The Perfect Storm of Leaders’ Unethical Behavior: A Conceptual Framework Diane J. Chandler Regent University School of Divinity, United States Unethical behavior of leaders has consequences for leaders themselves, followers, and their respective organizations. After defining relevant terms including ethics, morality, and ethical and unethical leadership, a conceptual framework for the unethical behavior of leaders is proposed, which includes the three “perfect storm” dimensions of leaders, followers, and situational context. Additionally, the mediating variable termed “critical incident” suggests that unethical leadership behavior is precipitated by a catalyzing thought, condition, intention, or event. With specific examples illustrating the conceptual framework dimensions and salient characteristics of each, the paper then concludes with a discussion of the implications of unethical leadership behavior, with attention given to further research foci.
The unethical behavior of leaders can be compared to the formation of tornadoes, a “perfect storm” resulting from the combinative effect of rotating winds, temperature, and atmospheric pressure. Similarly, unethical behavior of leaders occurs when a conflux of factors interact between leaders (rotating winds), followers (colliding hot and cold temperatures), and the situational context (atmospheric conditions), catalyzed by a critical incident or trigger event that pulls everything into its center, similar to the vortex of a tornado. Just as tornadic activity is difficult to predict and may result in damaging loss of property, personal injury, and death, unethical leadership behavior damages all involved including leaders, followers, and organizations. Examples of unethical behavior of seemingly successful leaders abound in business, government, and religion. Names like Kenneth Lay, Andrew Fastow, and Jeffrey Skilling of Enron; Dennis Koslowski of Tyco; Eliot Spitzer, former Governor of New York; John Edwards, former U.S. Senator from North Carolina; and Archbishop Bernard Law of the Boston Roman Catholic Diocese bring to mind those whose previous success ended in humiliation. As a result, several sobering questions arise including how leaders made such poor ethical decisions, what factors contributed to their ethical/moral meltdowns, and how leaders can avoid “the perfect storm” of leadership demise in the future. Therefore, this paper provides (a) a brief overview of definitional terms, (b) a conceptual framework for the unethical behavior of leaders, and (c) an
International Journal of Leadership Studies, Vol. 5 Iss. 1, 2009 © 2009 School of Global Leadership &Entrepreneurship, Regent University ISSN 1554-3145
Chandler/INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF LEADERSHIP STUDIES
expanded analysis of the literature related to the framework dimensions. The paper concludes with recommendations for further study. Ethics, Morality, and Ethical and Unethical Leadership Behavior The terms ethics, morality, ethical leadership, and unethical leadership have varying meanings in the leadership literature. To clarify these terms, definitions are provided to clearly distinguish them. Ethics & Morality Leadership scholars generally agree that the terms “ethics” and “morality,” and “ethical” and “moral” are synonymous (Boatright, 2007; Ciulla, 2005). The English terms “ethics” and “morality” are translations of the same word in Greek and Latin respectively; and as such, each word is translated into English slightly differently. The word “ethics” derives from the Greek word “ethikos,” and from the root word “ethos,” referring to character. The word “morality” derives from the Latin word, “moralitas,” based upon the root word, “mores,” referring to character, custom, or habit (Rhode, 2006, pp. 4-5). Therefore, these interchangeable terms refer to the character or disposition of beliefs, values, and behaviors that shape perceptions of what is right and wrong based upon one‟s personal,...
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