The keys to effective and ethical leadership
In the modern day, you don’t have to look very far to see examples of bad leadership. Whether it is in business, politics or many other corners of society and life, we seem to be in the path of an avalanche of disappointing leaders whose questionable decisions and poor treatment of people have led to mismanagement and failure.
But what’s causing this dearth of effective and ethical leadership? According to Professor Brother David Hall, Dean of the La Salle Academy at ACU, it comes down to a lack of common values.
“From an institutional or a societal perspective, a commonly held set of values is very useful because it provides cohesiveness and a willingness to work towards a common goal,” says Professor Hall, a Marist Brother who conducts professional development programs and workshops in the areas of leadership and spiritual formation.
“In the absence of an institutional value system, what defines us? Ultimately, we become defined by a pursuit of profit, and in this environment, people are seen as resources akin to a financial resource or a capital resource.”
Earlier in his career, Professor Hall spent three decades as a leader in education, serving as a principal in Catholic schools, and as executive director of the Marist Ministries Office. In this context, the underlying value system emphasised the dignity of the human person, and the pursuit of the common good.
“My learnings from that experience, and my subsequent work on leadership, is centred on the conclusion that it’s actually the leadership of people that is fundamental to the success and integrity of organisations,” he says.
In other words, effective leadership is best achieved when it is focused on leading people as human beings – not as resources or products.
“I’m certainly not speaking against the need for good, productive economic activity, but to what end? As leaders, we need to be mindful that a person within an organisation is first and foremost a person, with fundamental dignity and a fundamental right to respect. I think that in the current day, many leaders and many organisations don’t subscribe to that, and that can lead to all sorts of problems.”
Professor Hall points to the misconduct exposed by the banking royal commission as an illustration of how an organisation’s leadership defines and sustains its culture through what it values.
“If the leaders in those organisations actually understood and valued human dignity, I don’t believe those transgressions would have happened,” he says. “There was a fundamental misunderstanding of the human person in that sector, and that meant they could act unethically and immorally.”
A relationship-based approach
In 2021, amid what was widely described as a crisis of leadership, ACU’s Professor Christopher Branson published a research article titled, ‘Leadership malpractice: exposing the reality underpinning unleaderly behaviour’.
Co-authored by Dr Maureen Marra from the University of Auckland, the essay describes the growing prevalence of unleaderly behaviour by people in leadership positions. It contends that this activity “devalues and undermines what actually constitutes true leadership”. Those prone to consistent acts of leadership malpractice “clearly lack emotional intelligence”, their potential for analytical, practical and intuitive decision-making “trashed by a dominating unethical commitment to self-centeredness and self-grandeur”.
“Only a wise leader knows that the workplace is its people and not a vehicle for achieving toxic self-interests,” writes Professor Branson, who has served as Professorial Chair of Educational Leadership at ACU since 2016.
“In order to become a leader, [a] person must realise that the genesis of their leadership is in the everyday human interactions they have with each and every person they have the responsibility to be leading.”
Leadership malpractice, the researchers conclude, “can be naturally eradicated when leadership is seen, fundamentally, as a relational phenomenon”.
“In relational leadership, the people in the organisation not only hold positive relationships, they’re also able to participate in changing and improving and developing the organisation they belong to,” says Professor Hall, who works closely with Professor Branson at ACU’s La Salle Academy.
“It’s about the alignment of the person themselves to the organisation they’re in, and the development of the people as human beings.”
This relational approach, which is supported by a growing body of research, posits that leadership is earned, that character trumps control, and that engagement is maximised when leaders treat their people with respect, integrity, honesty and transparency.
“If the leader can manage those things well, giving the people within their organisations the opportunity to use their skills and attributes alongside their commitment and aspirations, their leadership is a relational activity,” Professor Hall says. “In that environment, the people within the organisation will flourish, and so will the organisation itself.”
A leader who employs this approach must be highly competent, collaborative, confident and communicative. They must also be present with the people and in the context they find themselves.
“As a school principal, for example, I had a lot of time to spend with students and staff because I didn’t do anybody else’s job or try to micromanage people, and that brings forth people to perform at the level in which they should, too,” he says.
“That doesn’t necessarily mean a leader has to know everyone in the organisation intimately, closely and friendly. But we do need to have an attitude of presence, because that attitude of attending to our people not only creates greater connection and engagement, it also ultimately engenders trust, and the ultimate thing in leadership is trust.”
Putting values into practice
So, how do you become the type of leader who is trusted by those you lead?
Trust comes when people have faith in the competency and strategy of the leader, when the leader communicates openly and consistently, and when they actively support employee wellbeing.
“It also comes back to the question we discussed earlier: what are the common values that drive the organisation and the person?” says Professor Hall, adding that these values determine the degree to which a person is aligned to the organisation they’re in.
“If you don’t have a clear vision, you can’t talk about what we all collectively need to commit to and believe in. What leaders must do is to continue to define the organisational values in a way that is very sharp and very clear to the people they lead.”
Over his own long career in leadership, Professor Hall has been guided by the values and principles of Catholic social teaching. At ACU, this is expressed through a series of statements that include “acting in truth and love”, and “the dignity of the human person and the common good”.
“Now, not everyone withholds to that, and I’m not suggesting that everybody should, but the principles are universally applicable,” he says. “The dignity of the human person is something that many people will intuitively subscribe to, and we can therefore enter dialogue with people of all faiths, and of none, because few people would argue with the idea that all people have an inherent right to dignity and respect.”
Good leadership isn’t necessarily achieved by complying with a set list of ‘dos and don’ts’, says Professor Hall. Rather, it’s leading with a clear set of values in mind, and living into them.
“I say living into your values rather than living by them, because generally speaking, I fall short every day of what I should be living, and most people inevitably will do the same,” he says.
“That’s why when we’re thinking and talking about good leadership, we’re always looking for an authentic leader, not a perfect leader. We’re looking for leaders who are prepared to live earnestly in aspiration of what they value, and to be transparent when they fall short of it.”
Professor Br David Hall is the Dean of the La Salle Academy and came to ACU after 30 years in Catholic education. His work in leadership, faith formation and religious education began in the 1980s. He has a master’s in theology from the Catholic Institute of Sydney and a doctorate from the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago.
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