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Utilitarianism- A Philosophy for Great Leadership

Do leaders practice ethical leadership?

It depends on people and their belief in utilitarianism. Utilitarianism is a philosophy by Jeremy Bentham (English Philosopher and Economist), which offers that value is most important when deciding who to salvage. For instance, if five people go to a pizza place, and you are the “leader” of the group (or in this case, the one who is paying), your friends would probably tell you which item they want. If you have to get everyone the same food, and four people wish to have a cheese pizza while one person a veggie pizza, you may order cheese pizza for everybody since the majority will be happy with this decision. It means, as a leader, you have to act to produce most value for the team. In the article A New Model for Ethical Leadership, from the Harvard Business School, Harvard Business Review September-October 2020, Volume 98, Issue 5, “... ethical behavior is behavior that maximizes “utility” in the world…” (Max H. Bazerman Pg 93). Your behavior is considered ethical because the number of people satisfied is more significant than the number of people unsatisfied. What is unethical leadership? Leaders who tend to serve their own person interests are essentially practicing unethical leadership. Unethical leaders not only lose the favor of the people they lead, but they also lose the influence their words have on people the next time they make a crucial decision. The same goes for decisions made by business, political or world leaders. There will always be some flaws in every decision, but it is up to the leader to ensure that as many people as possible are content.

Utilitarianism is not always something that appeals to the people; you might not get what you want if the majority wants something different. Margaret Thatcher, former prime minister of the United Kingdom, is an excellent example of a utilitarian leader mentioned in the Church Times article Lady Thatcher’s Utilitarian Legacy. “Rising unemployment and recession were ‘a price worth paying’ to get inflation down, as a Tory Chancellor, Norman Lamont, was later to put it. Such a view is, at heart, utilitarian. It holds that a society’s purpose must be to maximize the greatest happiness of the greatest number.” (Paul Vallely) As Margaret Thatcher demonstrated, there are many drawbacks to utilitarianism. However, sometimes whatever is best for the people must be done, whatever the cost may be.

One of my favorite things to do is play volleyball, both at a competitive level and at a school level. Imagine you are made the captain of a sports team, whether it is volleyball or any other sport you enjoy playing. As the sports captain, it is important that you can lead your team to victory, but still ensure that they have fun and have time to enjoy the experience. Being a caring and ethical leader means to address everyone’s wants and needs, while making sure that the decision creates most value and aligned with the vision. If two people want to play the same position before a game, but only one of them is good at playing that position, then you need to choose who will play and who will sit out or play a different position. The ideal utilitarian decision is to have the most skilled player play in the first set and once your team is leading, let the other player have a chance at playing. This way, both players are mostly satisfied, and the team has a better shot at winning.

The next time you are made the leader of a school project, or a sports team, or even put in charge of a team at work, try to think about what the majority would benefit from! An ethical leader knows how to produce the best consequences possible for the team or the project.

There are three steps to practice ethical leadership -

  • Understand the wants and needs of everyone in your group.

  • Make sure your vision is something that everyone in your group wants to be a part of.

  • Make decisions that creates most value for the project and the team.

It is critical to practice ethical leadership because, as a leader, you impact everyone with the decisions you make!


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