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A practical path towards ethical leadership (Part 2)

In my previous article two weeks ago I discussed some of the key qualities that an organisation needs to embrace in order to encourage ethical leadership. These include ethics, values, principles and compassion. In particular, leaders who practise compassion and equanimity tend to be highly effective.

One prominent speaker on ethical leadership is Ajarn Brahm, the current abbot of the Bodhinyana Buddhist Monastery in Perth, Western Australia. I have written before about this British-born Buddhist monk and Cambridge University graduate in theoretical physics. An outstanding speaker, he is known for his ability to convey knowledge in interesting and often light-hearted ways.

He likes to say that when we think more deeply, we will see things differently than before. Problems usually arise because, after we see or hear something, we usually decide what it is and move on to something else. As a result, we have only a superficial understanding. He demonstrates by holding a glass of water and asking the audience to tell him what they see. The longer he holds the glass, the more explanations he gets about glass, water and other things.

When we see things more clearly, we will have better ideas that can lead to the creation of new things. There is a link between ethics and this approach to creativity since a more contemplative approach to thinking deepens our awareness.

In addition to characteristics that include values and compassion, ethical leadership requires a foundation of respect -- both for others and from others -- as well as trust and teamwork.

Respect for others: Respect means listening to others no matter how great the difference of opinion between speaker and listener might be. Respect means honouring others and treating them the same way we expect others to treat us.

Respect starts in the mind and is displayed through both verbal and body language. People who show respect to others usually behave with politeness and in a calm manner, which encourages ethical leadership.

Respect from others: Respect is a matter of action and reaction. Whenever you show someone respect, he or she tends to behave in the same manner towards you. This can occur because they may want to observe what is really going on. They may also be displaying basic social etiquette, or a desire to get along with others. Whatever the reason, any display of respect with sincerity at heart will certainly be met with respect in return.

Trust: Nobody can ask for trust from the others. They have to earn it. The best way to earn trust, as we are all aware, is to show integrity. When one behaves honestly, others will also be impressed and will open their hearts. When you keep promises, people around you will sincerely do the same. When leaders do what they say, trust prevails.

Teamwork: Not everyone wants to work in a team. There's nothing wrong with that. Some people simply want to ensure that other team members are willing and capable of the task at hand before they commit. Others, whose personalities tend to exhibit a high degree of cooperation, may want to work with or delegate work to others right from the start.

Ethical leadership also involves a different way of leading and letting others work. Ajarn Brahm has discussed this in the talks he has given at Google and Facebook, where many people want to deliver the best possible work because they love what they do. Financial rewards are important but cannot replace the passion to do things they like.

In addition, Ajarn Brahm has observed that while corporations focus to some extent on short-term results and ethical leadership seems to relate more to long-term performance, one still can see concrete benefits from ethical leadership. Anyone who behaves with an ethical leadership mindset will feel good about themselves, their reputation will be well recognised, and others will trust them.

An organisation must encourage and provide a platform for ethical leadership in order to be a success. When all five conditions -- ethics, values, principles, compassion and respect for others -- fall into place, they will be positively reinforced by trust and teamwork. People in the organisation will also have a high tendency to carefully observe others' behaviour. All these interactions among them will contribute to the sustainability of ethical leadership and the organisation itself in the long run.

Sorayuth Vathanavisuth is the principal and executive coach at the Center for Southeast Asia Leadership and lectures at Mahidol University's College of Management. His areas of interest are corporate strategy, executive coaching and leadership development. He can be reached at