Ethical Leadership is the Essence of Safety Leadership

by Gabrielle Carlton on March 6, 2014

in Gabrielle Carlton,Humble Inquiry,Safety Leadership

Ethical Leadership is the Essence of Safety Leadership


Guest post by Gabrielle Carlton

See her other posts here

Sometime in my past I worked in an executive role along side the CEO. I was his ‘right-hand- man’ because he wanted ‘safety’ and compliance at his fingertips at all times. This lead me to believe his motivation was of good moral standing. I then witnessed how he gained ‘power’ in an executive team meeting: swearing, table thumping, public humiliation and fear! I started to question his motivations as a leader.

De Pree (1991 p. 128) talks about how leaders can be blind-sided by their own agenda, ‘Our need to achieve often leads us to worship an agenda’. I wonder what agenda my ex-CEO was proclaiming when he behaved in this manner? De Pree discusses that technology in organisations is dehumanising us because we are so focussed on words rather than behaviour. Although we as humans still only trust through which we see. De Pree (1991 p. 128) states that the effectiveness of a good leader is ‘based on such things as trust and vision and competence and fidelity’. We know this to be a value of a person when we see this in their actions not by what they say or write.

Interestingly my thoughts were that this ex-CEO had a belief that he had ‘power’ when he engaged with his team. Long (2013a p. 46) had a different view on what constitutes power.

Everyone understands the power of power: the power that comes from the barrel of a gun; the power that comes from a fat bank account; the power that comes from having connections in high places. But the power of presence is real power.

Being present is not actually thinking about one self. It’s about building relationships and gaining respect. How do leaders obtain a ‘followership’ through power? It’s the power of presence not through fear tactics.

Schein (2013) defines power of presence as ‘humble enquiry’. To engage with people effectively one must become humble. To be seen as vulnerable. This vulnerability gains respect when communicating. Communicating is the way in which we engage with people and form relationships. Long (2013b as cited in 6 conversation hard hats training) also talks about the power of gaining respect through ‘suspending your own agenda’. Therefore, it would appear that in order to be a good leader we need to not have a personal agenda, behave in a manner that reflects our values and building relationships through communication.

Could this be what represents ethical leadership? We turn to Brown et al (2005 p. 120) to look for a definition of what constitutes ethical leadership:

…the demonstration of normatively appropriate conduct through personal actions and interpersonal relationships, and the promotion of such conduct to followers through two-way communication reinforcement, and decision-making.

A bit of a dry definition yet it still states that we need to demonstrate by way of our own personal actions, build relationships and communicate.

I believe my ex-CEO was doing everything in his ‘power’ to dis- engage his team through his values mis-matching his behaviour. My ex-CEO taught me everything on how not to be an effective leader.

Safety practitioners and professionals must be leaders in their own right. They are change managers and the only way to facilitate change is to be an effective leader. An effective leader is an ethical leader.

Gabrielle Carlton

Phone: 0407 220094




Reference list:

Brown, M.E., Trevio, L.K., & Harrison, D. (2005) Ethical Leadership: A social learning perspective for construct development and testing. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 97, 117-134

De Pree (1991) Leadership Jazz. Wilkinson Books, Melbourne.

Long, G (2013a) Love over hate finding life by the wayside. The Slattery Media Group, Richmond Victoria.

Long, R (2013b) as cited in Six hard hats six safety conversations program

Schein, E.H., (2013) Humble Inquiry, The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling. Berrett-Koehler Publishers, San Francisco.

  • I think you may enjoy the videos in this article:

    Often the real Leader is not the one out front doing it but the first who follows them.

  • Mark

    common, now that was funny…

  • Mark

    First off, my question still remains open to Gabrielle or to any others; what do you mean by that which we (safety) are “change managers’? and; What is your agenda to manage the change of followers? And why do you think safety practitioners and professionals ‘must’ be leaders? We cannot even determine what makes for a good leader and yet we tell safety people they must be leaders.

    What are safety people leading, peoples own safety, peoples fight against stupidity, peoples fallibility, their perceptions, their choices? What, what does a safety person lead. By answering these you might answer some of your own questions about ethics.

    Do you stand over someone and lead their safety? Do you tell them to be safe, do you tell them what they need to do to complete the task of being safe, do you ensure that safety is competed at the end of the day? Because you are a ‘humble person’ do you think they will not hurt themselves, or that because you are not humble, they will go out of their way to hurt themselves.

    Sam, thanks for reminding everyone that we make assumptions on here, and also finding it worthy to reply to such assumptions with your own ideology. Most subjects start off as assumptions, many fixed people don’t like assumptions as they can challenge those with still minds, this sometime causes people to discuss things behind closed doors to gain support…remember always, the world and we humans are dynamic.

    As I also made question; who is anyone to prescribe an ethic onto anyone. What makes for a moral person. who makes for right and wrong, who proclaims to be a god in this nature! Are you like you, or are you like me? How do you want others to be like? Like you or them.

    Rob Sams, can you explain what understanding you learnt about the essential aspects of ethics that Gabrielle has explained.

    I think we also got lost between what is an effective leader or an ethical leader, even you must agree that these are two types of leaders. An effective leader does not have to be ethical, or vice versa.

    I am still at a loss as to the amazing fact that “Communicating is the way in which we engage with people” as the way prescribed by Long. This is how we have communicated since language and linguistics started and is called consultation in the safety world.

    Lastly, a leader has their religion/ideology, this is their ethics (Buddhism, Christianity etc) if there is a follower, then one becomes a leader of the group (the one who all others follow..THE LEADER). In the workplace, there are no leaders under the top job, only motivators and managers. Does a leader want workers to be like them, do they want followers, no, they what workers to be like themselves; as a worker, what are you following, the methods or being of the CEO, what is the point of following this methodology of a CEO when you cannot practice the method as you are a cleaner or a clerical worker.

    Anyway, being eaten by mozzies, so for now, i am no longer prepared to mix pleasure with pain…night Egos!!

  • Rob Sams

    There are so many assumptions made in the comments on this stream. I appreciate everyone has different points of views and this is a forum to express those, but I find it hard to consider and comment on remarks based on assumptions.

    My points of view, experiences and the way I live my life is very different to that describe by some of you. I find it really hard to think of anyone as a leader who’s only motivation is ‘self’. I don’t think this is an academic debate, I too am not an author, psychologist or academic.

    This discussion started by considering ethical leadership and I believe that this is such a difficult thing to achieve, life has some many changes and tensions. I believe that leadership, and being called a leader is not something that belongs to a title, it’s not something that should be attributed to business success, it is something that should only be attributed to those special people who put ‘other’ before ‘self’ (e.g. Mandela, Deli Lama). That is what I consider a real leader, in both my real world and fantasy world.

  • Mark

    I. Was just thinking about the movie ‘lord of the flies’ and what you see in the school yard and even on sites like this…also the study where kids are offered to have an extra sweet if they are prepared to give another kid one more than what they have…the child prefers to have one less than to allow another any more than them…ethics in working

  • Peter Ribbe

    Thanks Mark, I was not being a smart arse, just pointing out areas of leadership, again if we look at leaders in the animal or insect worlds, in most cases, any competition that comes up for the leadership is quickly disposed of, bit like us humans.
    But continuing my rhetoric on leadership, I must rescind some of my earlier statement; I DO know of a person that Gabrielle was talking about! Not much to do with the safety angle, But……..
    The Nepalese Dalai Lama is the only person or leader that I know of, that is humble, has ethics and humility. He can afford to have these wonderful traits because he has no competition, no external threats, (Although the Chinese would like to get their hands on him) Why? It is based on the way he comes to power, on his death, at that precise moment, a new born that is similar to the past Dalai Lama, is chosen from within the population of Nepal. Once chosen the baby is called the reincarnate, and as such is primed to be the leader from birth. The baby is chosen by senior leaders of the monks, again you become a senior leader when you reach a knowledge point in your life, generally a certain age. There is no competition to rise to senior ranks, old Buddha, had it all worked out to keep everything serene. Now, change that picture, and allow the monks to vie for the leadership, and things change, it becomes political, with entrants gathering their forces for a takeover, knifes will enter backs, and casualties will litter the road to the top, no humility, humbleness or ethics, there is simply no room for them for the top contender. It is unfortunate, but a way of life, that to be a leader, great or not, you simply cannot afford these wonderful traits, and that goes for safety leadership as well as any leadership wherein that leader has charge of followers.
    At certain times when a leader has gained security through strength, he may be disposed to humility and humbleness, not for most as their egos get in the way, leaders use psychology against their opponents to get what they want, that is not such a bad thing, especially for safety leaders.
    This way safety leaders can formulate change, and dispose of those that reject the change, smart leaders dispose of those that stand in the way of achieving the goal, they also manipulate the circumstances to ensure their success, those leaders that have the know how to use psychology to achieve the means, truly have power!
    And at this point, I will exit stage left, Yibida Yibida, that’s all folks!

  • Mark

    Well said Peter, humans did not make it this far being humble or kind, some poeple forget the laws of nature

  • Mark

    At what point did the leader become humble, before or after becoming a leader, becoming humble only helps their cause (positive perspective) or health lol…
    We need to. stop telling leaders how to be humble, or that they need to practice anything. Such like the art of humble enquiry or how to be an effective leader. They have relied on their ethics to get them to where they are today. Who is anyone to tell anyone how to be ethical? Maybe the egotistic ego!!!

    We have no idea why a leader thumps on a desk or forces his presence, maybe he only sleeps 3hrs a night, maybe the business is loosing money and the leader is sick of lazy workers who don’t act under orders of compassion (humble), so they wake up sleepers by being forcefull. Not all people follow a leader who is humble, you assume they do because you think that way.

  • Peter Ribbe

    Hi all that are contributing to this grand debate on Leadership & Ethics.
    I do not wish to alienate or insult those of you that rove amongst academia, but unfortunately too often those that lecture or have Professor or Doctorate titles, have their heads in the clouds, and see the world hovering around in the stratosphere, looking down at a benign blue planet. When at Uni, I had many an argument with my professor on the harmonisation debate, he was adamant that it was all folly, without taking in the bigger picture. That said, let me point something out to you all, there is leadership and there are leaders everywhere. Not only with us humans, but also in the animal and insect worlds, Ants and Bees have Queens, Monkeys, Elephants, Lions etc. Have Alpha Males or Females. Like it or not, these are all leaders, and dictate what the others do, when they feed, drink etc. Even down to the roles they play and the pecking order they are in. Much like us humans, would you not agree? Right that over, let us move onto human leadership and ethics, leaders do start out having ethics or good intentions, well some of them do, unfortunately this is lost once the climb up the ladder starts, I cannot remember who wrote this quote, but it is relevant; “My climb on the road to the top, is littered with the casualties of those that got in my way” Ergo, no ethics! Managers that climb the corporate ladder make no friends, only enemies, hence when they do reach high power, those enemies bite the dust so that they can no longer threaten, we have had many leaders just like this leading countries, Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini, Mao Tse Tung, Ho Chi Min, a lot of the roman emperors did the same, it is the way it is, ergo, no ethics. I am a former businessman, have worked in large corporations, business and especially the political scene in corporations is dog eat dog, You simply cannot be ethical, if you want to move up, or have a successful business. That’s real world stuff, not pie in the sky stuff, nearly every person wants to better themselves and move up in life, more money or more power (Or both) are generally the driving forces behind this, and can you blame them? It is part of our genetic code to try and get on top, to be the “Alpha Male or Female” After all, why do people get high academic credentials? More money, more power, more ways to influence those below them, if they had ethics, they would have been happy with a cert II? It is one of those things with ethics, I wonder who really has any? No senior church men/women, political leaders, corporate leaders has it, so who does? I myself propose to use ethics when it suits me, to gain what I want, and is that not normal human behaviour? Unfortunately manipulation of those below you is all part of leadership, to get what you want and to get others to do what you want.
    So to summarise; do leaders have ethics? I guess not!

  • Mark

    What do you mean by that which we (safety) are “change managers’ ?sounds a bit egotistic
    What is your agenda to manage the change of followers?
    Why does an ego start a business or write a book? is it for the self or others
    Why put in all that effort. Do you really think a human makes for such effort if it is not to serve the ego?
    Can you make a leader humble, if one has to try to be humble (as you keep telling leaders to be), then they are using a false/con to get their result, they are tricking followers to get what they want
    Remember, a leader is nothing without followers, so if a CEO has made it in this postion by not being humble, then they must be doing something right (shareholder interests, greed interests). If you do not like the leaders ego then leave that ego, as the ego with no followers is nothing.

    • I think leaders can become humble – not by being told but by having humbling experiences (nothing like a fatality at work or other major event to perhaps do that) – they then find they are better leaders for it. I don’t think that Leadership bashing is helpful. Many people I have spoken to who bitch about Leaders and how bad they are, mostly do not understand what they do or how much they have to do or how difficult it is to do it, they only see the bit that affects them – they would certainly not trade places with them if challenged to do so, and would flounder if they did. Would I want to be a Top 500 CEO, James Packer or a Politician – NEVER!

  • Gabrielle Carlton

    Interesting discussions going on here which I love. I put this post up to invite debate and others opinions.

    Peter I agree there are many people who ‘lead’ with an iron fist and have experienced more than the one I talked about in my post. The main point we need to understand is who we call a ‘leader’. A true ‘leader’ must display and possess certain qualities that are reflective of their ‘followers’. The focus must be on the ‘other’ not on the leader. As Rob Sams stated if a leader is driven by ego and self then they are not a leader and not leading.

    Saying that we need to be careful with our language. If there is a person in a position who is not being an ethical leader then we must only use their title i.e. CEO, GM, Manager etc. They are only managing the process, the system. I believe it’s a challenge these days to not fall into ‘the system’ but a good leader will ‘lead’ for the greater good and engage a good manager to manage the process.

    Words matter and this is why we are so confused these days with the term leader. And so entrenched in the leader as a ‘hero’!!

    • Gab I am also confused by the term Leader as most seem to push from behind rather than lead from the front. Great debate – thanks everyone. I have always been interested in the many reason or ways that Leaders get their roles. Was it through toughness, charisma, tenure, experience, age, nepotism, number skills, people skills, back stabbing, the extra money, ownership of the business, a development plan, succession planning or they just volunteered because someone had to do it and nobody else wanted to (a personal favourite of mine given my involvement in amateur sporting clubs). Then just when they have climbed to the top of the heap by whatever means worked at the time, the whole situation changes to a very different heap and those attributes are no longer valid or effective. Anyone ever seen or read stuff about throwing a group of very different strangers into a situation outside their comfort zone to see who emerges as a leader and why? I have worked with people who run programs like Kokoda Treks and they talk of them being very humbling experiences for CEO’s and people used to following discovering hitherto undiscovered Leadership qualities.

  • Mark

    After pondering over your thought provoking post while driving along in quite solitude, I am intrigued to find the reason why we need to ask others what they think constitutes ethics, or in this quest, to question what is ethical leadership, and to add a formula such as ethics is the essence of leadership.

    What is ethical and who determines its weight? What goal is to come from being ethical? You don’t know, just as anyone else does not know.

    And for that matter, what function is that of leadership? Do you require followers to do as you say, or is there leeway. Wars were not won (or lost) on the second.

    In my opinion, all leaders or those who want to lead others are feeding their self interest and intentions (for good or bad). Don’t be fooled into thinking that there are differences to a final objective or that ‘humble enquiry’ is the only means to gain power…you are still gaining power, but in a humble way. The leader who stomps his presence and the leader who kindly promotes their ways are in fact after the same outcome; this to sculpt your reasons and beliefs. the second just knows that more you dont need to be forced listen.

    You cannot (just as the other means) determine the effectiveness of a good leader by their actions, for you have no idea what their objective is. You cannot fully trust in humankind, because history and moral values has given us the facts that prove no man can be trusted.

    Every action an ego does is to influence another ego (and sometimes yourself) and is for self promotion and interest. Everything you are told is from a person requiring a following.

    Being present and gaining respect is I believe, all about the “I”, it is thinking about oneself. “I” am here because I want to change the way others think. I want them to follow my doctrine as “I” know that “I” am right, and because “I” am right, “I” need to manipulate those who are wrong, so then they will think like “I”. If they think like “I” then “I” am the master of my perfect contentment. Many books promoting a ideology is promoting an “I”

    Building any form of relationship is about comforting the ego. Your ego needs others to justify its own rationale; to convince other egos that your way is the best way, when your ego accepts another egos way, then you ego is that of a follower, hence you are not a person who can gain supporters (you are not a leader).

    Some people (including many modern societies) in history have done very well out of having followers, in fact you are most likely here today existing in this grand world, because some persons ego was so great they wiped out the egos of all enemies. We are here because we followed an ego, and many people died to support that ego. All those humans killed in aggressive exchanges of bloodshed all died for the ego or ego of a few.

    Remember always we are all successors of genocide

    A leader can easy collect followers in the promise of something grand, something perfect. People die for this something.

    Suspending your own agenda is just that, suspending your objective. But rest assured your agenda will be accomplished at some point. If it is not a personnel agenda a leader is pushing, then it is a corporate agenda or a social agenda. A leader needs an agenda.

    What does your leadership need to control? Something trivial or something significant. Does the organisations very existence depend on the thoughts of one. Some CEOs are required to operate a organisation how they think it needs to be organised. Do you think a leader in position can do this by ‘humble enquiry’?

    I am bit confused as to the term ‘change mangers’ and that to be an effective leader you must be ethical. If you cannot describe what ethical is or ought to be, then one cannot display good ethics.

  • A strange concept that leadership is about making people do what you want, sounds to me like manipulation not leadership.

  • Peter Ribbe

    Hi Rob Sams,
    Interesting point of view you have. Please allow me to explain the thought behind the cover and book.
    The pic on the cover: It defines the type of boss or leader you should never be, and the focus of the contents is to wake up those that are just like that guy in the picture yelling at his subordinate. I included the legislation to show what the requirements are of a supervisor or manager, under the legislation. To be a supervisor or a manager requires someone to take on a set of responsibilities that are governed by numerous legislations, not just IR, but also safety acts.
    The psychology a leader that has the know how, uses this every day, it is part of getting people to do what you want. I shall give you an example, Our supervisors in my place of work are just like that boss in the picture, they can tell the men to do something, sure they do it, but there is no joy for them to do so, as they comply sullenly, now, I use a different method, if I was to go over and “ask” them to do something outside of the norm, they would do so happily, as they are doing it for me, and at the end of it I would say thankyou, it is nothing more than that, treat people with the respect they all deserve, and you would be surprised at the result, I must also add, that our workers are not your ordinary type, 98% are NZ natives, hard as nails, and no messing about, most are in and out of goal, and a good weekend is getting drunk and fighting or stealing a car and out running the cops. Good leadership is hard to define, but a good leader treats everyone with respect. That is the psychology, getting people to do what you want, without threats or harassment, I once fired a new worker for picking a fight with one of the men, he bridged up to me, and suddenly had forty five guys standing between me and him. I am not an author, nor am I a psychologist, I write it the way I see it, it may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but there you have it, everyone has a point of view that they are allowed to express, after all we live in a democracy. Ethics in leadership? Depends how high you go, the higher up the it will lack ethics, that’s business, and that’s the way of the world, it is also the way to get to the top, no room for scruples in the rarefied air of the top. Just look at our government leaders, or the leaders in big banks or corporations, see? I rest my case!

  • Rob Sams

    Thanks for the link Dave, I’ve had a look at Peter’s e-book. There were a number of things that stood out for me.

    The first, the front cover, I saw this and almost didn’t read on, it instantly made me think of a heavy handed, compliance focus to ‘leadership’. I’d love to hear more from Peter about why he chose this photo for the front cover.

    The second is that the book starts with legislation, information on PCBU. I do wonder why a book on safety leadership would open up with an introduction to legislation. If this were a book on safety management, I’d expect legislation to be an important part of the book, but with the way that I think about leadership (which is all about ‘other’, not ‘self), I don’t see legislation as relevant.

    The last is on the last page where where is states “A good line Supervisor/Manager uses psychology to achieve a high level of production. If the Supervisor/Manager is respected by their employees, they are able to ASK their employees for that bit extra in output, and generally the employees will comply.” I’d be interested in hearing from Peter what he means by ‘uses psychology’, it wasn’t clear to me what this means.

    While this has been an interesting discussion, I’m really interested in others thoughts about the original post which was about ethics. I find this a particularly intriguing subject.

  • Peter Ribbe

    Hi Mark,
    Mate, I believe you have solved the argument,,, hit the nail on the head so to speak,, haha, well said!!

  • mark

    There are no leaders, only fools who follow…fools that follow egos

  • Peter Ribbe

    Hi Rob Long, yes the list is not definitive, but a good lead in for a conversation starter, “Leadership” is one of those things that is hard to define. A leader that pulls the people and country together in a time of war, may not be such a great leader in times of peace, and vice versa. I have worked for some great managers, and my god some bad ones, same when I was in the Army, I guess it depends on the time, the leadership requirements for a particular circumstance or instance. I have seen people come forward to take charge in an emergency, when everyone was standing around wondering what to do, and organise all the people. There are different requirements for leaders in times of war, or times of peace. The leaders I mentioned, just came to mind as people that inspired a large group to follow them. All in all, it really depends on how your definition of a great leader is formulated, as everyone seems to have a different idea on what a good, or even a great leader is. To me personally, a good leader is someone I can look up to, respect, and would walk through hell if they asked me to do so. I have had some like that in the Army, have not had anyone like that in civvy street.
    Most managers I have had, have been good, and have taken an interest in my working life and myself on a personal level. Some have just looked on my skills as a means to further their own ambitions, but hell, that’s life. You can make a man an officer or a manager, but that does not mean he will ever be a leader, like I said previously, a leader has that something special, that is hard to define because it takes in so many variables, and it depends on the circumstance wherefore the act of leadership is required.

  • Rob Sams

    Great article Gab and a good start to understanding some of the essential aspects of ethics which we know is such a difficult topic to fully understand in the context of leadership.

    ‘Leadership’ seems such a trendy word to use in today’s work environment and a term that I think is probably used way too often. If our definition of leadership is about followers and ‘other’ then I think we are on the right track. If it is about ‘self’, traits, and hero, then I think all we are talking about is a charismatic manager. Love to hear others thoughts.

    Peter, I’d love to see your ebook on Safety Leadership. What’s the best way to get a copy. I’m really intrigued how people define safety, especially in the context of safety.

  • Peter, I wouldn’t call any of your list leaders, perhaps your definition of leadership is different than mine. I certainly don’t look to the military for effective models of leadership nor ethics.

  • Excellent article, this is Preventética’s spirit.

  • Peter Ribbe

    Hi Gabrielle,
    What a fascinating post! I also have worked for and with people just like that, just because you get high up in management, does not mean you are able to be a leader. I have been with great people, when they walk into a room all goes quiet, it is a sense of presence, but they may not be good leaders! It is a start to good leadership to command your audience, we have had great leaders in history, people that inspire others to do what ever is asked of them, Genhis Khan, Winston Churchill, Montgomery, Rommel, to just name a few, they have all had that something special, a magnetism. Very few people have this, but it is what is required in a great leader. The military teach leadership, but again some have it and some don’t, I myself was taught, but it took me a long time, and a lot of management roles with people leadership requirements to become a good leader, I sort of have the persona to get people to do what I ask, it is mostly based on my personality, training and a bit of psychology and experience. Perhaps you and Rob should have a look at my eBook Safety Leadership, this explains how to get what you want to be a good leader, unfortunately some will never achieve this.

  • Gabrielle Carlton

    Yes Rob it is something to ponder which is exactly the reason I posted this topic. When we start questioning our own leadership and becoming aware it’s not until then that we can do better.

  • Great contribution Gab and lots to ponder.

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