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Ethical Leadership, Part 1: Perilous at the Top

The moral example leaders set has a major impact on the behavior of others. Despite career success, leaders are particularly vulnerable to ethical lapses.

Discussion Questions

1. Do you agree that ethical leaders have both individual as well as organizational responsibilities?  Why or why not?

2. Many sports figures say that they do not wish to be role models.  They don’t want the responsibility of having children look up to them for how to lead their lives.  Is it fair to put a responsibility on leaders of organizations to be role models for their employees?

3. The video mentions Ken Lay and Jack Abramoff as potential examples of leaders whose overconfidence in their own morality helped lead to their downfall.  Do you agree?  Can you think of other examples that have been in the news in recent years?

4. Many leaders in recent years have been involved in career-damaging scandals that involved personal improprieties—extra-marital affairs, most commonly.  Is this a particular problem for leaders?

5. If companies are prospering under a CEO’s leadership, should the CEO have any responsibility to also lead an upright personal life?

6. Can you think of any other reasons, besides the ones mentioned in the video, that might make it more difficult for leaders to stay on the straight-and-narrow than it is for regular people?

7. Have you ever done anything unethical because you “looked up the chain” and saw a superior doing something that you know recognize as improper?

Dennis Kozlowski: Living Large

Dennis Kozlowski: Living Large

Dennis Kozlowski was an effective leader for Tyco in his first few years as CEO, but eventually faced criminal charges over his use of company assets.


Teaching Notes

This video introduces the behavioral ethics concept of ethical leadership and illustrates some of the ethical perils leaders may face. The moral example set by leaders has a major impact upon the behavior of their subordinates, both good and bad, ethical and unethical. Despite their career success, leaders may be particularly vulnerable to ethical lapses.

This video explains why it is particularly difficult for leaders to be as ethical as they wish to be and focuses on factors that can make leaders particularly susceptible to ethical lapses—even more than average people. Many of the Ethics Unwrapped videos address how cognitive biases, social and organizational pressures, and various situational factors can make it difficult for even well-intentioned people to be as ethical as they would like to be.

This video is the first of a two-video package that addresses how to be an effective ethical leader. Leaders must (1) act ethically themselves (this video, Ethical Leadership, Part 1: Perilous at the Top); and (2) know how to create an effective ethical culture (see Ethical Leadership, Part 2: Best Practices).

To learn about related behavioral ethics concepts to which leaders tend to be particularly susceptible, watch Overconfidence Bias and Self-serving Bias. For a closer look at the perils of a powerful leader with political influence, watch In It to Win: The Jack Abramoff Story and its accompanying short videos.

The case study on this page, “Dennis Kozlowski: Living Large,” takes a look at the former CEO of Tyco, who was an effective leader in his first few years as CEO, but eventually faced criminal charges over his use of company assets. For more detail about Abramoff and the lobbying scandal that eventually ended his career, read the case study “Abramoff: Lobbying Congress.”

Terms defined in our ethics glossary that are related to the video and case studies include: altruism, corruption, overconfidence bias, self-serving bias and prosocial behavior.

Behavioral ethics draws upon behavioral psychology, cognitive science, evolutionary biology, and related disciplines to determine how and why people make the ethical and unethical decisions that they do. Much behavioral ethics research addresses the question of why good people do bad things. Many behavioral ethics concepts are explored in detail in Concepts Unwrapped, as well as in the video case study In It to Win: The Jack Abramoff Story. Anyone who watches all (or even a good part) of these videos will have a solid introduction to behavioral ethics.

Additional Resources

The latest resource from Ethics Unwrapped is a book, Behavioral Ethics in Practice: Why We Sometimes Make the Wrong Decisions, written by Cara Biasucci and Robert Prentice. This accessible book is amply footnoted with behavioral ethics studies and associated research. It also includes suggestions at the end of each chapter for related Ethics Unwrapped videos and case studies. Some instructors use this resource to educate themselves, while others use it in lieu of (or in addition to) a textbook.

Cara Biasucci also recently wrote a chapter on integrating Ethics Unwrapped in higher education, which can be found in the latest edition of Teaching Ethics: Instructional Models, Methods and Modalities for University Studies. The chapter includes examples of how Ethics Unwrapped is used at various universities.

The most recent article written by Cara Biasucci and Robert Prentice describes the basics of behavioral ethics and introduces Ethics Unwrapped videos and supporting materials along with teaching examples. It also includes data on the efficacy of Ethics Unwrapped for improving ethics pedagogy across disciplines. Published in Journal of Business Law and Ethics Pedagogy (Vol. 1, August 2018), it can be downloaded here: “Teaching Behavioral Ethics (Using “Ethics Unwrapped” Videos and Educational Materials).”

An article written by Ethics Unwrapped authors Minette Drumwright, Robert Prentice, and Cara Biasucci introduce key concepts in behavioral ethics and approaches to effective ethics instruction—including sample classroom assignments. Published in the Decision Sciences Journal of Innovative Education, it can be downloaded here: “Behavioral Ethics and Teaching Ethical Decision Making.”

A detailed article written by Robert Prentice, with extensive resources for teaching behavioral ethics, was published in Journal of Legal Studies Education and can be downloaded here: “Teaching Behavioral Ethics.”

Another article by Robert Prentice, discussing how behavioral ethics can improve the ethicality of human decision-making, was published in the Notre Dame Journal of Law, Ethics & Public Policy. It can be downloaded here: “Behavioral Ethics: Can It Help Lawyers (And Others) Be their Best Selves?

A dated (but still serviceable) introductory article about teaching behavioral ethics can be accessed through Google Scholar by searching: Prentice, Robert A. 2004. “Teaching Ethics, Heuristics, and Biases.” Journal of Business Ethics Education 1 (1): 57-74.

Transcript of Narration

Written and Narrated by

Robert Prentice, J.D.
Business, Government & Society Department 
McCombs School of Business
The University of Texas at Austin

“What does it mean to be an effective ethical leader? It means at least two things. First, effective ethical leaders act ethically as an inspiration to others. No single factor has a bigger impact on the ethicality of firm culture than the personal examples set by firm leaders. Second, they communicate and manage their organization’s culture so as to promote ethical action by subordinates.

Professors Cropanzano and Walumbwa have observed that most adults do not have an adequate moral compass and therefore “look outside themselves for guidance in moral dilemma situations.” It is the leaders of their organizations to whom they primarily look, and studies show that few things impact the ethical climate of a firm more than the actions of their leaders. Importantly, leaders’ unethical actions are copied by subordinates even more readily than their ethical actions.

Although it is especially important for leaders to act ethically, they are often particularly vulnerable to acting unethically. Professors Tenbrunsel and Bazerman note that it is clear that most people have high opinions of their own character and do not realize the substantial gap between how ethical they think they are and how ethical they truly are.

Believing that we are moral people and will automatically do moral things, many of us act with little self-reflection and thereby often make ethical mistakes. Overconfidence renders leaders particularly vulnerable, because they have typically had great success in their lives. Think of Ken Lay, former CEO of Enron – minister’s son, noted philanthropist… convicted felon. Or, think of disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff devout Jew, devoted family man… convicted felon.

Another behavioral factor that particularly affects leaders is the “instant entitlement bias.” Studies show that if people are told that they are part of a team and that they should divide up resources allocated to the team, they tend to divide the resources equally among team members. But if they are told that they have been selected as the “leader” of the team, they tend to keep a much larger share of the resources for themselves. In real life, leaders often fall victim to the instant entitlement bias, as can be seen in the lavish lifestyles often lived by corporate bigwigs. Think of former Tyco CEO Dennis Kozlowski, who spent $2 million of company money on his wife’s birthday party.

A study by Professors Flynn and Wiltermuth demonstrated that people at the center of social networks, such as CEOs, are more likely than others to mistakenly believe that other people agree with them regarding what is an ethical course of action.

It is often shocking how top corporate officers (like WorldCom’s Bernie Ebbers) and high government officials (like New York’s Eliot Spitzer) come to the view that the rules that apply to everyone else do not apply to them. For example, when Ken Lay was found to have violated Enron’s Code of Ethics by investing in a company that did more than 80% of its business with Enron, he called suggestions of impropriety “form over substance.” “Rules,” he said, “are important, but you should not be a slave to rules either.”

Professor Dacher Keltner of the University of California at Berkeley, who studies ethical leadership, further finds that leaders are often tone deaf on ethical issues and that they have “uniquely self-serving rationalizations for their own unethical actions that often focus on their rights and crowd out any consideration” of others’ rights. As Professor Zak notes: “Achieving high social status appears to make it not just lonely at the top but morally perilous as well.””


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Cropanzano, Russell, and Fred O. Walumbwa. 2010. “Moral Leadership: A Short Primer on Competing Perspectives.” In Managerial Ethics: Managing the Psychology of Morality, edited by Marshall Schminke, 21-52. New York: Routledge.

De Cremer, David, Eric van Dijk, and Chris P. Reinders Folmer. 2009. “Why Leaders Feel Entitled to Take More: Feelings of Entitlement As a Moral Rationalization Strategy.” In Psychological Perspectives on Ethical Behavior and Deicision Making, edited by David De Cremer, 107-120. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.

Grant, Adam. 2013. Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success. New York: Penguin Books.

Heffernan, Margaret. 2011. Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at Our Peril. New York: Walker Publishing Company.

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Wiltermuth, Scott S., and Francis J. Flynn. 2010. “Who’s with Me?: False Consensus, Brokerage, and Ethical Decision Making in Organizations.” Academy of Management Journal 53 (5): 1074-1089.

Zak, Paul J. 2012. The Moral Molecule: The Source of Love and Prosperity. New York: Dutton.