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Ethical Leadership: Going all the Way

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Richard Jacobs
May 29, 2020

Public administrators sometimes must overrule what their subordinates recommend, which can result in an embarrassing headline:

“Company Aids Concentration Camps at the Southern Border”

Counterintuitively, this headline may be the result of ethical leadership, as the ASPA Code of Ethics requires. However, the problem was going only halfway.

A case study in going halfway

Wayfair.com’s co-founders, Steve Conine and Niraj Shah, promoted the company’s purpose—“Everyone should live in a home they love,”—so well the employees “owned” it. However, when 547 employees requested the cancelation of a contract to deliver furniture to a new federal detention center in Texas, Conine and Shah overruled the request.

Staging a walkout in Boston’s Copley Square, the employees alleged the $200k sale to the contractor for a profit of $86k was unethical. One protester said the decision would result in detained children being mistreated, “In concentration camps at our southern border.”

Conine and Shah countered. The decision didn’t allow migrant children to be mistreated but, they said, provided each a bed. Besides, this was a matter of contract law.

This “low-road” defense didn’t assuage the protesters’ feelings, making it appear Wayfair’s co-founders cared more about the company’s profits than its purpose and employees, or even more egregious, detained migrant children.

Two weeks later, Conine and Shah announced Wayfair would donate $100k to the Red Cross. The walkout’s organizers demanded instead that the $86k in profits be donated to a Texas immigrant legal services nonprofit because, “The Red Cross has nothing to do with these ICE-operated facilities.”

Rejecting the original request but offering a subsequent solution that didn’t deal directly with the substance of the dilemma, the protesters challenged the co-founders’ commitment to social justice.

A lesson for public administrators

Ethical leadership requires, first, getting others to share an organization’s purpose. In this regard, Wayfair’s co-founders were successful, as the walkout evidences. But, going only halfway, they overlooked how an organization’s purpose is aspirational—“Everyone should live in a home they love,”—and thus equivocal—its meaning subjective.

The father of bioethics—Joseph Fletcher—proposed situationism in 1966, namely, determining what’s ethical depends upon the situation. For example, the protesters organized to promote social harmony and the common good as they defined those concepts invoking an equivocal ethical principle—Wayfair’s purpose.

Today, many people—like the Wayfair protesters—are situationists. With Wayfair employees assigning an unequivocal meaning to their shared purpose, they used use this definition to mount a “high-road” offense that depicted the company’s co-founders as engaging in dubious conduct which, in turn, made their 116% higher donation to the Red Cross look like an inducement to settle the dispute.

This dilemma reminds public administrators that forging a shared purpose is only the first step in providing ethical leadership. It’s an important step, yes, but only the first…going only halfway.

The second step, as the ASPA Code observes, requires public administrators to make that purpose a living document which requires subordinates to apply it to specific situations that are likely to arise. The goal isn’t to generate a toolbox of rote solutions, although that may be one outcome. More importantly, subordinates will formulate the broad perimeters framing what their shared purpose allows and disallows when it comes to exercising professional discretion.

Ethical leadership: A matter of going all the way

Going only halfway, subordinates may attempt to effect change from within. Then, when stymied yet believing firmly the organization’s purpose supports their solution, subordinates may grow increasingly indignant. Then, feeling empowered to go public, they attempt to effect change from without. Complicating matters is an increasingly omnipresent watchdog—the media—that stands poised to report allegations in embarrassing headlines.

Bad as this external situation is—potentially compromising the public’s perception of the trust, credibility and integrity of both the public administrator and organization—worse yet is the internal situation. The resulting climate—characterized by unconstructive feelings, lower morale, and increased suspicion of the administrator’s intentions—only serves to increase the likelihood of walkouts, protests and additional embarrassing headlines.

Ethical leaders go all the way as they build a shared purpose and engage subordinates in clarifying what it actually means, as well as building and exercising professional discretion.


Author: Richard M. Jacobs is a Professor of Public Administration at Villanova University, Acquisitions Editor of Public Integrity, and Chair of the ASPA Section on Ethics and Integrity in Governance. His research interests include organization theory, leadership ethics, ethical competence, and teaching and learning in public administration. Jacobs may be contacted at: [email protected]

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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