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Leadership ethics in a nutshell

Leadership ethics[1] as applied ethics is elementary, because responsible and ethically correct decisions must be made not only in complex contexts.[2] Leadership ethics is a critical reflection on how the relationships between managers and employees in hierarchical structures can be designed in a humane, fair and sustainable manner[3]. The highest principle of every manager should be the protection of the human dignity of employees. The person and the function of the superior and also the employee must therefore be kept apart.

On the one hand, the employee in his function is a production factor (human resources) and thus a means to an end within the framework of the realisation of the company’s objectives. The employee has object character and is therefore compensated for the achievement of the goals based on his or her performance contribution. On the other hand, the employee is also an end in itself (subject character) with an absolutely valid humanitarian intrinsic value. The reduction of an employee to his pure function and the negation of his person is unethical. Immanuel Kant proposed in his humanity formula of the categorical imperative that man should act at all times in such a way that he should regard himself and all others at all times simultaneously as an end (subject) and never merely as a pure means (object).[4]

Micropolitics as the first manifestation of unethical influence can be practiced from above or from below, one understands by it: clandestine machinations in organisations for the purpose of gaining personal advantages by individual organisation members or special groups in organisations. From the perspective of basic ethical and moral rights, the use of micro-political tactics must be rejected, because cunning and deception restrict another person’s possibilities for rational self-determination. From the perspective of justice, micro-politics is not acceptable because it leads to unjustified discrimination against members of organisations or to their systematic exclusion from decisions affecting them.[5]

In the second form of unethical leadership behaviour, the employee is not only a victim, but can also become a perpetrator: a) Bad leadership: Leadership behaviour using questionable methods with the aim of influencing employees (and third parties). The employee is exclusively a victim and b) Bad following: Leadership behaviour with the aim of encouraging employees to behave in a morally questionable manner[6] and, for example, to offer the prospect of bribes or other monetary advantages for the award of contracts. The employee is both victim and perpetrator here, since the act of bribery always corresponds to the willingness to bribe should the trial stage be exceeded.

Management success and leadership ethics are not conditional (at least in the short term). According to Niccolò Machiavelli, leadership can also be successful if it is completely free of ethical concerns. Leadership success as the achievement of the personal goals of the manager can thus be achieved in an ethical way but also by using harshness and cruelty. According to Machiavelli there is thus no moral leadership, but only strong or weak leaders. Especially in charismatic leadership relationships, the leader possesses extraordinary power, which is not always applied in the interest of the leaders. The achievement of goals is considered the highest principle, by whatever means and at whatever price.[7] First success, then morality is considered the core statement of Machiavellianism. This is positive if not (only) personal interests are satisfied, but the public welfare of the state can profit from it.[8]

It remains to be seen to what extent the northern Italian form of government at that time can be compared with today’s challenges in the workplace. If possible, however, the manager should do good, but also, if necessary, not refrain from doing evil, if it serves the achievement of the company’s goals.[9]


[1] Cf. on ethics in organisations Blickle 2007.

[2] See Enderle 1986, p. 1.

[3] See Ulrich 1995, V.

[4] See Kirchmann 1870, pp. 53-54 and Ulrich 1995, pp. 3-4.

[5] Blickle 2007, S. 149-150.

[6] See Pollmann 2010, pp. 9-55 on questions of immorality in general and on bribery in particular Pollmann 2010, pp. 74-82.

[7] See Weibler 2012, p. 630; Hoeges 2000.

[8] See Riklin 1996, pp. 134-138.

[9] Cf. Machiavelli 1990, p. 86 who states that there are two ways of fighting, one by law and the other by force. The prince must therefore know how to play both man and beast.

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