It is difficult to excel in the art of leadership at any time – let alone in the midst of a crisis. Yet, this is precisely when good leadership is at a premium.

Right now, we must ask: what is ‘good’ leadership and how should leaders respond to the demands placed upon them during periods of extraordinary ethical complexity?

In attempting to answer these questions, I am thrown back on my own experience of leadership – including at present. In that sense, this not a detached, objective account. Rather, it is a reflection on (and of) lived experience.

The first obligation of a leader is to see, and sense, the whole picture. This means being alive to the undercurrents of feeling and emotion flowing through the organisation, while simultaneously keeping a clear view of the evolving strategic landscape and being ‘present’ in the moment.

The good leader needs to ensure that no one affected by the crisis is either overlooked or marginalised. This is harder than it seems. When driven by the ‘lash of necessity’, it’s all too easy to favour some people because of their utility, while dismissing others as ‘dead weight’.

I have been struck by the number of times that people have said the current emergency requires them, albeit reluctantly, to be cold-hearted, brutal or even cruel. I realise that such comments do not reflect their personal inclination – but instead reflect their response to evident necessity. However, I think that ethical leaders have an obligation to challenge that tendency – not least by naming it for what it is.

This is not to say that issues of relative utility are unimportant. Nor is it the case that one should avoid difficult decisions – such as those that might lead to job losses. Rather, the leader’s job is to ensure that such decisions are not made on the basis of cold, dispassionate calculation. Instead, the leader has an obligation to ensure that the ethical weight of each decision is felt and the heft of the burden that falls from each decision is known.

The second requirement of ethical leaders is that they resist demands for a certainty they cannot or should not provide. This is easier said than done. There are some contexts in which the suspense of ‘not knowing’ can be thrilling; however, for most people operating under stress, confronting ‘the unknown’ reinforces a sense of powerlessness and is deeply unsettling.

Even so, ethical leaders should resist the temptation to offer people false certainty, no matter how much that might be desired. Instead, a good leader should be resolutely trustworthy by only claiming as ‘certain knowledge’ what is genuinely known. Otherwise, a leader’s integrity can be undermined by something as simple as a gap between what was asserted as fact and what is subsequently revealed to be true.

None of this is to suggest that people be denied glimmers of hope based on one’s best estimate. It is merely to counsel caution – especially when a delay can open up new possibilities. The recent and unexpected emergence of the Federal Government’s JobKeeper scheme is a good example.

Leading during a crisis requires an ability to foresee a future, preferred state and then ‘backcast’ to the present when making decisions. As noted above, in the course of a crisis, many decisions will be made under the ‘lash of necessity’.

In these circumstances, people will be driven to accept the harshest treatment as a ‘necessary evil’. However, a time will come when the crisis is relegated to the past and those who remain in an organisation will want to know what justified the sacrifice – especially that made by those who fell along the way.

Telling people that it was ‘necessary’ will not be enough. Instead, those who remain will require a positive justification that goes beyond ‘mere survival’. It is in the light of that positive justification that all of the preceding decisions need to be evaluated. So, leaders need to ask themselves, ‘is today’s decision going to foreclose on the future we hope to create’. In particular, will my present choice make my preferred future impossible? Will it delegitimise my future leadership?

Finally, leaders need to release themselves from the unrealistic expectation of ‘ethical perfection’. This is not to say that one should be careless in decision making. Rather, it is to recognise a fundamental truth of philosophy: that some ethical dilemmas are so perfectly balanced as to be, in principle, undecidable.

Yet, we must decide. The only reasonable standard to apply in such cases is that we are sincere in our judgement and competent in our capacity to make ethical decisions – a skill that can be learned and supported.

There are particular ethical challenges to be faced by leaders during times such as these. Critical decisions may have to be made alone. Not everything that could be said should be said. There are some options that need to be considered but not voiced – as they would cause unnecessary worry – only to remain dormant.

There are ‘gordian knots’ that may need to be cut rather than carefully unravelled over a period of time that is simply not available. There is the fact that the weaknesses in oneself (and others) will be revealed under pressure – and that unpleasant truths will need to be acknowledged and endured.

At times such as these, the things that sustain good leaders are an unshakeable sense of purpose and a solid core of personal integrity. One might protect others from the harshest of possibilities for as long as possible – but never oneself.

You can contact The Ethics Centre about any of the issues discussed in this article. We offer free counselling for individuals via Ethi-callprofessional fee-for-service consulting, leadership and development services; and as a non-profit charity we rely heavily on donations to continue our work, which can be made via our websiteThank you.

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