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November 2nd, 2016

Success: Ethical Failure in Leadership


The topic of success’s dark-side was recently brought up, and the more that it was explored, the more facets it seemed to have. Facets such as, in-fighting among top executives or family members in successful companies, the never ending battle to find the next big talent, and the loss of ethics that lead to scandal, all of which deserve to be explored fully in their own posts.

The recent scandals that have been dominating news feeds this past year, along with the questions of how and why leaders with well-established integrity and leadership track records come to engage in unethical practices, seemed like an appropriate place to start this series of posts.


Ethics (or lack thereof) and leadership across sectors

Reports that detail ethical violations by managers and executives continue to occur despite ethics being considered pivotal to organizational success, and receiving increased attention by firms and business schools. Trust in corporations and how they are run has never before been subjected to the level of public scrutiny that it is now. Advances in technology, the internet, and social media make it increasingly easy to check up on businesses and their practices.

Leaders at all levels can talk the talk of ethics all they want, but unless they are also walking that ethics walk it becomes meaningless.

This is not only seen in business, but in other arenas where ethics and honour are held in high esteem such as sports. The scandals surrounding FIFA, the Olympics, and other elite athletic competitions such as the Tour De France, are but a few examples of where the ethics talk certainly does not match up with the walk.

Spectators and athletes who compete fairly are becoming increasingly disillusioned with the competitive culture of sports and how it is getting out of hand. It is more and more common for those who win at any cost through corruption, and monetary advantages to be met with public derision and harsh penalties.

Politics is another area where ethics is ideally a key piece of the foundation on which individual politicians and their platforms run. However as the news so continuously, and delightedly informs us, this is often not the case. This seemingly endless American federal election has provided countless examples of this.

And while America’s larger-than-life presence often dominates, this is a world-wide phenomenon and Canada has had its fair share of ethical failures.


How success and ethical failure are connected

Ludwig and Longenecker suggest that competitive pressure can certainly be a factor behind why some leaders abandon their principles and commit ethical violations. This notion that the ethical failure of leaders – in all sectors – is largely due to lack of personal principles, or the state of the climate of the market, is argued to be only half of the story.

"The media, politicians, and the general public frequently characterize these leaders as bad people, even calling them evil. Simplistic notions of good and bad only cloud our understanding of why good leaders lose their way, and how this could happen to any of us." – George, 2011

Success and lack of preparedness in dealing with personal and organizational success is actually the issue. Our society places a high priority on being successful, yet there is little attention placed on preparing people to deal with the aftermath of success once it is achieved.

There were a number of reasons discussed in the literature that outline why success can lead to ethical failure:







While none of these reasons should be looked at as excuses for those who experience ethical failure, the issue is not as simple as labelling someone good or bad. Anyone can fall into the trap of success if they are not properly prepared for all of the stresses that are associated with said success.


Mitigating this risk

There are a number of ways in which you can prepare yourself, your leadership team, and your organization for success.

The first and most obvious should be that ethics must be an ingrained characteristic in those that you hire. Building a team who is ethical helps to inspire those around them to lead by example.

Your company’s board should also be actively aware of your management team’s personal and psychological balance. Before anyone is appointed to a leadership role they need to understand and express why it is that they want to lead, as well as what the purpose of their leadership is, and what it will achieve for the company, and for themselves personally. If the answers to these questions honestly revolve around concepts such as money, power, and prestige, then these candidates run the risk of primarily considering external gratification as their measure of fulfillment, and are most at risk of ethical failure.

While there is nothing wrong with placing value on these visible external symbols of success, they must be “combined with a deeper desire to serve something greater than oneself” (George, 2011) in order to maintain a firm grip on the high standard of ethics that most leaders start out with.

Regularly scheduled audits of critical organizational decisions, processes and resources, clearly established ethical codes of conduct, and a strictly enforced policy that protects employees who report unethical behaviour heighten both awareness and compliance.

In both the VW and Wells Fargo examples that were linked to at the beginning of this post, there was evidence that employees who tried to go against the grain of established unethical practice were fired for either not meeting the excessively unrealistic criteria, or, for bringing unsavoury information to light – to either leaders, or the public.

If we are able to reframe our perception of leaders from hero to servant of the people they lead, the psychological challenges listed above may be easier to mitigate due to fact that these expectations that people often have of what they deserve once success is achieved will not be as prevalent. 


No matter what sector you are looking at – sports, politics, or business – an organization whose leadership team is entirely composed of members who are the physical embodiment of ethics and fully capable of wise decision-making, can still become a victim of the temptations that are offered to – or seen to be deserved by – the powerful and successful.

The dichotomy of good versus bad in our current portrayal of scandals in the media is not representative of the underlying issues. If this continues, and the root of the problem is not addressed, then no matter how much effort, time, and money, business schools and firms put towards ethics education, scandals will continue to happen.

The negative aspects of success are not always obvious, but they are nevertheless present. It is how well we understand ourselves, and are able to see these dangers to effectively diminish them that count.


Stay tuned for our next post in this series on success.








Sources used for this post:

Brimmer, S. (2007). The Role of Ethics in 21st Century Organizations - Leadership Advance Online, School of Business & Leadership, Regent University, Virginia Beach, Virginia. Retrieved 21 November 2016, from

de Botton, A. (2013). Business and Philosophy. The Huffington Post. Retrieved 28 October 2016, from

George, B. (2011). Why Leaders Lose Their Way. HBS Working Knowledge. Retrieved 17 October 2016, from

Ludwig, D. C., & Longenecker, C. O. (1993). The Bathsheba syndrome: The ethical failure of successful leaders. Journal of Business Ethics12(4), 265-273.

Mellahi, K., Jackson, P., & Sparks, L. (2002). An exploratory study into failure in successful organizations: The case of Marks & Spencer. British Journal of Management13(1), 15-29.

Poulsen, A. (2015). Why Future Business Leaders Need Philosophy. Big Think. Retrieved 26 October 2016, from