Ethical Responsibility and Public Leadership

Ethical responsibility and public leadership are two of the cornerstones of public administration. Generally, these qualities work hand in hand, but on occasion these terms seem to be at odds with one another. Learn more about these two important elements of public administration.

What Do These Terms Really Mean?

Ethical responsibility is one’s duty to take a moral path. People may feel an ethical responsibility to treat their family members and friends well. Companies may feel an ethical responsibility to do right by their customers, shareholders, and employees. Many humans are also guided by an ethical responsibility to the planet and its people.

Public leadership is guiding the community using shared public service values. People in public leadership roles include mayors, , local, State and Federal officials, and other public officials such as City Managers, Department Heads and Bureau Chiefs.

When Ethical Responsibility and Public Leadership Come Together

In the best circumstances, ethical responsibility and public leadership would always work seamlessly. Leaders set an example for the people operating underneath them. Those in leadership behave ethically and monitor the people they lead to make sure others act in a similar way. Any non-ethical behavior is handled so that disruptive behavior doesn’t become a corrosive force.

Similarly, examples of good ethical behavior are recognized and rewarded. This recognition encourages others to do the same, even when circumstances make acting ethically challenging.

In addition to demonstrating good ethical behavior and recognizing people who display positive characteristics, effective public leaders build a team based around this guiding principle. These ethical implications become part of all decision-making. Leaders also set clear ethical guidelines for others to follow.

The Difficulty With Uniting Ethical Responsibility and Public Leadership

In a perfect world, those in public leadership roles always fulfill their ethical responsibilities. However, limited resources, incomplete information, human nature, and competition from others in the same sector can tempt public officials, and those under them, to give lower priority to their ethical responsibilities.

However, even public leaders with the best of intentions may find themselves in ethically compromised situations. It is a public expectation that leaders act morally all the time, however acting morally all the time is not always humanly possible. The problem-solving, critical thinking lessons and ethical training obtained through a Master of Public Administration degree program prepares the next generation of public leaders for such circumstances.

Visibility of people in public leadership roles further muddies the waters. Some public leaders have been exposed for their lapses in ethical judgment; such as absconded public funds, juicing pensions, or even when public systems fail during natural disasters; the public has called for increasingly higher standards of behavior from their leaders and higher transparency.

Thanks to newer technology, citizens are now more aware of what their leaders are doing wrong, more assertive about what they want from their leaders, and less tolerant of failures in acting selflessly towards the public. As such, public leaders are required to conform to public standards of morality, which are often higher than personal ethical standards.

In a perfect world, ethical responsibility and public leadership always work in tandem. However, the world is much more complex, but that ideal is still one worth striving for.

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