Leadership & Business

Ethical Leadership in a Digital Age Part 1

I have been prompted to become more informed about ethical leadership in the digital age by a variety of articles in recent media. Might that need apply to you too?

As digital technology drives profits in more organisations, it drives changes in societal norms and economies giving rise to such variety. The news that a heatwave took a London hospital’s servers off-line, caught by eye. As did the press coverage of the eyeWitness app that stamps recordings of atrocities with the date, time, and GPS. Once uploaded, they are then scrutinised legally to assess their admissibility in court. If the phone is scrutinised by the wrong sort of people, no trace of the recording can be found.

Such centrality of technology in our lives takes ethics beyond the more common foci of the ethics of data privacy, the gender bias of algorithms, the risk of redundancies through automation versus the potential for it to remove what-is-boring from job roles, and the power and potential of AI. How broad is ethical leadership in the digital age? How might we provide structure for this increased scope of ethical leadership? How might we provoke action, given that larger complex scope? What can we learn from what has been learnt already about the complexity of ethical leadership?

I choose to start my learning journey with a book entitled Ethical Leadership by Aidan McQuade (who, for full disclosure, I know personally, as we completed our PhDs together at the Graduate School of Business at Strathclyde University). Aidan is a modern slavery specialist with a deep understanding of its impact, alongside having made ethical decisions in situations that most of us can barely come to terms with, let alone imagine making decisions about.

I wanted to know, despite the book not talking about ethical leadership of the digital age, could its foundations be useful. After all, why should ethical leadership explored in such difficult situations and times as those in his book, not provide a solid foundation for looking at ethical leadership in a digital age? I thus purposefully looked at his book before delving into papers and books designed to examine ethics in the digital age. Would Aidan’s book give me a sense of action, as well as how to structure ethical decisions? Would it help in looking into who is responsible for ethical leadership in a digital age where society is so reliant on digital technology? Given my role, would it help me think through how ethical leadership in the digital age should be treated by a training provider that specialises in all things digital, namely QA?
As much as I will investigate more resources around ethics in technology as part of my own professional development, I conclude that the book is a very interesting read to those looking for a solid foundation for ethics in technology. He makes the point that businesses should look beyond a commercial agenda to a far broader stakeholder landscape. Valuable too is the reminder that ethical decisions are just as likely to be characterised by imperfect information, choices in challenging environments (in the case of technology – the environment might be challenging because of the stakeholder complexity linked to how emerging technologies are used) as any other decision. Ethical decisions are plagued by moral assonance (doubt and uncertainty about the course of action); perhaps in technology because small decisions are made that individually have little ethical impact but collectively will very much have an impact on, even radically change, socio-economic norms. The book reminds us that ethical leadership is not new, as much as the context of the digital age is new.

The book continues with the problem that when bad ethical decisions are reviewed, blame tends to be placed on either individuals or systems, with less regard to their interaction or rather how one informs the other. Ethics should be a problem all of us engage in because it takes us beyond the basic rules of how we live. It is systemic and personal. How about if we have an ethical code of practice that directs and supports good people to avoid bad things, by providing a discursive space for conversations? Interestingly, this conclusion of good and bad people fits well with other aspects of digital transformation, where we know people appreciate ‘digital transformation’ but tend to fail to own it and act before others, and yet are not bad people. They feel vulnerable about the change and complexity inherent in the digital age where technology is intertwined.

The book cleverly ends each chapter with some ‘points for reflection’ that those working in the digital age (and is that not all of us anyway?) could ask ourselves. I have chosen some of the book’s reflection points below that made me stop and think both personally and as a prompt for how we at QA could improve how people learn about ethics and act. Of course, when I say we, I take the message from the book that the ‘we’ needs to start with me acting differently.

- What constrains or enables your freedom of choice in your professional environment? Follow up questions take the reader down an ethical route.

- Are there issues which you feel are a particular urgent challenge in need of ethical leadership?

-How might you encourage more widespread ethical leadership in your community or in your professional sphere?

Much of the digital age is about choice that deeply affects how we live and by what values. Technology will determine our freedom forever. Forever freedom is the motivation for personally owning ethics. The book has spurred me on to make ethics more central to our learning agenda at QA. Being ethical is about courage. Learning in, and about, the digital age needs to reflect that characteristic. That this book is not about technology is why those interested in ethics in a digital age should read it.

McQuade, A., 2022. Ethical Leadership: Moral Decision-making under Pressure (Vol. 2 De Gruyter Transformative Thinking and Practice of Leadership and its Development). Walter de Gruyter GmbH Berlin/Boston.

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