Great Leaders Readily Embrace Ethical Decisions

Fearless leaders embrace the tough decisions. They get paid to deal with the unknown and guide followers out of the darkness of uncertain, unstable operating environments. A great leader takes the burden of making decisions with ethical connotations off of the shoulders of subordinates. However, if they don’t see the dilemma for what it is, they may not address it at face value.

If leaders don’t tackle the dilemma head-on and avoid the underlying nature of the problem, more than likely, they will not solve the real problem. The leader must recognize that a situation has ethical implications and identify the nature of those implications before addressing the elements that need to be addressed. An ethical dilemma may not be as transparent as one would hope, so the leader may not appreciate the nature of the problem.[1] An individual must recognize that a dilemma presented to them is ethical in nature before they can understand that they have to make an ethics-based decision.[2]

Failure to Recognize Ethical Dilemmas

Alex Worsnip, a philosophy professor at the University of North Carolina, wrote an article in which he discussed the ethical judgments people make when faced with ethical dilemmas. He explained this concept by telling the story of three fictional characters, one being ‘Rex,’ a secret agent from a Western nation. It’s a familiar story. The ticking time bomb and the terrorist, and Rex as the secret agent must decide whether to torture the suspected terrorist to find out where the bomb is or respect his human rights. Rex and his partner argue as to the ethical justification of torturing the suspect to potentially save millions of innocent lives.[3]

The message of this story an ethical one. Whether Rex did the right thing by ignoring societal norms and torturing the terrorist, or whether his decision is that of a great leader or a bad leader, is not the point of the story. According to Worsnip, the moral of the story is that Rex avoided the ethical dilemma he faced all together. Rex did this by separating the dilemma into two elements and basing his decision on the element he wanted to focus on and not the other. Element one was saving lives, and element two was torturing an individual. To him this then became a cut and dry decision. Rex ignored the ethicality of torturing someone by focusing only on the obvious ethicality of saving lives. By placing the saving of lives above torturing one individual, Rex made an ethical decision to avoid the ethical dilemma presented to him in torturing another person. He avoided having to defend his ethical judgment. Rex believed that his decision to torture the terrorist had nothing to do with ethicality because saving lives overshadowed torture.[4] He avoided facing the ethical decision of torturing someone essentially by ignoring it.

Failure to Respond to Ethical Dilemmas

Knowing that a situation requires ethical considerations is only the first part of resolving a dilemma that requires leader intervention. The leader must decide to act after they have figured out the ethical parameters of the challenge they face. Once they admit to this, they are responsible for any breach of ethics, as it is now their obligation to consider these factors.[5] If the leader simply refuses to address the myriad of judgments they have to make or recasts the judgments as not ethical but practical,[6] then they fail to provide leadership. By disengaging from the ethical decisions one has to make, that person allows themselves to act contrary to their ethical code or that of their organization while maintaining the impression of themselves as a righteous person.[7] Such a person comforts themselves into believing that they are good and ethical by avoiding a difficult decision.

Protecting the Ego

Worsnip argued, through his storytelling, that people make the ethical decision of disengaging from tough dilemmas by stating how impractical ethical thinking is. Therefore, they do not have to succumb to the ethical considerations of a challenge because practical thinking should take priority. However, this decision to disengage is itself an ethical decision.[8] By choosing to avoid the implications of their decision, leaders can retain the belief that they are ethical people.[9] This is a form of self-deception; disengaging from a moral judgment so as not to suffer the consequences of detrimental conduct.[10]

The avoidance of taking on an ethically-laden situation may be a self-protection mechanism.

Actually, the leader may not realize that they are avoiding a difficult situation. People sometimes think that they are immune to falling prey to ethical inconsistencies where others are not.[11] Researchers have discovered that, in general, people are pretty poor at accurately evaluating their performance. It makes sense that this lack of accuracy in self-assessment may be an individual’s attempt to protect their ego from negative observations from others.[12]

The Consequences

Most actions one makes are meant to improve their lot in life. This even extends to the unconscious. People respond to situations, even subconsciously, to assert their autonomy and improve their circumstances.[13] If these decisions are made below the conscious level, then even a great leader will have difficulty placing themselves in someone else’s shoes and seeing a situation from a fresh perspective. Limiting one’s vision to their own experiences and inner thoughts reduces their perspectives to that which they can imagine.[14] An organization that seeks to broaden the creative lens with which a leader views a situation will need to find ways to open their eyes to other perspectives and expose their blind spots. If a leader fails to see and acknowledge the ethical elements of a decision and succumbs to their cognitive biases, then teaching them about ethics will do little to improve their decision-making processes.[15]

Ethical decisions stare down leaders every day. The first step in tackling such loaded scenarios is understanding that the decision they face has ethical connotations. Breaking a situation down into elements one wants to deal with and others they don’t does not exonerate a leader from the results of their decisions.


  • leaders must first understand that a decision they face has ethical implications before they make an ethics-based decision

  • viewing an element of a problem as simply practical and not ethical to avoid the ethical nature of the problem is a failure of leadership

[1] Worsnip (2017) [2] Bazerman & Tenbrunsel (2011) [3] Worsnip (2017) [4] Worsnip (2017) [5] Bok (1989) [6] Worsnip (2017) [7] Bazerman & Tenbrunsel (2011) [8] Worsnip (2017) [9] Tenbrunsel & Messick (2004) [10] Von Hippel & Trivers (2011) [11] Bazerman & Tenbrunsel (2011) [12] Dierdorff et al. (2019) [13] Diane & Dean (2020) [14] Tenbrunsel & Messick (2004) [15] Bazerman & Tenbrunsel (2011)

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