none of this is new, or particularly difficult to achieve. But it can be forgotten. So leaders should remind themselves, particularly when tough times need bold decisions, that how they get results is just as important to everyone involved, as the results themselves.

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