Why Do Leaders Act Unethically?

R. Edward Freeman

R. Edward Freeman, photo: Dan Addison, U.Va. Public Affairs

Recently R. Edward Freeman joined Harvard Business School’s Max Bazerman for a forum on leadership and ethics at the Frank Batten School of Leadership & Public Policy. Freeman answered the question “Why do leaders act unethically?” with the following points:



  1. Some leaders do not know what they are doing is wrong or they lack the skills to make the right choice. Plato says, “to know the right is to do the right.”
  2. It’s a question of character. Besides being the father of Capitalism, Adam Smith also wrote about the character of virtue and its importance in commerce.
  3. Situations matter a great deal. The context in which leaders become enmeshed can affect their decision making.
  4. According to Aristotle, leaders sometimes face competing motivations or weakness of will.
  5. They have a narrow framing of what leadership is supposed to be.
  6. They can also have a narrow framing of what ethics is supposed to be.
  7. Often leaders do not see the connection they have to followers and the need to inspire others to be the best they can be.

Watch the entire forum online.

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