Six Questions on Ethics and #Leadership

In the wake of nearly every scandal and moral lapse in the military, we hear the same response, “This is a leadership issue.” This view is problematic as it seems to assume all ethical matters are reducible to leadership issues or these scandals are a product of the personal morality of the leader in question.[1] Responses like these ought to push us to ask, What is the connection and overlap between ethics and leadership in the military?

First, we need to think about the nature of leadership in general and then specifically in the military. In her textbook The Ethics of Leadership, Joanna Ciulla reviews various views of leadership over the twentieth century in the context of business.[2] Starting from the 1920s leadership was defined as “…the ability to impress the will of the leader on those led and induce obedience, respect, loyalty and cooperation,” but by the 1960s “…Leadership is acts by a person which influence another person in a shared direction.” In the 1980s “…Leadership means to inspire ours to undertake some form of purposeful action as determined by the leader…” and finally, by the 1990s “Leadership is an influence relationship between leaders and followers who intend real changes that reflect their mutual purposes.[3]

This is only one small snapshot of the large literature on leadership in a variety of fields, which I shall not attempt to survey here, but will instead highlight a few themes. One recurring theme is how we think about the nature of leadership. Is it directive and top down? Is it about influencing people to do what the leader wants done? Is the leader the servant and supporter of the followers who are the ones carrying out the vision? Or, is leadership more a matter of shared authority and collaboration towards a common end?

Another theme is the relationship between ethics and leadership, and to what degree the first is necessary for the second. Does ‘good’ leadership require that one is following a code of ethics, does it just require good personal morality on the part of the leader, or are neither required? One school of thought is that we can think about good leadership as being separate from ethical or moral considerations, with discussions of Ethical Leadership as a separate style of leadership alongside others like Transformative Leadership or Servant Leadership.

Another line of thought in the literature is that one cannot have good leadership without the ethical/moral dimension, that it is integral to and informs leadership. In general, the military tends to follow this school of thought. Malham Wakin in his essay on ethics and leadership argues,

It is important to point out that while it is possible to discuss meaningfully the ‘scientific’ character of the military function per se, that characterization does not remove the essential moral tone of the military function. This point needs critical examination since there are many that would argue that the military function and hence military leadership charged with carrying out that function….must be considered morally neutral.[5]

He also cites a 1970 Army War College study that noted the link between ethics and professional competence, reinforcing the view that a particular set of moral commitments (including the Core Values, norms of military professionalism, etc.) is essential to being a good military leader.[6]

Second, more recent writing on this intersection seems to make this point even more strongly. In a recent War on the Rocks piece on the military profession, General Mick Ryan notes mastery of leadership and ethics as one area of competence required for military professionalism. In “What is Modern Leadership? A Primer” Major General F.A. McLachlan argues for the idea that modern leadership is authentic. Both of these reflections argue that the military landscape, if not of war, has changed in important ways; they point to an increasingly diverse force, a need for inclusion, the changes in generational temperament, and the different approaches needed in working with allies, other joint forces, and civilians. The idea that ethics (not just the personal morality of the leader) is more important than ever, and that authentic leadership is the aim, as opposed to a more top down, directive approach to leadership, is striking.

One might argue this is just the classical concept of integrity by another name, but if we take current concepts such as Mission Command and the Strategic Corporal seriously, then at least in some ways the battlefield is becoming more decentralized and more autonomy and innovation is necessary to achieve success. It seems these authentic leadership styles are less focused on the leader or Great Man/Woman at the top of the organization, and the traits, personality, and morality of all individuals are becoming more determinative. As this shift occurs, the power of the individual moral example becomes more about authenticity and consistency. Accordingly, we will want to pay attention more to the organizational and community ethics, and the role of the individual within that framework, as personal morality has less power and impact than in the top down, directive leadership models.

Given these shifts, how might we think about the intersection between ethics (not just personal morality) and military leadership? Joanne Cuilla has long been working on this intersection in business ethics, and her book provides an interesting guide and framework for similar reflections in military ethics. The book is divided into six sections with each section containing readings and specific questions for each reading, but below I frame six reflective questions that are broader in scope, but relate to her areas of concern around ethics and leadership. These questions are intended to be a starting point for reflection, study and discussion—like all good questions, they ought to raise more questions and complexities and suggest areas of study and reading:

  1. What are the ethical dimensions of power and authority in the military? This includes formal command authority, giving rewards and punishments, informal power/influence and personal power (friendship, loyalty, and expertise.) What is the ethical power or temptation of self-interest? Does power magnify moral characteristics that are already there? Or does it corrupt moral character?

  2. Is the morality of the leader a matter of what they do in their public role or also their private life when not in that role? Is it possible for these to be separate or different, or must they be in harmony and alignment? Can a good leader have immoral or bad private morality? Is it important that the leader serve as an ethical role model?

  3. What are the duties of the leader to her followers? Is it permissible to use followers merely as a means to another end, or must they always be viewed as ends in themselves? Are the duties of leaders and followers two sides of the same coin or are they fundamentally different? Do followers have ethical duties to the leader beyond obedience?

  4. How should leaders think about the Big Picture (Mission) or the Greater Good? How does a leader decide what is best for the Greater Good (Mission)? What if some of their followers (or others) must suffer for this to be achieved? Is that ethically permissible? What are the leader’s obligations to those who suffer? What happens if these actions lead to guilt and/or moral injury in leaders and followers?

  5. How important is charisma or personal power (The Great Man/Woman) in contemporary military leadership? What are the ethical implications of charisma in leading? Do leaders need an emotional connection or appeal with followers to be effective? What kinds of connections make good, ethical leaders? Trust? Servant Leaders? Transformative Leaders? Relational Leadership?

  6. How do cultural and moral differences (ethical relativism) impact the intersection of leadership and ethics? How ought a good leader navigate moral disagreements, tensions and conflicts? Ought the leader’s view of what is ‘right’ prevail? Must one have ethical agreement to work together and achieve the mission?

If authentic leadership is of increasing value, then these questions are important to think about on a regular basis and at all levels of leadership. In addition, we will need to develop corollary questions for the ethics of followership: What are the ethical obligations of those who follow? After all, in the military that one may be a leader in one context (combat unit) and a follower in another context (relative to the next higher person in the chain of command).

These questions also highlight overlapping areas of concern and require attention for future discussions. First, what is the degree of direction and hierarchy as opposed to collaboration or mission as a shared enterprise? Is the vision to be followed that of the leader—which demands that the followers adopt and execute it—or is the vision to be developed regularly through collaborative efforts? Second, what are the elements of good ethical leadership? To what degree are trust, care, and ethical regard important? To what degree is the moral purity of the leader to act as an ethical role model important? What is the place of the mission and common good as opposed to individual harm and suffering?

Pauline Shanks Kaurin holds a Ph.D. in Philosophy from Temple University and is a specialist in military ethics, just war theory, social and political philosophy, and applied ethics. She is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Pacific Lutheran University and a Featured Contributor on The Strategy Bridge.

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Header Image: Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Peter Pace visits the physical therapy wing of Tripler Army Medical Center, Hawaii, in 2007. (SSgt D. Myles Cullen/DOD Photo  


[1] For my initial reflection on this, see

[2] Joanne B. Ciulla, The Ethics of Leadership. (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomas Learning, 2003)

[3] Ibid., xii.

[4] For a good sampling of views on leadership in the military,

[5] Malham M. Wakin, “The Ethics of Leadership,” in War, Morality and the Military Profession. Edited Malham M. Wakin ( Boulder Co: Westview Press, 1979,) p. 198.

[6] Ibid., p. 210