Reimagining Ethical Leadership

By in Research, Social Justice on 6th Apr, 2014

On Thursday, 27th March, 2014, I presented a talk at the Swinburne Leadership Institute.

I had delivered the inaugural lecture back in February 2013 about my doctoral research on banking CEOs during the Global Financial Crisis.

Now over a year since my first lecture, I had the opportunity to share the intellectual journey I’ve travelled in my time at the Institute with an intimate gathering of colleagues, friends, students, and members of the SLI network. Included below is a transcript of my talk. The video podcast of my presentation will be added as soon as it’s received from the film production company.

Good afternoon friends and colleagues. It is my great pleasure to be standing here in front of you again just over a year since my first Dialogue to share with you the intellectual journey I’ve travelled through during my time since.

Last year I went through a crisis that prompted me to question my purpose as an academic. I reconnected with my roots and through four intense and cathartic days of writing, I developed the basis of this radical reimagination of leadership.

I grew up in Liverpool, a suburb in south-western Sydney famous for low income and high rates of crime. It was like being in a world that had been forgotten.

As we were permanent residents, my family couldn’t vote, so we rarely talked about politics in my home. This changed when I was ten years old and Pauline Hanson rose to prominence. Her message permeated the media everyday and instilled in me a profound sense that I was unwelcome, unwanted, and unimportant.

“I believe we are in danger of being swamped by Asians”
Pauline Hanson to the House of Representatives, 10 September, 1996

I didn’t know many leaders in my time, but from the little I did, leadership was a dirty word.

Academic theories about ethical leadership are relatively new, emerging from the late 1990s. The theories are concerned with stating what ethical leadership is and what leaders should do. It is believed that ethical leadership is located within remarkable individuals who are not only honest, trustworthy, approachable, fair, and concerned for others, but who must also communicate and enforce those moral standards through role-modelling and reward and punishment. These exceptional leaders are believed to be particularly adept at ‘solving’ moral dilemmas and objectively choosing ‘right’ over ‘wrong’.

Ethical leadership theories assume that leaders via hierarchical control rationally enact ethical behaviours and wilfully shape the ethical behaviour of all organisational members.

Because leadership theories come out of the field of business, underpinning all theories of ethical leadership is the primacy of organisational goals, where it is believed that ethical leaders will boost the productivity and commitment of their followers and help the organisation secure ethical legitimacy in the eyes of the public.

I have several reservations about academic theories of ethical leadership. For one, they stand in stark contrast to a lived reality where leaders are entangled in a complex web of social relationships, embedded in unique, local contexts, and entrenched in power. In other words, leadership is relational, contextual, and political. When we are alive to these three dimensions of leadership, more meaningful dialogue around how to lead ethically can begin.


Leadership as Relational

Relationality is about recognising that leadership occurs in the space in between people. My own work embraces a relational view by adopting a discourse perspective, which recognises leadership as socially constructed via language. What it means to lead ethically is negotiated between people via conversations and interactions, narrative and framing, as well as cultural ideals communicated via film and television, literature and art.

Relational views of leadership are reactions against the heroic constructs of mainstream leadership theories that advocate individual leader action without considering its effect on others. By understanding social experience as intersubjective and leadership as a way of being-in-relation-to-others, relational leadership approaches promote an ethical, communitarian view of others as subjects rather than objects to be manipulated towards leaders’ own ends.


Leadership as Contextual

What it means to lead is invariably shaped by one’s context. In Anglo-American societies, leadership has positive, almost romantic connotations, but in other cultures, the concept of ‘leadership’ is more fraught.
That is why I think attempts to evince universal laws of ethics, a one-size-fits-all approach to ethical leadership is too simplistic. Ethical leadership needs to be understood within its local group, organisational, and industry contexts while also recognising how it is influenced by wider societal norms.

My work with Roshanthi Dias, Lecturer in Finance, on banking leadership during the Global Financial Crisis shows how while banking leaders expounded the importance of an ethical, collaborative, and long-term response to the crisis, the GFC was treated as neatly disconnected from the organisation and the leaders. As a result, the GFC was constructed as a problem that could be readily ‘managed’ by the leaders. A lack of acknowledgement on the part of leaders about their and their organisation’s intimate embeddedness in systemic cultures of risk-taking, competition, and masculinity has ultimately seen little change in institutional practices in the aftermath of the financial crisis.


Leadership as Political

A political approach recognises that the practice of leadership is necessarily the practice of power.

Academic theories treat leaders as neutral figures capable of passing judgement on what is deemed ethical and unethical from a detached point of view. It cuts me deeply that despite all its scholarly and practitioner attention, mainstream accounts of leadership continue to ignore wider societal power structures that enable certain individuals to rise to positions of leadership more readily than others. The politically-blind practice and theorising of leadership only serves to reinforce those existing power structures.

Leadership, like research, is always political. For those of us who have ever felt unwelcome, unwanted, and unimportant, a political view of leadership starts by naming what hurts, and that is leadership has been constructed in masculine, white, and elite class terms.


Feminist studies have demonstrated for decades that leadership privileges and sustains certain masculinities. The first is ‘paternalistic masculinity’ that construct leaders as wise father figures who under the guise of ‘care’, reinforce hierarchical social relations by constructing others as in need of protection. Leadership also celebrates ‘competitive masculinity’, which promotes the insatiable quest for material and symbolic success, and conquest and domination become taken-for-granted ways of relating to the world.


Although the racialised nature of leadership is far less understood than gender, the underrepresentation of non-white leaders in business and politics in Western societies suggests that the habits and structures of white privilege, while often concealed, remain resilient and widespread.

My work with Christopher Baker of the Asia Pacific Centre for Social Investment and Philanthropy reveals that whiteness is not only assumed as the norm among high-profile philanthropic leaders, but treated as the exemplar. Our study found that practices of white normalisation, solipsism, expansiveness, and self-sacrifice are employed in media representations to reproduce white privilege and sustain its unquestioned association with heroic leadership.

And so on

Other ways in which Western understandings of leadership maintain exclusivity and inequality can be seen in how heterosexuality is expressed in metaphors of leadership as seduction and sexual conquest; how class divisions are obfuscated and romanticised through ‘rags to riches’ life stories and the social construction of trustworthiness and elegance; how physically attractive, tall, athletic, able-bodied leaders are seen to be more fit to govern others because they are believed to govern themselves.

Existing understandings of leadership have stalled at the pursuit for individual heroism and the acquisition of power and profit. Under this narrow definition of leadership, we have seen the emergence of ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, economic crises, and the systematic marginalisation of disadvantage groups.

What I came to understand is that my purpose as a leadership theorist is about challenging these deeply problematic ideas and ideals of leadership and articulating ways through which leadership could be exercised towards the goals of equality, justice, and emancipation.


Generous Leadership

In reimagining ethical leadership as relational, contextual, political, I was taken by the concept of corporeal generosity as theorised by Australian philosopher Rosalyn Diprose.

Central to an ethics of generosity is an understanding that ethics is co-constructed through inherently political relations. This view eschews universal moral laws and is instead consistent with a relational, contextual perspective of leadership; recognising that what it means to lead ethically emerges from the interpersonal interactions between people.

In this view, ethical leadership is fundamentally about generosity. Diprose does not confine ‘generosity’ to its popular understanding as an individual virtue often conceived as the expenditure of one’s possessions. Her generosity is that of a “dispossession of oneself”—an openness to others that is fundamental to human existence. At a relational level, generosity emerges through the affective experience of being open to the other with no expectation for reciprocity, founded on a radical hospitality for the other person’s difference.

This notion of generous leadership attends to the failure of leadership as more often the exercise of power that closes down difference than one that draws on its potential to overturn oppressive norms that render us unable to openly welcome others in generosity. These norms include the ways through which leadership is defined; where conventions privileging masculinity, heteronormativity, whiteness, and the business class elite do violence to those who don’t conform to those standards in the forms of judgement, correction, condemnation, and ridicule.

The political practice of ethical leadership is centred on the dispelling of this violence against others. For current leaders, my reimagination calls for a generous willingness to relinquish power and privilege produced via unequal structures and renegotiate with others what it means to lead ethically. For everybody else, and especially those of us who have ever been made to feel unwelcome, unwanted, and unimportant, corporeal ethics bids us to name what hurts us, challenge systemic violence, and bring democracy alive.

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