Volkswagen Ethical Leadership

The recent headlines about Volkswagen’s misconduct remind me of the importance of keeping ethical dilemmas and questions about virtues and right morality in the forefront of our minds. The more corrupt the environment the more vital it is to have clarity in our own heads and hearts about our own values, responsibilities and conduct.

Is Jeremy Clarkson right?

It is easy to condemn and project our frustration and disappointment onto the car manufacturer that let us down and deliberately cheated not only us but our already troubled and fragile environment as well. Some of you who read Jeremy Clarkson’s views on this matter in the Sunday Times on the 27th of September might agree with him and suggest that cheating is not a big deal, (according to Clarkson we all do it) “so stop tutting and chuckle at VW instead”. He believes that cheating is part of life and VW was just unlucky because it was caught “with its trousers down”.

Ethical failure has cost Volkswagen £22bn

It is easy both to condemn and to dismiss the world’s biggest car manufacturer’s deliberate act of rigging emissions tests in its diesel cars. The disaster VW finds itself looks as murky as the scandals that stained the reputation of the banking industry. By installing ‘defeat device‘ software into its VW and Audi diesel cars to deliberately fool testers into thinking they polluted far less than they do, has wiped £22bn from the company’s value in a few days.

Trust and reputation

Trust has been lost on different levels and it is too soon to tell whether Volkswagen can ever regain its past good reputation.

Who is responsible for such a colossal mistake? Was it only a handful of individuals who invented a software and decided to install it into 11 million vehicles without authorisation? Or was the cheating part of the overall, secret strategy agreed by senior position holders to support financial gains and enhance the company’s global position? There is no point speculating. Volkswagen promised to do a thorough investigation and time will tell what shall be revealed and what information will get into the public domain about the cheating, the lies and the failure of leadership.

Leadership: responsibility; recognition; caring

Plato believed that the first virtue of leadership is to be the servant of the community, to be a statesman, to have a sense of responsibility (Trophe) for the organisation and each individual in it. The ancient Greeks referred to the “good shepherd” who knew what was going on in the flock, even if it was a large flock. Plato’s virtuous leader knows how to give and receive recognition (Therapeia) and how to help individuals to take responsibility for their own actions and help themselves to build a virtuous life. Good leaders also care (epimeleia) for the life of individuals both inside and outside the organisation.

How do we measure up?

We could consider the various position holders at VW and analyse how well or not they demonstrated Plato’s virtues of leadership. However, I find it much more meaningful if we take this case as an opportunity for self-reflection and self-examination. How well do we measure up? Do we cut corners and focus mainly on our own personal gain and advantage? Do we take responsibility for our actions and the actions of colleagues around us? Do we appreciate the contribution of others and help their growth? When we make decisions do we consider the wellbeing of all (even if we do not know them personally)? Do we think about the long-term impact of our actions on the environment and on the life of future generations?

Unless we develop a character that habitually follows ethical behaviour, unless we find the courage to continuously remind others of our connectedness and collective responsibility for considering the wellbeing of others, we do not have the moral right either to condemn or to support the cheaters.


This blog is written by Katalin Illes

Dr Katalin Illes, an international leadership scholar and consultant, draws from a broad spectrum of ancient philosophy and modern business and scientific references, as well as her own experience of working with leaders from diverse cultures and situations to elucidate the nature and ethics of leadership.





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