Engage: What is ethical leadership and how can we apply it in social care

As Skills for Care focuses on ‘Leadership at all levels’ this month, they reached out to registered manager Jason Denny to find out more about what it means to be an ethical leader. Jason completed an MBA in Public Service Management in 2018, where he created a theoretical framework for ethical leadership.

We’re less confused about what leaders do than we are about the best way to do it. Ethical leadership seeks to fill this knowledge gap.

For me, the reason for exploring leadership is to answer the central question, “What is good leadership?”

Beliefs about what is good immediately brings us to ethical considerations, or right and wrong.  In summary, a good leader has to be both ethical and effective.

Employees expect more than a wage, they want to feel cared for and inspired.  Therefore, ethical leadership and culture has to be central to effective recruitment and retention of staff.

Organisations thrive and not just survive, because people want to work there.   Ethical leadership based on a clear vision and a sense of mission and care for employees is what inspires people to thrive in the workplace and go the extra mile.  If you know why you work for a particular organisation, feel safe, respected, involved, valued and enabled to go as high as possible with a clear shared mission based on continually improving quality, then chances are you’re working within an ethical leadership culture.

This same question should be asked by all leaders; “are you the change you want to see?”

I was motivated as manager of a care home to embark upon an MBA in Public Service Management in 2018 following a leadership course with Skills for Care, which opened my eyes to various theories around leadership and how these could be applied.  During my MBA I completed a dissertation on ethical leadership which led me to develop a tool for measuring ethical leadership and a new theoretical model.

My research examined ethical leadership from the point of view of what interviewees, working at various levels in the care sector considered most important and I used these considerations to create a measuring scale for ethical leadership.  This approach hadn’t been done before.

The findings of my research supported a concept of good leadership which necessitates a leader being both effective and ethical.  However, this descriptive understanding was insufficient in showing how ethical leadership is created and sustained.

It was apparent that key drivers are necessary in order to cause ethical leadership to take place.  This is in the form of trust, courage, compassion, resilience, willingness, and inspirational leadership.  The research showed that such themes can be defined with clear statements to provide a deeper, practical, and more common understanding.  In short, you must define ethical leadership beyond words such as integrity or trust, to have any prospect of such values being translated in action.

The research taught me that whilst leaders in social care at all levels do need to exercise their responsibility to maintain ethical standards, they do this less by managing people through a traditional directive transactional leadership approach (based on reward and punishment). Instead, leaders are asked to lead change through setting an inspirational example based on consistent role modelling of humility, trusting relationships, compassion, high energy, clear articulation, person centered approaches, continuous learning, and promoting a positive and open culture where people can thrive.  In addition, there are antecedents such as positive personality attributes, the culture of the organisation, and how values are formulated and supported.

The Effective Ethical Leadership Scale [EELS] (Denny2020) is intended to improve the quality of leadership by improving awareness, expectations, and support.  It’s also intended to elevate ethical leadership into a stand-alone leadership concept which also integrates all other relevant leadership theories.  This provides greater clarity about what we specifically mean by ethical leadership given most people are clearer about what constitutes unethical leadership, or what they don’t like. The scale is potentially transferable across industries.

Ethical leadership is hard and complex. No ethical framework will provide leaders with a clear decision each time and it will require active listening and behaviour consistent with agreed values.  Ethical thought must always be followed by action, compassion, and even courage.  This is because understanding and holding ethical principles isn’t enough to constitute ethical leadership.  If standards aren’t kept, then the foundation of ethical leadership based on trust and role modelling will erode.

COVID-19 posed real ethical dilemmas for care home managers like me. Justifying difficult decisions, for example, around visitation rights, was made easier by recourse to an ethical framework but moreover the courage to stand up for what is right and be constant, when under pressure.

To be ethical, leaders must be able to create meaningful and positive relationships with all, rooted in trust, respect, and open communication.  They also need convey a sense of mission which is infinite and inspiring.  After, all, what is inspiring about simply beating the competition or doing just enough to get a bonus.

Find out more about Skills for Care’s Leadership at all levels campaign.