Working paper

Reimagining ethical leadership as relational, contextual, and political

2 Mar 2014

Although existing theories have made considerable achievements in highlighting the crucial connection between ethics and leadership, this paper proposes three key limitations of the field: an overwhelming focus on the individual at the expense of the relational; a cursory understanding of how context informs the exercise and enactment of leadership; and the depoliticisation of leadership.

In a context seemingly besieged by crises, leadership theories in recent years have intensified their focus on ethics (Ciulla & Forsyth, 2011). This trend is further driven by the pervasive reporting of corporate malfeasance and corruption in the last decade, leading to the collapse of companies such as Enron in the United States, HIH Insurance in Australia, as well as the more recent case of the Libor scandal in the United Kingdom. At the core of media reporting on the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) was the idea that the credit crisis was brought about by unethical bankers and inadequate leadership (Ho, 2009; Hosking, 2012; O’Reilly, Lain, Sheehan, Smale, & Stuart, 2011; Willmott, 2011).

However, much of what has been theorised about leadership is limited by modernist assumptions that organisations are unitary entities, characterised by order and predictability, and clearly demarcated and differentiated from their environment (Dale & Burrell, 2000). Leadership research then, as follows, was preoccupied with identifying the universal traits and behaviours that allowed leaders to effectively control organisational functions, and mobilise followers towards the organisation’s purpose (Townley, 2002). For seven decades, this preoccupation drove the proliferation of leadership theories from charismatic to visionary, transactional to transformational, spiritual to authentic; sustained by the unprecedented growth of business schools and consultancy firms which benefited from the commoditisation of ‘leadership’ (Townley, 2002). Most of these leadership constructs display the epistemic foundations of modernity, namely, the belief in decontextualised rationality, linear cause and effect relationships, objective decision-making, quest for certainty, and hierarchical authority structures (Townley, 2002).

Ethical leadership theories are no exception.

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