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Ethical leadership does not simply emerge from a code of conduct, a good school, or a host of good intentions. It is an individual choice, or rather a series of choices, that emerges from the complex interaction of personal values with social imperatives.
Milgram’s “electric shock experiment” (1992), Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison experiment (2007), Lantane and Darley’s work on bystander behaviour (1968) and Browning’s exploration of Second World War atrocities (2001) have shown how easily “ordinary” people can be led into atrocity. However, there are rarer examples of individuals who have resisted the pressures to be destructive and instead chart a much more positive moral course. Stauffenberg, for example, chose to resist Nazism when so many of his generation did not. Hugh Thomson Jr, at My Lai, sought to rescue civilians, not butcher them alongside with his comrades (Bilton and Sim, 1992)
Building on the social psychological research into why “good” people do “bad” things this book explores that rarer phenomenon: why people do the “right” thing when social pressures are to the contrary. In other words, it explores how and why some people become ethical leaders in morally challenging and complex social environments.
This book takes a hybrid approach, exploring the classic philosophical questions relating to freedom, determinism and moral responsibility (Edwards, 1965) using a social scientific research approach by examining how 26 medical and pharmaceutical professionals made 51 different ethical choices around end of life, abortion, treatment of patients against their will, child protection, and when the “best interest” of the patient is not actually the best thing.
This provides insight into the concept of human agency, taken in this book as meaning the individual’s choice of a course of action in response to the options posed by that individual’s engagement with the social world.
Choice emerges as a result of the individual’s reflexive deliberations on the social in interaction with their wholly personal hopes and beliefs. Building on the insights offered by Emirbayer and Mische (1998) and Archer (2003), this leads to a new model of human agency – the “cruciform of agency” – which recognises that the potential range of individual action emerges from the nature of the resonance that social options strike with personal thoughts. Hence an individual can choose a range of modes of agency at any given point in their life – agentic sophistication – which is critical in enabling professionals to negotiate complex ethical environments. Furthermore, each choice adds to the individual’s personal biography in ways that influence subsequent choices by confirming or changing personal values and hopes and hence influencing the way the individual subsequently thinks about the world.
In explaining the potential and limits of human agency for ethical choice making in leadership, the book establishes a basis for executives, policy makers and academics to conceptualise and develop more robust and realistic approaches for the mitigation of unethical behaviour including corporate malfeasance.
Central to this is the development of ideas of leadership professionalism through the identification of a hierarchy of guiding moral principles for leaders in all forms of human endeavours. These recognise the central importance of developing leaders to take personal responsibility for the consequences of their socially influenced decisions. It is from this personal responsibility that professional authority grows.
Aidan McQuade, Independent Consultant, London, UK
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