Along the Ethical Divide

Traditionally, corporate leadership has been understood as a mechanism through which managers drive and inspire their employees to increase production and profits. This narrow, results-oriented view is slowly diminishing, however. An increasing number of contemporary theorists are asserting that leaders also have the responsibility to establish and maintain moral and ethical standards within their organizations. This mandate is commonly called “ethical leadership,” and is in greater demand today than perhaps any time since the advent of capitalism.

What has prompted this recent drive towards ethical standards and practice? Many point to numerous instances of commercial greed over the past decade that have generated headlines and untold angst. Countless stories of business self-indulgence and corporate failures, such as those involving Enron, Worldcom, Countryside, and Ponzi scandals highlight a corrupt corporate landscape in which values and ethical conduct take a back seat to the bottom line. And we all know the devastating outcome of these ill-fated decisions and cover ups. In response, many leaders have been rethinking competitive advantage and the costs of trying to achieve it. They have positioned beliefs and relationships at the center of their organizations, placing increased emphasis on how we behave, rather than on what we earn.

Of course ethical leadership permeates every aspect of a leader’s conduct and decision making. And it’s not limited to the corner office or the corporate boardroom. The political arena is also filled with debates and decisions that are cloaked in a pretext of ethics and morality. One need look no further than the current federal government shutdown to see proof positive of this reality.

In a development that shocked no one, Republicans and Democrats were unable to agree on a spending plan for the fiscal year that started last Tuesday, leaving federal coffers short. The main issue was Obamacare, and whether the possibility existed for members of the GOP to overturn or at least lessen the impact of the controversial legislation. House Republicans have insisted that any new spending bill include provisions to defund, derail or otherwise reduce the scope of Obamacare. Senate Democrats are insistent that it does not.

While it may be relatively easy for folks in the nation’s capital to understand Obamacare and to take a position on the matter, the situation blurs significantly when related tactics curtail other areas of government function. A group of Republicans believe the president’s signature domestic policy achievement is so bad for the country that it is worth disrupting government funding to undercut it. Others clearly disagree. While such aggravating governmental machinations may be permitted to carry on indefinitely, the players continue to try to keep us focused on the ethical issues as they see them and gain our support in their political struggle.

Ethical leadership may be viewed in the world at large as a fairly recent phenomenon. However, from the Torah’s perspective it is perhaps the oldest form of leadership out there. What makes the Torah’s presentation of ethical leadership more complex, however, is that it often combines issues of good and bad, moral and unjust, all in one person and/or in a single situation. The challenge is in distinguishing right from wrong despite the many justifications and arguments on either side.

Take, for example, the complex relationship of Avraham and Lot. The challenge is well-known. Avraham had dedicated his life to promulgating the view of one, caring G-d. He did this primarily through a life of kindness, giving to others and using his generosity of spirit to bring pagan strangers under the wings of the Shechinah.

His nephew Lot accompanied him on his journey to Canaan, and lived with him for years afterwards. Yet, Lot was not prepared to internalize and embrace his uncle’s magnanimity. For Lot, riches were something to hoard, not share. We find this first in the incident with his shepherds (see Bereishis 13). Later, he set his sights on the riches of Sedom, a desire that he maintained even after his capture by the four kings and his supernatural release at the hands of Avraham.

At that earlier juncture, when Lot’s shepherds demonstrated a cavalier approach to feeding their cattle at others’ expense, Avraham had a serious dilemma on his hands. On the one hand, Lot was his nephew [and also] brother of his wife Sarah. He had demonstrated his capacity for self-control when he remained silent in Egypt about Avraham’s and Sarah’s marriage. Furthermore, if Avraham could go to extreme lengths to inspire complete strangers, was he not obligated to do so for his nephew?

Yet, we see that Lot was clearly a source of regular concern for his uncle. He was a rasha; Avraham did not merit receiving divine communication so long as Lot resided with him. His shepherds’ practices reflected poorly on the Hebrew progenitor, and opened Avraham to criticism and the real prospect of chillul Hashem. According to Harav Eliyahu Dessler, even his willingness to risk his own well-being and that of his family for the sake of complete strangers who had come to visit him in Sedom (see Bereishis 19) was less a reflection on his personal generosity than a reflection of Avraham’s training (Michtav MeEliyahu, Vol. 1, p. 115).

What was Avraham to do under such conditions? Ultimately, Avraham chose to part ways, primarily because of the friction that existed between his camp (including his shepherds) and his nephew’s. But it took much deliberation and a moral compass as finely tuned as his to make that difficult decision.

Leading ethically requires that leaders have a clear sense of right and wrong, even when the issue rests in between two legitimate, opposing sides. Minimally, it demands that he be in touch with someone who can see above the moment and offer clear, straightforward guidance. Ideally, it also requires that the leader himself be of impeccable or at least upstanding character.

Ethical leading takes courage and conviction. It means doing the right thing, even when it is neither popular nor easy. Nevertheless, when leaders base their decisions on divinely inspired values, then they send an important message that they will not be bought, while maintaining a standard that can help protect them from accusations of personal interests or ulterior motives.


Rabbi Naphtali Hoff can be reached at 

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