The Ethical Leader: Rules and Tools

February 25, 2013

By Scott C. Paine

Scott C. Paine will serve as a presenter for the interactive Leadership Training Seminar, "The Ethical Leader: Rules and Tules," at the Congressional City Conference on March 9th, 2013 in Washington, D.C.

The gentleman was in his late thirties or early forties. He had an alert, intelligent presence and a sincerity that was obvious. It also was obvious that he was troubled.

"I've only been here a little more than an hour, and you're scaring me to death," he began, referring to the first hour of a day-long summit on ethics. He then told me about the day after he was sworn in. He and his wife were taking an evening stroll when a neighbor drove up and rolled down her window to offer congratulations. Then the neighbor, an executive with a firm that does business with the city, reached into her purse and pulled out two tickets, which she handed to the councilman.
"I'd like you and your wife to be my guests at this charity fundraiser," she said warmly. And he warmly accepted, with many thanks.

"Now I'm asking myself," he said with some embarrassment, "just why did she give me those tickets? I mean, she's never invited us over for a barbecue, or even for coffee. And now she's giving me $50 worth of tickets . . . Must be because now, I'm ‘the councilman'. And that's not making me feel too comfortable."

Under the relevant law in his state, there wasn't anything illegal about accepting the gift (though it would have to be reported). But his gut, stirred by a conversation about ethics as something more than meeting the legal minimum, was sending him a warning he was wise to heed.

Most municipal officials, whether elected or appointed, are honest folk with a particular passion for service. Elected municipal officials typically aren't experts in municipal government, or any aspect of running a city. Assuming office, and scrambling to learn about the incredibly wide range of activities with which their cities are involved, they naturally draw upon their personal and professional background in other arenas to guide them through the multitude of decisions, individual and collective, their office requires them to make.

The difficulty with this approach is that public service is distinct from private business and even the non-profit world in several respects. One of the most important of these is ethics.

Of course, one's personal code of ethics is relevant to public service, but not all aspects of such a code may be appropriate to apply. Perhaps more importantly, public officeholders, by virtue of their office, have an ethical obligation to embrace values that are unique to that role, values that are essential given the nature of cities, the unique attributes of public service, and the distinctive characteristics of the specific community they serve.

One key to effective ethical public leadership is learning to recognize the distinctive ethical challenges of public service. Another, equally important key, is embracing the call to meet them, raising public perceptions and exceeding public expectations of public leaders.

Scott C. Paine, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor at the University of Tampa.