How to be an ethical leader in the fourth industrial revolution


Technology is advancing at an exponential rate, creating opportunities but also an ethical grey area that business leaders need to take responsibility for.

At the weekend stories emerged about an AI system called Isaak that some organisations are using to monitor their employees’ behaviour, including who they email, what files they access and who they meet. The benefits of this type of technology include driving change by identifying ‘influencers’ in an organisation, enhancing wellbeing by identifying the victims and culprits of email overload, and more widely, it can be used as a tool to help organisations understand how behaviour affects performance.

Sounds great. But what about the ethical implications of this type of technology? Would you trust the leaders of your organisation to implement a tool that could be used to judge you on how productive you are compared to your colleagues and how many minutes you’ve spent away from your keyboard?
Advanced technology is growing at an exponential rate and it’s sparking an ethical debate that the people right at the top of organisations need to lead.

Leaders need to be at the helm of the ethical debate

In a recent white paper by the World Economic Forum, the extraordinary pace of technological change was highlighted as a challenge for both organisations and lawmakers. When it comes to advanced technology it claimed that “relying on government legislation and incentives to ensure the right outcomes is ill-advised. These are likely to be out-of-date or redundant by the time they are implemented.”

So, whilst legislation helps to guide behaviour, leaders cannot rely on it to decide what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. Take the well-known example of Facebook and Cambridge Analytica. In this case a Cambridge professor obtained permission to gather data from a seemingly harmless app. The professor later sold this information to Cambridge Analytica and the way it was subsequently used may have had a substantial impact on the outcome of the 2016 US election. Although Facebook continues to argue that there was no data breach involved because permission was obtained and consent granted, the public outcry that followed clearly suggests something doesn’t sit right with the ethics of the situation.

What leaders need to do be ethically responsible

CIPD’s report on Purposeful Leadership shockingly found that only 40% of employees in the UK say that their leader behaves ethically. In addition to that, 1 in 10 employees reported feeling pressure to compromise ethical standards. There’s clearly a huge gap in ethical standards that leaders need to address as a matter of urgency.

How can leaders go about closing the gap? One of the findings from our latest research into the future of leadership suggests that leaders need to develop a sense of balanced responsibility. In part, this involves seeing society as an equal stakeholder in decisions.

Within their organisations leaders also need to:

  • Develop their moral compass – leaders need to deeply understand their own moral values and ensure they are living and breathing them if they want their employees to follow their example.
  • Nurture a culture of psychological safety – leaders need to create a culture where people are not afraid to speak up and challenge behaviour that could be viewed as unethical.
  • Join in the ethical debate – leaders need to get involved with the ethical debate outside of their organisation if they really want to make a difference and take responsibility. A good starting point could be to publish some ethical principles like Google’s CEO Sundar Pichai did for their approach to AI.

Leaders are operating in unchartered, ethically complex territory. It can be messy to navigate and it’s therefore important to not make decisions based solely on whether something is legal. Ethical decisions can only happen in an atmosphere of comprehensive reflection and judgement, and it is the responsibility of leaders to create this.

How ethical would you rate the leaders of your organisation? Would you support the introduction of an AI system that monitored your activity? Let us know in the comments below.

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