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MPA 8300
Leadership Ethics







Overview of Ethical Dilemmas:

























































































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"[To] do this to the right person, to the right extent, at the right time,
with the right motive, and in the right way, that is not for every one nor is it easy;
wherefore goodness is both rare and laudable and noble."
(Aristotle, Ethics II.9)

In most if not all organizations, and no matter how hard organizational leaders try to deal with them, problems just seem to keep cropping up. Even when it appears that an organizational leader has solved a particular problem, it oftentimes just as quickly reappears, like weeds in a flower bed!

Cuban (1992) argues that organizational leaders shouldn't be surprised that problems emerge time and again. The reason that the solution hasn't worked and the same (or similar) problem constantly reappears—despite one's most valiant efforts—is that the organizational leader has not addressed (or, at least, not adequately addressed) the fundamental conflict of values embedded in the problem (what Cuban calls the "issue"). Thus, when the underlying values come into conflict again, the same or similar problem emerges yet another time.

What organizational leaders and followers need to deal with, Cuban believes, are not the "problems" but the "issues." That is, functional responsibilities or personality differences that tend to divide people are not focal; what is focal is the conflict of values at the heart of those responsibilities and differences. Dealing with these and building a set of shared values is what promotes the type of "organizational learning" (DiBella & Nevis, 1998) wherein followers engage in behaviors where they learn to solve their problems (McWhinney, Webber, Smith, & Novokowsky, 1997).

By likening "problems" to "symptoms" and "issues" to "diseases," Cuban's (1992) insight suggests that organizational leaders would be better off spending their time attending to the underlying causes of organizational dysfunction—the fundamental conflict of values—manifesting themselves in the problems that plague their organizations. To do so, he asserts, requires organizational leaders to change how they think about and approach problems in their organizations.

Reframing "problems" as "dilemmas"...

Problems might be defined as those recurring and frustrating “glitches” and “snafus” which impede smooth organizational functioning. They also hinder the process of achieving personal and professional as well as organizational goals.

When organizational leaders focus exclusively upon problem solving, they tend to identify and select a technique or a series of techniques which promise―like elixirs―to solve the problem in the most efficient and effective manner. To this end, organizational leaders will spend no small amount of time and money endeavoring to develop expertise in problem solving. Perhaps they will carefully study trade books, watch self-help videos, post motivational posters in the office, or take graduate courses that promise to assist them in their problem-solving activities by introducing skill sets that have demonstrated success in a variety of organizational settings. Yet, as the hard lessons of personal and professional experience have taught leaders all too frequently and despite all of the promises made, the same or similar problems reappear, forcing these people to deal with these problems once again. When will organizational leaders realize that these elixirs are nothing more than "snake oil"?

Many reasons explain this phenomenon. One requires that organizational leaders recognize how intentions, circumstances, and situations vary greatly and what might well have proven itself effective in one context might prove itself to be equally ineffective in another context. A second reason can be stated by shifting metaphors. Rather than studying the skills and techniques associated with "problem solving," organizational leaders can adopt the medical metaphor. How does this metaphorical shift change organizational leadership thinking? While these leaders may have been successful in ameliorating the symptoms of the problem, they have provided only a temporary palliative for the dysfunction. Nothing has really changed; people continue to point the finger of blame at one another and make accusations about who really is to blame for the now ongoing dismal state of affairs they were told were now "fixed."

Sergiovanni (1986) explains the problem-solving cycle as a "practice episode" which organizational leaders can use to learn how better to lead their organizations. A practice episode consists of three stages: 1) an organizational leader's intentions―what one intends going into the practice episode; 2) one's actions in leadership practice―the behaviors one exhibits in the practice episode; and, 3) the outcomes resulting from the combination of the organizational leader's actions and intentions―the problems bewailed or solutions celebrated. In so far as Sergiovanni is concerned, an organizational leader does not solve problems if one's actions are not congruent with one's intentions (what Argyris and Schön [1974; 1996] called "Model 1" theory-in-practice), that is, what one espouses is not how one acts in a practice episode. When an organizational leader's actions are congruent with one's intentions (what Argyris and Schön called "Model 2" theory-in-practice) in a practice episode, it is more likely that problems will be solved, as this is evidenced in organizational outcomes. Critical in the shift from a self-protective model of interpersonal behavior to a more open model is learning and, in practice episodes, the organizational leader's learning about one's intentions and actions with the goal of making them more congruent.

In contrast to a practice episode, an ethical dilemma is defined as a fundamental conflict of values embedded in (or masked by) and motivating recurring organizational problems. Both alternatives present a positive option―two "goods"―that, unfortunately, the selection of one forecloses the possibility of the other. Consider the husband whose wife has just returned from the hairdresser and asks, "How do you like my haircut, honey?" The truth is that the husband detests the haircut. Should he tell his wife the truth―the "good"? Or, to preserve marital harmony―the "good," should the husband be less-than-forthright?

Additionally, each alternative in a dilemma possesses inherent drawbacks that the other alternative avoids. Returning to the fictitious husband, telling the truth will likely lead to hurt feelings and estrangement, certainly not conducive to marital happiness. Yet, telling a lie is an affront to the vow of being "true...all the days of my life." A dilemma, then, requires organizational leaders to deal with the conflicts of values at the heart of conflicts if organizational leaders are to solve organizational problems. Invoking the medical metaphor once again, reframing a "problem" as a "dilemma" requires leaders to search for and to identify the disease manifesting itself in the symptoms of organizational dysfunction. To do so, organizational leaders must have the courage to challenge themselves and their followers as well to identify the problem as well to probe into and beyond them if they are see clearly the deeper issue that the problem manifests.

The impact this reframing can have in organizations is that, over time and with persistence, followers can learn to engage in purposive behaviors that forge a set of shared values which will enable them solve their problems on their own (DiBella & Nevis, 1998). To achieve this outcome, however, requires not only courage but also the willingness to engage in self-change and to inculcate virtue in oneself and others. This provides the solid foundation upon which people can engage in ethical and principled decision making whereby they solve problems as these emerge because the people involved possess a common purpose and set of values.

Cuban (1992) asserts that ameliorating the issue embedded in organizational problems is more likely to reduce the probability that organizational problems will re-emerge because ethical leadership (that is, organizational leadership built upon a base of shared purpose and values) requires a form of compliance that is based upon shared norms (Etzioni, 1975). Over time, Cuban (1992) argues, people will gradually change as they accept their responsibilities and solve their problems ethically. In short, putting out fires, though sometimes necessary, is very different from engaging in fire prevention. Ethical leaders engage in the latter with the goal being that their followers will engage in the former.

Ethical dilemmas...

An ethical dilemma emerges in a context of conflict between at least two goods (values) which require different responses.


The conflict can be simple and straightforward, like a person who makes conflicting promises. What is that person to do? The conflict can be more complex, for example, when physicians and families agree that human life should not be prolonged and that unpreventable pain should not be tolerated. Just when should life support be withdrawn? The conflict can also be very complex as Sartre (1957) noted in relating the story of the student whose brother had been killed in the German offensive of 1940. The student desired with all of his heart to avenge his brother's death and to fight the forces he regarded as the incarnation of evil. But, the student's mother was living with him and he was her sole consolation in life. The student was torn between two values. One value was of limited scope but certain efficacy, that is, personal devotion to his mother. The second value was of wider scope but uncertain efficacy, that is, offering one's services in an attempt to contribute to the defeat of an unjust aggressor.

In such contexts, an agent views oneself as having ethical principles to guide the decision-making process toward at least two good acts but doing so is not possible.

The crucial elements of an ethical dilemma are these: the agent can perform each action and the agent cannot perform both or all of the actions. Thus, the agent appears to be condemned to ethical failure on at least one count because no matter what course of conduct the agent selects, this person will not do what virtue requires, namely, will fail to do something that the agent ought to do. However, when one of the ethical requirements overrides another there is no genuine ethical dilemma. So, in addition to the two elements already mentioned, in order to have a genuine ethical dilemma, it must also be the case that none of the other conflicting values can be overridden.

Sartre's story about the student proves instructive in this regard. If the student was certain that he would make a difference in defeating the Germans, then the obligation to join the military would prevail. But, if the student would make little or no difference whatsoever in the cause of the French, then his obligation to tend to his mother's needs would take precedence since there he is virtually certain to be helpful.

Some ethicists have argued that solving an ethical dilemma involves hierarchically arranging the resolutions to the conflict of values, however many there might be. In this scheme, the highest-ordered resolution always prevails, the second prevails unless it conflicts with the first, and so on. This scheme is problematic, however, and on at least two counts. First: it is not credible to assert that values and the conduct required by them can be so neatly ordered. Keeping one's promises and not harming others clearly can conflict but it is not at all clear that one of these resolutions should always prevail over the other. Second: were it possible to arrange values and the conduct required by them hierarchically, it is entirely possible that the same value and resolution can give rise to conflicting obligations (what ethicists call "symmetrical cases" [Sinnott-Armstrong, 1988]).

William Styron invites his audience to enter just such a context in his novel, Sophie's Choice. A mother, Sophie, and her two children are interred in a Nazi concentration camp. A guard informs Sophie that one child will be killed and the other allowed to live. Her decision will save the life of one child but only by condemning the other to death. The context is further complicated by the guard who informs Sophie that, if she chooses neither child, then both will be killed. This piece of information provides Sophie with an ethically compelling reason to choose one child; yet, Sophie has equally compelling reasons to choose to save both. Thus, the value of preserving human life gives rise to a genuine ethical dilemma.

Ethical dilemmas present organizational leaders with two questions: "What ought I do?" and "Why ought I do it?" It is likely that different organizational leaders will select different resolutions to an ethical dilemma presenting itself depending upon the situation, intentions, and the circumstances. Because of this characteristic, some ethicists (Kant, 1971; Mill, 1979; Ross, 1930, 1939) have argued that ethical theory should not allow for the possibility of a dilemma. That presupposes, of course, that there exists only one choice concerning what ought to be done.

Ethical leadership...

Since conflicts between values cannot be waved away as if they do not exist, ethical leadership, then, involves learning to reframe problems as dilemmas. Ethical leadership also requires organizational leaders to mature as their primary concern ought to be the acquisition of virtue not technique and character not expertise. Ethical leaders, then, are those women and men who possess an abiding interest in forging a shared purpose and set of values among contending factions of followers in practice episodes, not making them subservient and acquiescent functionaries.

However, doing so comes at the price of forming what ethicists call "moral residue" (Marcus, 1980; Williams, 1965). Since the stark choices presented by ethical dilemmas conflict with one another, no matter what course of conduct an organizational leader chooses, there will be remorse, regret, or guilt (Greenspan, 1995). These powerful emotions certainly figure prominently in an ethical dilemma and, rightly so, because the organizational leader and followers must sacrifice one value for another.

Generally speaking, leadership ethics focuses upon making wise decisions in the organizational context within which people operate. The negative feelings experienced—the "experiential component"—when rendering a decision about what must be done in an ethical dilemma must be questioned because the negative feelings are based upon the belief that one has done something wrong, and must take responsibility for it. While these negative feelings are understandable on a personal level, the decision made—the "cognitive component"—provides the intellectual justification that supports the decision made and for which the organizational leader bears personal responsibility.

When an organizational leader's decision causes harm—and it is quite likely that any decision made in an ethical dilemma will cause some degree of harm—it is entirely natural that the leader will wonder if one is at fault, even if to outsiders it is patently obvious that the organizational leader bears no ethical responsibility for that harm. Human beings are not so finely tuned, however, that they can turn powerful emotions on and off like light switches and water faucets. It is good that human beings are like this not only because the degree of negative feeling depends very much upon the agent's perception of ethical responsibility but also because these negative feelings make agents more cautious about rendering decisions, more sensitive to duty and responsibility, more empathetic to the plight of others, and the impact that a leader's decision will have upon other human beings. It is good, is it not, that organizational leaders consider all of these facts, too, when making a decision in an ethical dilemma?

Reframing problems as dilemmas offers the possibility that leaders can build vibrant and purposive organizations characterized by shared values and genuine human relationships. Rather than becoming demoralized by an organizational culture that is characterized by impersonal rules and functional relationships as well as ethical minimums, organizational leaders and followers will exude courage because they are authentic characters not artificial clones who stand for something—shared ethical principles—rather than standing for everything.


Argyris, C., & Schön, D. A.  (1996).  Organizational learning II: Theory, method, and practice.  Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Argyris, C., & Schön, D. A.  (1974).  Theory in practice: A theory of action perspective.  Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Aristotle. (1958). Nicomachean ethics (W. D. Ross, Trans.) In J. D. Kaplan (Ed.), The pocket Aristotle (pp. 158-274). New York: Washington Square Press.

Cuban, L.  (1992).  Managing dilemmas while building professional communities.  Educational Researcher, 21(1), 4-11.

DiBella, A. J., & Nevis, E. C.  (1998).  How organizations learn.  San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Etzioni, A.  (1975).  A comparative analysis of complex organizations.  New York: Free Press.

Greenspan, P.  (1995).  Practical guilt: Moral dilemmas, emotions, and social norms.  New York: Oxford University Press.

Kant, I.  (1971/1797).  The doctrine of virtue: Part II of the metaphysics of morals (M. J. Gregor, Trans.).  Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Marcus, R. B.  (1982).  Moral dilemmas and consistency.  The Journal of Philosophy, 77, 121-136.

McWhinney, W., Webber, J., Smith, D., & Novokowsky, B.  (1997).  Creating paths of change (2nd ed.).  Newberry Park, CA: Sage Publications.

Mill, J. S.  (1979/1861).  Utilitarianism.  Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing.

Ross, W. D.  (1930).  The right and the good.  Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Ross, W. D.  (1939).  The foundations of ethics.  Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Sartre, J. P.  (1957/1946).  Existentialism is a humanism.  In W. Kaufmann, (Ed.), Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre (P. Mairet, Trans., pp. 287-311).

Sergiovanni, T. J.  (1986).  Understanding reflective practice.  Journal of Curriculum and Supervision, 1(4), 353-359.

Sinnott-Armstrong, W.  (1988).  Moral dilemmas.  Oxford, UK: Basil Blackwell.

Styron, W.  (1980).  Sophie's choice.  New York: Bantam Books.

Williams, B.  (1965).  Ethical consistency.  Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 39(supp.), 103-124.