Posted in leadership

Leader Ethics

  • In the January 1996 issue of the Journal of Public Administration Research &Theory, Gary Zajac from the University of Pittsburg published an article entitled, Beyond Hammurabi: A Public Service Definition of Ethics Failure. A quick summary of the conclusion of this article is that laws, acts, and regulations are the primary solutions followed closely by training to obtain ethical behavior of public servants.
  • The March 1997 issue of the Australian Journal of Public Administration published an article by Peter Shergold AM, Commissioner of Australian Public Service entitled, Ethics and the Changing Nature of Public Service. The summary of the conclusion of this article is that public servants need to speak out for public service, to articulate the continuing significance of public service for the 21st century, to guard the traditional values of public service, and to argue against the injustice of the tarnished stereotype of public servants.
  • The January/February 1998 issue of Public Administration Review published an article by J. Patrick Dobel from the University of Washington entitled, Political Prudence and the Ethics of Leadership. Dobel’s article (1998) included the importance of self-mastery, virtues, and ethics for leader in the public sector.

According to Gary Zajac (1996), there are two possible solutions for ethics failure. Zajac listed external controls and internal controls formerly and presently being used by several different federal, state, and city agencies. The external control approach is embodied in endless attempts to fashion codes, laws, and rules that clearly demarcate good and bad behavior, both for public servants and for the general public. Internal controls are ineffective and create the public service ethics failures such as those cited in this study. Internal control solutions discussed were training for already employed officials, ethics courses added to public administration courses, and codes of ethics for professional public administration group. (Zajac, 1996)

Peter Shergold, Australia’s Public Service Commissioner, delivered a presentation to the Ethics in Public Service Network Conference in Brisbane, Australia. Commissioner Shergold shared his view that the public sector is held to a higher standard than the general public. Public servants are responsible for the services presented to the public for the public good; therefore, the accountability must be measurable, and above reproach. Shergold posited that leaders in public service should continue to serve the public interest by setting standards of openness, justice, and accountability (1997).

Dobel’s Political Prudence and the Ethics of Leadership stated that even though there are various studies which identify the moral nature of leadership, these studies do not provide guidelines to assist the leaders in focusing their ethics. Dobel’s article posited that by virtue of being a leader, ethics are implied and required. When one accepts the mantle of leader, one should accept that ethics of responsibility go along with it. Leaders should practice ethics and virtues until they become masters in the area. Dobel (1998) wraps up the theory as virtue ethics and states that all of these are under the broader heading of prudence. “Prudence requires that leaders be willing to rethink actions and confront the problems as well as the good of their actions.”

Zajac (1996) states that laws, codes, and regulations (external controls) are the most effective way to apply ethical behavior in the public sector. However, the study does admit that this system is contributing to the ethical failure as well. The study states, in an offhanded dismissive way, internal controls such as training and having self-directed individuals in the public sector as possible solutions.

Commissioner Shergold credited The Public Service Act and the Workplace Relations Bill for the positive changes in Australia. Under these acts, character of public service, public good, public intent, and citizenry were defined positively. Honesty, integrity and ethics are expected of every public servant. (Shergold, 1996) It is Commissioner Shergold’s view that public servants are working hard to do the right and ethical thing despite their constant challenges and opportunities.

The Zajac (1996) study lists the history of external controls dating back to the Civil Post-Employment Statute of 1972 though present. The study lists references that support the theory that laws, codes, and regulations are the best way to enforce ethics for public servants. Zajac also referred to his 1994 study of organizational ethics in which he contributed “to a survey instrument designed to probe and measure the nature and strength of organization learning in response to ethics failure in country health departments in the eastern United States” (1994).

The Shergold article was based on a presentation to a public service conference in Brisbane. It was a presentation based Shergold’s personal experience as Commissioner of Public Service.

Zajac (1996) suggested classes in ethics, codes of ethics for professional associations, and inquiries into the different levels of ethics failures were potential solutions to the internal controls. The external control failures were mentioned in broad areas. Historical studies were also referenced in this study.

Shergold (1997) presented a well planned, positive paper on the challenges and opportunities of public service, public intent, and public servants working with private citizens, all for the public good. It is Shergold’s theory that “a public service which serves customers rather than a community, and which fails to recognize [sic] its distinctive responsibilities, has lost its way.”

All articles agreed in that ethics and moral virtues are important in the field of public service. They also agreed that public service leaders should be held to a higher standard and should work toward a master of virtue ethics. One of the authors, Dobel (1998) calls this self-mastery of virtue ethics prudence. Dobel states that as a leader one should overcome temptation and anger outbursts and concentrate on traits that will instill trust from his or her followers. Ethics, virtues, prudence, and self-mastery of these traits are important to all public leaders. These traits should be worked on consistently until the appear to fit the leaders like a glove. Living with a strong sense of ethics, virtue, and prudence is an important step in living a life in balance.


Dobel, J. 1997. Political Prudence and the Ethics of Leadership, Public Administration Review, January/February 1998. Vol. 58. No 1. URL Retrieved on January 21, 2003.

Shergold, P., 1996. Ethics and the Changing Nature of Public Service. Australian Journal of Public Administration. Mar97, Vol. 56, Issue 1., URL Retrieved on January 21, 2003.

Zajic, G., 1996. Beyond Hammurabi: A Public Service Definition of Ethics Failure, Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory, Jan96, Vol. 6, Issue 1, URL Retrieved on January 21, 2003.


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Dr. Sheila Embry is a govie, author, pracademician, sister, aunt, cousin, and friend who loves to read, write, think, and laugh. Many of her blog postings are summaries or excerpts of books that she read and wants to share to encourage others. An author with more than 25 years experience within the legislative and executive branches of the U. S. federal government holding 3 accredited degrees: Doctor of Management in Organizational Leadership, Master of Arts in Human Resources Development, and Baccalaureate of Business Administration, she believes in continuing learning both on and off the job. She has been recognized with multiple professional and writing awards for her peer-reviewed, publications. Click the bibliography page above for a listing of all the publications.

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