How do top representatives exercise ethical leadership in the context of public apologies? This paper examines public apologies made by corporate and government leaders for organizational wrongdoing. Conducting qualitative case-research, our deductive inquiry demonstrates that ethical leadership strategies that have been formulated for organizational contexts are utilized in the public arena and adapted to meet the particular demands of this context. We also inductively derive four aggregate strategies that leaders employ: “articulating values in relation to past and future”; “defining the wrongdoing”; “constructing moral communities” and “differentiating responsibilities”. We discuss the findings vis-à-vis the body of literature on ethical leadership, and identify some thorny ethical issues for further investigation.
A decade ago, Brown and Treviño (2006, p. 595) argued that the field of “ethical leadership remains largely unexplored, offering researchers opportunities for new discoveries and leaders opportunities to improve their effectiveness.” Since then, much scholarship has sought to understand the notion of ethical leadership and unravel its workings, whether through efforts to conceptualize the phenomenon or empirical explorations of its manifestations. Underlying many studies, including this one, are the assumptions that norms and values guide actions and that we can study leaders' actions in order to identify and reveal these norms and values—for example, by investigating the decisions that they make in stressful situations (Selart & Johansen, 2011) or the way they deal with potential conflicts of interest (Ritvo, Ohlsen, & Holland, 2004). Public apologies—those instances when leaders, on behalf of the organizations that they represent, acknowledge responsibility for violating a moral norm and express regret—are particularly revealing actions. Yet, such apologies have received surprisingly little attention in the field of ethical leadership, despite their increasing frequency over the last decades (Gibney, Howard-Hassmann, Coicaud, & Steiner, 2008; Maclachan, 2010). Most news consumers could easily cite a few examples in recent memory. In 2009, for example, Toyota's president apologized in the Japanese National Press Club for a fatal crash that led to the recall of close to 4 million cars (Tabichi & Maynard, 2009). In 2010, British Petroleum (BP) CEO Tony Hayward apologized for the Gulf oil spill in a video advertisement. He referred to it as “a tragedy that never should have happened” and said that he was “deeply sorry” (BP, 2010). In 2008, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd apologized in Parliament for laws and policies that inflicted “profound grief, suffering, and loss” to Aboriginal peoples (Australian Government, 2008). His successor offered government apologies in 2013 for past policies that encouraged unwed mothers to give up their babies for adoption to married couples. In 2015, in a video statement on YouTube, the CEO of Volkswagen said he was sorry for cheating to evade emissions compliance standards for some diesel-fueled car models (Volkswagen, 2015). Apologies are relevant to the study of ethical leadership for at least three reasons. First, they are moral acts in the sense that they intend “to restore conflicts and somehow restore an antecedent moral order” of which both offender and victims are part, but which has been violated (Tavuchis, 1991, p. 113). (The terms ethical and moral are interchangeable in this paper.) Through apologies, leaders publicly re-subscribe to the moral principles that have been violated. In doing so, they have to make judgments about the nature and scope of the violation and the exact principles underlying the wrong, while considering the political, legal, and financial consequences of those judgments. For example, does a Dutch government representative apologizing for postcolonial misdeeds express regret for all the postcolonial atrocities that the Dutch army committed in Indonesia, or does he single out a few especially violent excesses? While the first option might inspire moral praise from Indonesian addressees the latter might be a prudent hedge against a massive number of potential claims for financial compensation.