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Teaching Ethical Leadership: From Individual Action to Organizational Systems

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

By Alexander C. Heckman
May 12, 2017


A survey of the literature, textbooks and syllabi on ethics education (along with my own personal observations over the years) reveals that formal ethics education in public administration degree programs focuses predominantly on developing individual ethical values and discussing responses to specific ethical dilemmas. There is also a strong focus on legal compliance, particularly in practitioner training. Of course, it is vitally important to develop one’s own personal ethical code, to identify appropriate strategies for responding to ethical dilemmas and to comply with the law. However, our current ethics education and training falls short in preparing ethical leaders by teaching students and professionals that ethical leadership is almost exclusively about their individual behavior — the underlying principle is to act ethically and the organization will take care of itself. This approach is insufficient for proactively addressing ethical issues and preventing legal violations within government and nonprofit organizations.

We need to build upon the current approaches and teach public administrators that true ethical leadership requires acting systematically, proactively and organizationally to create ethical organizations. Serving as a model for ethical behavior is the foundation for ethical leadership, but we also must teach students and professionals their obligation to institute organizational systems and practices that will help ensure:

  1. Illegal and unethical behavior is readily detected and dealt with;
  2. Ethical behavior is systematically recognized and rewarded; and,
  3. Ethical thinking and problem solving skills are routinely developed and practiced.

In my ethics training sessions, I present an ethical dilemma and facilitate a discussion about it, or I ask participants to provide examples of ethical issues commonly faced in their professional work (it turns out there are typically some common issues identified and employees find it quite helpful to have a dialogue about how to respond to them). A common scenario is an employee submits a time sheet with overtime hours for which the work done does not comply with the permitted reasons to work overtime under agency policy. However, the supervisor knows that the person actually worked the overtime, and they empathize with the employee because the employee is overworked and stressed and needs extra time to catch up on key tasks.

The initial discussion about the case proceeds with several participants sharing what they would do to respond to the situation, each person agreeing with and building upon the prior responses and/or indicating their disagreement and how they would act differently. At the end, most people fall into two camps:

  1. No, I would not approve the overtime, explaining why and telling the employee how to avoid a similar situation.
  2. Yes, I would approve the overtime once, explaining why and telling the employee how to avoid a similar situation.

This is where we tend to stop our ethics education, merely discussing how to respond to dilemmas or crisis situations.

Instead, we should be training public administrators to think beyond situations to assess broader organizational context and causes. A key tenet of systems thinking is that bad systems and processes controlled by management are the primary cause of almost all the problems seen in organizations, as opposed to the poor behavior or judgment of individual “bad apples.” In fact, the scenario above is based upon a real case in a U.S. government agency where individuals were routinely allowed to work overtime in a way that violated agency policy. Doing so had become a common management practice to compensate workers for being underpaid, not getting raises for years and being overworked due to understaffing. Actually, individuals were being told during the hiring process that the ability to work overtime would help compensate for the below market pay. In fact, working improper overtime had become a management tool for attracting workers and maintaining morale.


We then discuss ethical action to address the situation. Some steps participants typically identify include that the agency could address the situation systemically by: revising hiring practices, adjusting compensation, undertaking training about the policy, revising the overtime policy, hiring additional personnel, etc. Participants see that responding only to the specific situation and the “bad apple” in the case as inadequate, in terms of ethical leadership, as it would do nothing to identify or address the organizational causes of the original dilemma. In fact, an investigation ultimately brought these issues to light, and many individuals within the agency were punished. This tarnished the reputation and the legitimacy of the agency and the U.S. government as a whole.

The public and the media typically see such situations as primarily moral failings of individuals. Our ethics education needs to go beyond this thinking, as it does not facilitate proactive efforts to prevent ethical violations and promote ethical behavior. Simply developing professionals who understand ethical leadership as an individual endeavor, then, will not meet the significant ethical and legal challenges we face in public administration. Creating ethical organizations requires an intentional and proactive systems approach from management. To create true ethical leaders we must teach students and professionals how to apply systems thinking to analyze and shape organizations to be ethical. This should be a key goal of ethics education for public administrators.

Author: Alex Heckman, Ph.D., is Chair of the Department of Public Administration at Franklin University in Columbus, Ohio. Dr. Heckman’s research focuses on ethical leadership, policy implementation, public management and improving organizational performance. His work has been published in the Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory, Public Management Review, and by the Pew Charitable Trusts.

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