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Karen Liebenguth


Executive and Leadership Coach & Workplace Wellbeing & Conflict Resolution

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A practical guide to ethical leadership: How is it actually done?

Where we could spend hours talking about leading ethically (conceptual), how do we actually do it (experiential) and how do we know we’re leading ethically? Karen Liebenguth shares a robust guide for leaders who want to lead with wisdom and compassion.
person standing near body of water during daytime

Ethics should be a concern for all individuals if we aspire to inhabit an inclusive and compassionate world. Specifically, ethical principles should serve as the compass for leaders, regardless of whether they are leading a community, organisation, or nation-state. This is due to the significant influence and potential impact, both beneficial and detrimental, that leaders wield over others and the global landscape.

What do we mean by ethics?

Ethics is a practice, a natural sense of what is good and right. Ethics has nothing to do with obedience or morals imposed by an authority. It is about our inner values that guide our actions and behaviour. 

Aristotle (384 BC) saw ethics at the heart of wellbeing and as a practice that informed the good life, in service of others. He believed that ethics required virtues such as courage, generosity, justice, equity and amiability as well as contemplation and reflection (The Future of Coaching, Hetty Einzig, 2017).

Looking at the state of the world, the amount of suffering, the social, political and economic injustices, the distress and mismanagement in workplaces, education, public health and criminal justice; how have we so utterly lost our way if we accept that ethics is at the heart of wellbeing – freedom, ease, connection, safety – and within the human capacity?

The answer is evolution.

We were shaped by natural selection to do certain things to pass our genes to the next generation. We developed habitual and self-protective responses.

Our world situation largely derives from our survival as human beings to protect ourselves. This egotistic behaviour is a manifestation of the conditioned, unaware and untrained mind and heart. The good news is that through ethical practice we can change. 

The reason we suffer – and the reason we make other people suffer –  is that we don’t see the world clearly. We can learn to see the world, including ourselves, more clearly, and so gain a deep and ethically valid happiness. – Robert Wright 

However, it is also true that we are social beings, searching for connection and belonging. Where we are probably all familiar with the notion of ‘survival of the fittest’, less familiar is the concept of ‘survival of the kindest’ (originally coined by Dacher Keltner). 

The avoidance system

Our brain’s inbuilt negativity bias is driven by our need to survive as a species, and is often best served by being cautious. A question of carrots and sticks, so we avoid life’s ‘sticks’. This is the ‘avoidance’ system

Another aspect of our survival instinct is the drive to seek new opportunities and resources, life’s ‘carrots’. This is the ‘achievement’ system. Both of these driving forces ensured that only the most cunning and adaptable of our ancestors survived. 

But there is also a third facet to our survival instinct that also governs how we approach the world: it is known as the ‘soothing and contentment’ system.

When we no longer feel the need to constantly defend ourselves against danger, and when resources are abundant, so that we are not struggling merely to survive, we feel a pleasant, deep sense of contentment. It’s a sign that we are happy with the way things are and that we are in tune with our environment. 

Survival of the kindest

And when we feel safe, we are confident enough to look outwards beyond the immediate needs of survival. We can live in a more connected, compassionate and harmonious way with those around us. 

This enables us to be kinder to ourselves and others. It bolsters the social bonds that encourage us to cooperate, rather than compete with each other. Such cooperation was critical for our ancestors because those who were kind and worked cooperatively with each other survived better than those who struggled in conflict and isolation. Hence ‘survival of the kindest’.

This soothing and contentment system is of equal importance in our lives because it helps us achieve a sense of emotional balance, increases our awareness of self, others and the world and hence brings us connection, ease and wellbeing (Paul Gilbert).

This is why up until about 200 years ago people were happy enough to live in close-knit communities in harmony with nature. 

With the arrival of the Industrial Revolution our, Western lifestyle has progressively become individualistic, competitive and consumerist, putting fiscal performance and material profit first and human values second. It has brought alienation, distress, unhappiness and loneliness into our lives and has created many toxic (work) cultures and environments. 

What can we do?

We can often feel powerless in the face of suffering and injustice in the workplace, life, and the world, and feel there is nothing we can do about it. But we can always do something, such as being kind to the people around us, lending a helping hand or listening or being a role model by including everyone. 

It’s important to remember that whatever we think, say or do has consequences on ourselves and others – however small our actions are. 

Rather than talking about leading ethically, here is a robust framework of practice for leading ethically:
Awareness → Attitude → Relationality → Inner Values → Learning

Awareness: What have I noticed in myself and others today?

The first and most crucial step to leading ethically is slowing down, listening to self and others and noticing what you hear. Without awareness and waking up to what’s actually happening inside and outside of yourself, no change will happen.

It’s not enough to keep up a vague general awareness. We need to learn how to monitor our states of awareness in much greater detail than we usually do. We need to scrutinise our mental states almost from moment to moment and accept that these states of mind will set our intention.

Questions for self-inquiry: 

Where have I pursued my own interests at the expense of others? 

Where have I judged someone harshly?
Where have I acted from a lack of clarity?
Where did I listen attentively to a colleague and was in good communication?

What else have I noticed?

Attitude: What has my attitude been today?

The most important ingredient when practising ethics is your attitude, i.e. how you attend to yourself, others and the world around you. Your attitude is determined by your state of mind. Your state of mind is determined by your intention and volition. Your intention determines your actions. 

If your intention is to be positive, open, curious and kind, your state of mind is open, curious and kind and as a result, your actions are skilful and lead to freedom, ease, and connection with yourself and others. If your intention is to be negative, aversive, or hostile, your actions are unskilful and lead to distress, harm and disconnection from yourself and others.  

Essential attitudes for leading ethically are: curiosity, non-judgement, kindness, compassion, empathy, generosity, trust, acceptance, humility and authenticity.

Questions for self-inquiry: 

What has my overall attitude been today?

Where have I been unkind, judgemental, reactive, dishonest, aggressive, or dismissive? 

What did it feel like in the body?
Where have I been kind, non-judgemental, open, honest, compassionate, inclusive?

What did it feel like in the body?

Relationality: How have I related and connected to others today?

We are relational beings, i.e. intrinsically interconnected and interdependent. We always influence each other. What we think, say and do impacts ourself, others and the world. 

Questions for self-inquiry: 

Who have I disliked today and, consciously or unconsciously, pushed away or pushed out?
Where have I turned towards others with interest and generosity?
Have I included everyone as best as I could?
Have I harmed anyone through my words, my way of thinking or my behaviour?

Where have I chosen to walk away from a situation or someone?

Inner values: What does most deeply matter to me?

Intuitively you know what is most important to you. And yet, day-to-day busyness can disrupt and cloud your inner compass that guides your actions. It’s worth spending time reflecting on your inner values, to (re)-connect to the things that are dearest to you.

Questions for self-inquiry: 

Where have I fallen below my own standard? What happened here?
Where have I not shown up in the way I wanted to show up?
Where have I been the leader I want to be and which value(s) was I in touch with?
Where have I been guided by self-interest, wanting, pride or grandiosity?
Have I favoured some over others and why? What are my unconscious biases?

Learning: What have I learned today?

Learning about yourself and others enables you to develop a learning mindset. To learn you need to be open and curious as well as celebrate what you liked about your ethical behaviour and look at what you want to do differently next time, what you want to do more of, where you can apologise, where you can make amends, where you can develop, move forward.

Questions for self-inquiry: 

What have I learned today?
What do I need to unlearn?
What could I do differently next time?
What can I get curious about?
Where does my focus need to be now?

It’s important to examine yourself with a learning mindset and an attitude of curiosity, openness, kindness and compassion so you can further increase your ethical awareness instead of collapsing into self-deprecation.

This is the practice of ethics, i.e. having a daily intention to cultivate the best of yourself for the benefit of self, others and the If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is – Infinite. (William Blake)

Author Profile Picture
Karen Liebenguth

Executive and Leadership Coach & Workplace Wellbeing & Conflict Resolution

Read more from Karen Liebenguth

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