Do mid-level organizational leaders hold the key to unlocking ethical business conduct?

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I’m so delighted to be working with Archie Graves, a final year Philosophy and Theology MA Hons undergraduate at the University of Edinburgh, with a particular interest in Symbolic Logic, Ethics, Conflict Resolution, and the Theological Implications of Contemporary Science (quantum theory and artificial intelligence).

Archie’s dissertation research is absolutely fascinating.  Read his guest blog below to get a flavour about how he is critically examining the role of mid-level leadership and the opportunity to unlock corporate ethics and integrity through character and virtue.

Do mid-level organizational leaders hold the key to unlocking ethical business conduct?

The 2019 Business Roundtable Statement[1] by 181 of the United States’ most prominent CEOs should have been met with feelings of huge optimism: finally, the ‘goal of a business’ has progressed beyond the purpose to “make money for our shareholders” to “invest in our employees… foster diversity and inclusion, dignity and respect.” Alongside commitments to “protect the environment by embracing sustainable business practices” and “dealing fairly and ethically with our suppliers”. This Statement ought to represent a seismic shift in the mindset of businesses new and old, and yet, to date, it has had little to no effect; many are still unaware of this “change” at all – the majority of those who are aware have been critical – and this boils down to an obvious flaw in their statement: they’ve provided no guidance on how this ought to be achieved. [Read more]

That so little buzz has been generated over this Statement is concerning not least extremely disappointing.  There is a serious chance that this potential shift will be swept under the rug, so much so that critics have labelled it “pretend[ing] to redefine a business.”[2]. The Business Roundtable has creaked the door ajar, but by so little so that most of us can barely see the light coming through. So, our mission must now be to kick this door wide open and, most importantly, to do so with our strongest foot forward.

My ongoing dissertation project at the University of Edinburgh sets out an effective model for making the first steps to implement the Statement; and through a medium which is greatly overlooked in a corporate business setting: the role of the mid-level organizational leader. The dissertation proposes the means by which this change will be brought  – it is the Aristotelian character-based theory of virtue ethics[3], re-popularised in the 20th Century by Alasdair MacIntyre[4] and then fully realised, for our purposes, by Geoff Moore[5].

The Role of Authority

Stanley Milgram’s infamous Obedience to Authority Experiments[6] – with special attention on the style of authority people most submit to, the authority of experts (T. Blass, 2006) – provides a psychological explanation of the difficulties that come with beginning this mission at the lowest levels, the dissertation argues, therefore, that action following the Statement cannot therefore be simply treated as a ‘bottom-up’ project. This has motivated the shift of attention to the mid-level organizational leader.

Milgram’s overwhelming data shows us that we too readily forgo our morals when commanded by a legitimate authority, an authority that is, by the nature of hierarchy, present in every office, workplace environs and boardroom.  Even having knowledge of Milgram’s experiments (as a variation of the experiment sought to show) does little to reduce its effects.

What do we know about Character?

The second part of the dissertation gives a detailed account of Virtue Ethics. This Aristotelian theory, in the ‘Nicomachean Ethics’, is most central to our discussion for many reasons, most importantly it places human ‘eudaimonia’ – a Greek word which most closely translates to ‘flourishing’, and also carries with it notions of fulfilment and happiness – as the end goal of human action, as it is the only activity we pursue for its own sake.

‘Virtue Ethics, as a theory, judges actions to be right or wrong based on what they tell us about someone’s character’

Virtues like justice, wisdom, bravery, and most importantly ‘phronesis’ or ‘practical wisdom’ are examples; knowing which virtues to apply to what situations, and to what extent to apply them. It praises those who follow the ‘Golden Mean’; the ‘virtuous’ are brave, but not too brave so as to be foolhardy; they are wise, but not too wise to be seen as boastful.

MacIntyre’s ground-breaking ‘After Virtue’ (1981) reinvigorated virtue ethics and included the notion of ‘internal’ and ‘external’ goods. Applied to business by Moore, the role of mid-level organizational leaders is to look after the internal goods of a company; it’s inner workings and the intra-company relationships, so that the ‘external’ goods – performing whatever function the company seeks to perform – can be as profitable, efficient and sustainable as possible.

‘Virtue Ethics, in this way, is an effective model for ethical business conduct because it requires a constant, case-by-case, careful analysis of each obstacle as it presents itself, and doesn’t commit to claiming that there is ‘a single right way’ to operate’

Employees are encouraged to demonstrate and improve their character and middle level organizational leaders here will play a vital role as role models and influencers of corporate behaviour, and this is where knowing how to implement the Statement becomes important.

The Case for Change

Thirdly, the dissertation presents a case for why middle level organizational leaders should be given training in Virtue Ethics, and a practical guide on how this can be achieved. Middle level organizational leaders will learn to (a) recognise sound character and good decision making, and to appraise it appropriately, (b) learn to display virtuous character themselves, thus acting as role models and optimising their value in the workplace. The teaching of virtue ethics to middle level organizational leaders will be achieved primarily through role-playing exercises, case-studies, and peer-led seminars. (Mintz, 1996).

By centring attention on the character and flourishing of employees, middle level organizational leaders will be capable of:

(1) ensuring that the development of their team is high on their agendas

(2) making sure that environmental impact is considered to the right extent that a company is able to, via re-prioritising goals, balance what a company does with what its actions really say about its character

(3) promoting transparency of the purpose of a company from top to bottom from a perspective of practical wisdom, employees have more potential to be fulfilled and capable of flourishing when they know what they’re working towards, and how their contributions will benefit the company, which leads to increased output and workplace pride [Read more: Ivan Robertson, Cary Cooper, ‘Well Being: Productivity and Happiness at Work’, 2011]

(4) promoting the company from inside out.  In the social media age we’re now encapsulated in, news of companies with strong reputations – both good and bad – spreads very quickly, consequently corporations have less and less places to hide against potential criticism; this is a huge plus to the emerging generation who, with a couple of taps on a smartphone, can whistle-blow to a worldwide audience. So, by explicitly committing to concern itself with not just employee well-being but employee flourishing, companies are in a position to benefit from ‘free’ marketing online, thereby organically attracting morals-based candidates once the wheels are set in motion.

Unlocking Ethical Business Conduct from Inside Out – a Call to Arms

The Roundtable Statement has presented an unparalleled opportunity for actual change at the corporate level, yet its vagueness means these changes may never come to the fore. Encouraging the development of virtue ethics within corporations through the training of middle level organizational leaders can offer a sound starting position which, although not a silver bullet, ensures that we’re moving more effectively in the right direction,  with the right ethical outcomes as well as the right business results.

Archie Graves,  University of Edinburgh



[3] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book II, 340BC

[4] Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, 1981

[5] Geoff Moore, Virtue at Work: Ethics for Individuals, Managers, and Organisations.

[6] Stanley Milgram, Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View, 1974