When institutions falter and fail us, when cultures turn toxic, we naturally blame leaders and demand new ones. That is what accountability is all about. But the change of leaders will not automatically fix institutional problems. If a barrel is full of rotten apples, replacing the apples at the top with fresh ones will not stop the rot of the apples below; it will not fix the barrel. The state of the barrel overall rests with the apples below or with our analogy, may well be the result of past leaders’ unethical leadership.

  • Ethical leaders are needed – as individuals and as institutional reformers. The two are closely related.[i]
  • Individual Ethics involves asking hard questions about your values, giving honest and public answers and living by them. If you do, you have integrity. If you don’t the first person you cheat is yourself because you are not the person you have claimed yourself to be.

As it is for individuals, so it is for Institutions: –

  • institutional ethics involves asking hard questions about the values the institution stands for; giving honest and public answers and the institution living up to them. If so, can we say that the institution has integrity? (If not, the institution is … insert your own words).

Of course the processes for asking for and answering values are different – with institutions having to pose questions and involve their members in debate and discussion. Living by individual values involves a number of personal qualities such as determination, sensitivity, courage, and strategic thought from an individual. For an institution it needs, as we have seen a combination of ethical standard setting, ‘political’ structures, economic incentives, and general institutional design.

Any ethical leader should be an exemplar of individual ethics and a leader in the process of identifying and embedding values in an institution.

It is important to recognize that this kind of leadership is not confined to those at the top. In many institutions, the most respected ethical leaders are those who have worked in that institution for many years. These are the long term MPs in Parliament and the dedicated public servants who value the institutions where they work and who should be valued by their leaders. It is also important to recognize the difference between transformational leaders who build and rescue institutions and those who develop those institutions by improving the values delivered by their institutions.

[i] Sampford Senate lecture, “Ethics and Politics”, Canberra, November 13, 2009; published in “Parliament, Political Ethics and National Integrity Systems,” Australian Journal of Professional and Applied Ethics (2011).

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