Ethical Leadership and Organizational Resilience – PA TIMES Online

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The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Stephen M. King
March 15, 2024

Navy SEAL training is grueling. It prepares recruits to engage in special warfare settings, strengthens their capacity to confront stress, builds a resilient character, establishes team unity and develops leadership with moral purpose. Now, admittedly the civilian public sector is not the equivalent of Navy SEALs, but confronting crises, such as the pandemic, natural disasters, multi-trillion-dollar debt or an unprecedented southern border emergency, requires leadership that is effective and ethical; one that can establish and develop organizational resilience in the face of challenges.

Resilience is not new. It was first used in the sciences, describing how a “body (or other entity) can recover its size and shape” after experiencing significant stress, while adapting to various environmental conditions. Studies in psychology and nursing applied the concept to individuals, testing response and recovery after facing stress on the job, and identified various outcomes, including tendency toward altruism and seeking delayed gratification. More recently resilience has been studied in organizational settings, specifically the private sector, where internal and external forces, such as financial incongruities, threats of hostile takeover or human resource mismanagement, are threatening organizational life. Resilience in the public sector is captured via responses to natural disasters, adapting to the stressors of flooding, power outages, property damage and protecting human life. The recent pandemic tested the mettle of all governments, national and international, to address, adapt and respond to the devastation wrought by the virus’ outbreak and spread. In all these contexts, we discover that resilient organizations expand their “capacity to transition” from normal operations to crisis management, focusing not only on how to manage the problem, but how to get ahead of the curve. Obviously, there are many factors that contribute to developing and building resilient organizations, but leadership, and especially ethical leadership, is one key.

Ethical leadership is described as “ethical rules (and) organizational motivation to embrace moral principles…for a fully functioning and holistically effective organization.” Public sector organizations are not effective unless they are resilient, and they are not resilient unless they are infused with elements associated with ethical leadership. In my recent book, Ethical Public Leadership (Routledge, 2023), I characterize ethical leadership as consisting of integrity of character (e.g., virtue), fidelity to authority (e.g., commitment to rule) and community responsibility (e.g., intentionality of purpose). I will briefly discuss how each characteristic of ethical leadership influences organizational resilience.

Integrity of character “is the intentional and purposeful approach to gaining and growing in knowledge, and assuming the choice to believe in and act on…deeply rooted principles and values…” Character is the defining meaning and purpose of a leader. Aristotle argued an individual’s character is marked by two types of virtue: “intellectual and moral.” Moral virtue is the “product of habit,” learning, modeling and practicing virtues such as “courage, moderation and integrity.” Alasdair MacIntyre contends, “good judgment emanates from good character,” and “good character requires the presence of moral virtues.” Ethical leaders elicit attention and respect from followers, characteristics necessary for recreating the organization’s core values after enduring a crisis event. In addition, ethical leaders infuse organizations rocked by abrupt, disruptive change, whether internally or externally imposed, with hope and anticipation of a better, stronger and more resilient nature and culture.

Fidelity to authority “is the demonstration of faith and trust in the authority exhibited through a symbiotic relationship between leader and follower.” Fidelity is “loyalty to something greater than oneself,” and authority is understood to mean both “positional standing” and the “ability to use power legitimately.” Ethical leaders recognize organizational resiliency, fostered by continuous capacity to reform and reshape, is critical for organizations to thrive long term. Mary Parker Follet’s innovative management theory, for example, embodies this unique approach to the use of authority. Follett argued leaders and managers should establish horizontal linkages with employees, focusing on using their influence of authority (and/or power) legitimately, humanely, directly and ethically. Thus, employees and followers are more likely to respond to leaders (i.e., ethical) who provide clarity of purpose and hope for success in overcoming organizational challenges or crises.

And third, community responsibility “is the moral intention, action and behavior, exhibited by ethical and moral leaders, who not only recognize but embrace the knowledge (that) their decisions and choices transcend their jurisdictional purview.” Peter Drucker wrote that “leadership is responsibility.” All organizations, whether private, public or nonprofit, national or global, diffuse an ethic of responsibility to a wider community; a community generally reflective of its values and intentions, one that injects strength of purpose, a resiliency, to its members, employees and followers. Ethical leaders reach beyond their jurisdictional responsibilities, engaging a wider but equally receptive audience, drawing solidarity from a common core of virtues and values, infused with a spirit of resolve, while focusing not only on the organization’s bottom line, but on its purpose for existing. This type of leadership restores, reactivates and recovers organizational hope and capacity that emanates from both short and long-term consequences of system shock. Organizational resiliency, therefore, should not be considered an intermittent response, but a permanent element in the fabric of the organization itself.

Resilience is not an elective. The need for organizational response, recovery and reactivation to challenges or crises is built upon a continuous and synergistic relationship between ethical leadership, committed followers and intentionality of purpose. But, if you don’t believe me, just ask a Navy SEAL!


Author: Stephen M. King is Professor of Government at Regent University, Virginia Beach, VA. He teaches undergraduate courses in American politics, state and local government, and public policy, and graduate courses in public policy analysis and ethical leadership and administration. He frequently publishes on the topics of ethics and public administration and leadership, and spirituality in the public workplace. He was elected President-Elect (AY23-24) for the Hampton Roads Chapter of ASPA. He also serves on the Advisory Council for SEIGov, ASPA. His recent book, Ethical Public Leadership: Foundation, Organization, and Discovery, published by Routledge, came out in September 2023. Contact him at [email protected].

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