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Modern Anachronists: Ethical Leaders Will Be the Sultans of Tomorrow

Ethical leaders are modern anachronists able to navigate the intricacies of complex systems with a skillset that is both traditional as well as future centric.

Every society, nation state, and organization is regulated by a system of rules, standards, and rituals. The more complex the order and organization of their systems, the more profound the internal rules and regulations will be. When complexity increases, the degree to which information is needed and exchanged will automatically rise. Complex systems will require a stronger focus on processes as opposed to structures.

Photo: Claas Florian Engelke | Courtesy Photo
Photo: Claas Florian Engelke, Senior Principal at Korn Ferry | Courtesy Photo

Historian and anthropologist, Joseph Tainter, described the idea that within primitive societies, challenges such as resource scarcity could be resolved through expansion or migration. However, in more developed and complex societies, this approach doesn’t work. Instead, people must establish higher forms of hierarchical control, build armies, create and defend power, and develop taxation systems, institutions, and varying systems of governance. This creates a spiral of increasing complexity.

It’s true that complex structures — such as corporations or systems of government — will always engender ambiguity, distribution issues (who gets what?), interpersonal tensions, cultural challenges, and more. That is why leadership skills are of paramount importance and in high demand. The more complex a system in companies ranging from budding start-ups to major corporations, the lower the predictability of its behaviors and dynamics.

Organizations such as Petro China, Alphabet, CVS Health, or Apple harbor the potential for disorder and disorganization. That is why leadership matters — especially ethically savvy leadership. Why? Because ethical leaders are able to navigate the intricacies of complex systems with a skillset that is both traditional as well as future centric. In a way, ethical leaders are modern anachronists. Ethical leadership provides a cornerstone to navigate the ever-increasing complexity of today’s world — think omnipresence of information, competing systems of government, propaganda, and so on.

“Ethical leadership provides a cornerstone to navigate the ever-increasing complexity of today’s world — think omnipresence of information, competing systems of government, propaganda, and so on.”

Ethics are a discipline that evolved over thousands of years and were certainly not just developed in Ancient Greece. Indeed, ethics were pursued and taught all over the world, yielding idiosyncratic nuances observable when traveling the world. The manifestations of ethics are observable in the administration of justice, governance, and the way companies are run. Interestingly, these manifestations can be implicit and are not necessarily perfectly conscious.

Ethics have spawned traditions that are highly specific to a particular environment (such as a country). Many organizations contend that it is ethically right to strive for a greater number of utilities than could be achieved by any other action.

Russian-born author and philosopher Ayn Rand (Atlas Shrugged and others), who emigrated to the United States in the late 1920s, would certainly have argued that a person is to always act in her or his own interest: action is considered just only when a person’s or organization’s self-interests are pursued. The duty to abide by universal principles might be regarded as a moral principle. Furthermore, the rightness or wrongness of an action may be defined by its inherent nature and must not be compromised by ensuring consequences.

Many organizations emphasize value, or, more precisely, virtues (even though they will refrain from using this old-fashioned term in all probability) such as determination, respect, courage, empathy, or servant leadership. So, there exist various traditions in ethics, all yielding different ideals and stemming from a broad range of assumptions.

Ethical leaders are keenly aware of the seemingly competing traditions that determine perceptions of the realities surrounding us and the way in which we handle dilemmas, act, and judge emerging challenges. Furthermore, ethical leaders can explore the rightness or wrongness of an action — such as how to not compromise their values when making difficult decisions, knowing they will have to face the resulting consequences.


Five Principles of Ethical Leaders

As mentioned above, ethical leaders must be modern anachronists as they are keenly aware of these seemingly competing traditions that undermine our perception of the realities surrounding us and the way we handle dilemmas, take action, and judge emerging challenges.

Ethical leaders strive to abide by the following principles:


1. Acceptance of dilemmas

Dilemmas are ever present in life and are certainly an integral part of business reality. Such predicaments and moral quandaries in business must not be tackled with a blanket approach, but in a paradox-savvy and accepting way.

2. Conceptual detachment

Partial and temporary truths or solutions are great. Striving for universal solutions will paralyze any discussion and suffocate the freedom to experiment. Ethical leaders detach themselves from the need for accomplishment and place more emphasis on processes and generating ideas.

3. Traditional futurism

To lead effectively and with grace, ethical leaders embrace both traditional, contemporary, and future-centric approaches. To be whole and smart as a leader, these seeming contradictions ought to be overcome.

4. Non-linear and playful thinking

As Monte Python actor John Cleese once put it, creativity is a childlike mood. Non-linear thinking equates to holistic immersion in the moment. It’s the exploration of an idea not for any immediate practical purpose but just for enjoyment — engaging in non-linear play for its own sake alone.

5. Telelogical transcendentalism

To lead ethically, you are well-advised to lead and give guidance to strive for goals and future states that serve your cause. At the same time, you should never lose sight of purpose and a deeper meaning that may underpin (and possibly correct) your every action.


Essentially, leading ethically means striving toward goodness to have a positive impact on business and society alike. Ethical leaders embody an astute sense that allows them to reconcile the complexities of past and present to shape the future.


Claas Florian Engelke provides consulting services in the fields of leadership advisory, assessment, and development through Korn Ferry. He invites clients to question themselves to foster incessant learning and aspire to be the best versions of themselves. Richard B. Swegan is an author and the founder and principal consultant of ARCH Performance. With a background in human resources and safety, Rick provides consulting to a variety of organizations on the developmental needs of potential leaders. Their new book, The Practice of Ethical Leadership – Insights from Psychology and Business in Building an Ethical Bottom Line (Routledge, March 28, 2024), offers effective suggestions for developing ethical leaders. Learn more at ethicalbottomline.com.


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