Ethical Leadership and the Virtue of Error Tolerance


LuetgeProf. Dr. Christoph Luetge, Chair of Business Ethics, Technical University of Munich

Hollywood movies seldom paint realistic pictures of company life. They mostly portray employees and executives as caricatures.

There are exceptions. Often these are  movies with serious defects such as plot holes and the like. I’m talking specifically about “Disclosure”, released exactly twenty years ago. This stars Michael Douglas and Demi Moore who play executives in a large technology company. Donald Sutherland is their CEO, Bob Garvin.DISCLOSURE3

You’re probably familiar with the plot, involving a complicated sexual harassment case which takes several unexpected turns.  The context is a planned merger on which CEO Garvin has been working for a while.

The unexpected harassment lawsuit threatens to damage or even destroy the merger. At first he reacts in an ambivalent, questionable and certainly unfair way. He tries getting rid of the employee as a threat to the company.

Later CEO Garvin does something that lies at the heart of all ethical leadership–he learns.

Traditionally, a firm hand, holding one’s ground and steering the course regardless of obstacles sometimes makes sense. Now though, what is equally important are the virtues of flexibility. Ethical leaders must be able to adapt to changing situations and constellations.

Learning from one’s errors – which lies at the heart of the great Karl Popper’s philosophy – is indispensable for an ethical leader. In this respect Bob Garvin, who in many ways is no shining role model, still holds valuable lessons for ethical leadership.

Right from the start he tells his employees to talk to him directly about any serious problems they encounter. After learning from the character played by Michael Douglas he’ll be going to court, Garvin’s first reaction is:

Why didn’t you come to me in the first place?”  Douglas in Disclosure

This is the response from someone who, in principle is willing to talk matters over, to listen and learn. Certainly part of the ethics of leadership is giving considerable room for openness and error tolerance.

Later in the movie Garvin returns to this view when he corrects his former mistakes. He does this not in an apologetic or shy manner. Instead, he finds a way to communicate his changed views to his people. This can be tricky to achieve for which there is no universal solution.

Error tolerance also has its limits. Some mistakes cannot be forgiven. They require quick, determined action. Garvin recognizes this when eventually he fires the character, played by Demi Moore, who has broken all sorts of rules and ethical norms.

Good ethical leaders are not always right. But they must keep an open mind, have the ability to listen to others and the ability to eventually correct – the inevitable – mistakes. 

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Here’s how I and my company Maynard Leigh Associates can help you make sense of ethical leadership 

  • Work with you to clarify what business ethics mean for your particular organisation
  • Coach you to understand what it means in practical ways to be an ethical leader
  • Run internal programmes to identify and develop core values–affecting company culture
  • Assist leaders to learn to establish and communicate leadership tone–inspiring people to act responsibly
  • Develop managers’ and leaders’ to talk about and promote business ethics with enthusiasm and confidence 
  • Advise on generating employee ethical engagement –where people go beyond the basic rules of compliance
  • Develop new, creative ways to encourage people to speak up about ethical issues 
  • Strengthen HR Team and their ethical role
  • Run forum theatre sessions to communicate about ethics in a highly interactive way 
  • Write an article or feature for you on ethical leadership for your publication

  • Be a keynote speaker about ethical leadership at your next company or public event


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