Are Leaders Ever Justified in Breaking the Rules?

One of the more provocative ideas about leadership ethics that I have come across is from Terry Price, a professor of leadership ethics at the University of Richmond. In his most recent book, Leadership Ethics: An Introduction, Price poses a central question of leadership ethics:  Do the distinctive features of leadership justify rule-breaking behavior? His essential idea is that, despite the stories that make the news, most unethical behavior does not happen because a leader is intentionally acting in their own personal self-interest.  Instead, most everyday ethical failures happen because of something we all value – the intense commitment we expect effective leaders to feel towards the collective ends of the groups for which they are responsible.  With this responsibility goes the belief that leaders are sometimes allowed to do with the rest of us are not allowed to do.

We all expect our leaders to stand up for our collective best interests – be those the interests of our group, organization, community, or nation.  When they are seen as not doing that effectively, we want them fired, demoted, or not reelected.  All groups tend to see their own goals as more important than the goals of other groups, and leaders measure their own effectiveness by their ability to accomplish agreed upon and important group goals.    In this context, it can be easy to justify decisions based on the special obligations the leader owes to his/her group, or based on perceived special circumstances in the moment.

Followers can use similar justifications to rationalize and be more comfortable with the means used to accomplish important group goals, when a more objective view might show those to be in conflict with generally agreed upon moral principles.   The point is that there is an important sense in which the way we typically think about effective leadership can set the stage for unethical behavior.  In the face of morally difficult situations, leaders and their followers can sometimes find it easy to justify what would otherwise be seen as rule-breaking or unethical behavior because of the perceived importance of the ends they are trying to achieve — something to think about the next time you find yourself pushing hard to achieve a group goal.

What are your views?  Are leaders ever justified in breaking moral rules in the service of important organizational, community, or national goals?  I’m interested in your examples and comments!

6 thoughts on “Are Leaders Ever Justified in Breaking the Rules?

  1. Excellent question! I believe leaders get to be leaders because they are able to get things done. This doesn’t always lend itself to following the rules, especially when the rules may be outdated, or don’t have any relevancy toward the current situation or environment. In some ways, we have to ask ourselves the question, if leaders didn’t break the rules, would innovation ever occur? the other question that follows then is: just because a leader does break the rules, does this mean they are unethical? did they cheat. this was the central question in the Star Trek movie when the young Captain Kirk defeats the Kobayashi Maru simulation that Spock created. spock claimed that Kirk cheated, whereas Kirk expressed that he merely “manipulated the circumstances.” Bottom line was Kirk found a way to win. Our competitive society values and rewards success, creativity and achievement like this. Does this mean we don’t have ethics, or that our ethics go out the door when faced with the possibility of defeat? We will learn a lot about this and ourselves in the coming years as the Lance Armstrong story plays out.

    1. Joseph,

      You certainly make a lot of good points. People do look to leaders to lead innovation and change and that, almost by definition, involves changing the rules. However it does depend on what rules we’re talking about and whether those are generally held ethical rules on the one hand, or simply organizational policies/procedures, on the other. You also make a good point about means to a goal versus ends…….even when the end is “winning”, the ethical issues often arise around the means of getting there, who is included in or protected by the solution and who is left out. We all use various justifications for our choices — e.g., the situation called for it, I had no choice, etc. — and the ethical leader often has to engage in serious self-reflection in the midst of those decisions in order to make the best choices. It is not easy!

  2. One of the commonly quoted distinction between a manager and a leader is that the former works within the paradigm whilst the latter works on the paradigm. I feel that if a leader feels that the rule is either obstructing his ability to acheve his end goal or he does not agree with it, he should deal with the rule and not just break it. I expect my leader to have the courage to do just that and I know people whom I lead expect me to do the same. By dealing with the rule, I mean you either reframe (ethically) how the rule is to be interpreted and applied or you justify to abolish the rule if need be. By all means, change the rule instead of breaking it.

    1. TC

      I think your logic makes sense as long as the leader is taking account, not only of his end goal, but the morality of the means to that goal. Also under consideration needs to be (in the re-framing you speak of) whether changing or abolishing the rule, in service of the achievement of your end, are you being inclusive of the needs of others beyond your own interests as leader and even the interests of others outside of the group for whom you feel responsible. This is where it gets complicated. Leaders get in trouble when they think only about achieving their own ends or the highly valued ends of their group or organization, without at least equal attention to/care for the interests of others. Thanks for your comments — you have added an interesting dimension to the conversation!

  3. This blog article portends a Machiavellian quandry that I’ve frequently found myself on the wrong side of. I learned early to value integrity and ethics (and I still do), but in the real world, I’ve learned that many senior leaders do believe that it is appropriate to do what ever it takes to get the job done. I’d also add that they believe that they’ll do whatever is easiest to get the job done, using typical rationalizations about the value of their time, even if what they do causes harm to others.

    Once when faced with a difficult leadership enviroment, I looked for catharsis or reinforcement, researching toxic leadership. I stumbled across a much cleaner definition for the environment I was in, narcissistic leadership. The top leader in the organization had a very strong personal presence and he dominated the entire organization. Through his narcissism as a leader, he engendered a style where leaders believed that their positions were always correct and should never be challenged. That also led to a destructive self-justification for any action taken, i.e., any action was appropriate if the leader decided so. Throughout history, the cult of personality has always been deleterious to ethics and integrity. Organizations that operate under that leadership model will rarely take the time to consider moral implications of their actions.

    1. Alan

      Thanks for your comments and I agree — charismatic leaders, who are sometimes also narcissistic, do impact whole cultures by legitimizing,through their own self-justifications, the self-justifications of others. As Kant told us, we are all both leaders and followers in the Kingdom of Ends, indicating the responsibility each of us bears to enact only those behaviors we would be comfortable seeing everyone else enact, as well as the responsibility of “followers” to not blindly follow but rather to act as individuals who have their own rational capacity to choose ethical behaviors regardless of what leaders do (and to refuse to go along with unethical action of those leaders). This all requires courage, of course, often more courage than people can muster in the moment. That’s not an excuse, just a reality. Perhaps we all need more training in courage!

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