Would you say that Steve Jobs was an ethical leader? 

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Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

This a challenging question.  The issue at hand would be how one can define the construction of "ethics."  From a business ethics point of view, one that is constructed on the basis of enhancing the corporation and ensuring that the brand and corporation should be viable, I think that one could view Jobs as embodying ethics.  Jobs never sought to bankrupt the company or the shareholders for his own profit.  He did not seek to liquidate the company or act in the manner of a "corporate raider."  A strong case can be made that Jobs' primary motivation as business leader was his reputation linked through the success of his company.  He acted in a manner in which the company and brand name would thrive and not suffer.  For Jobs, the continued success of Apple was his driving force, something that he acted towards with authenticity and sincerity.  Jobs believed in the ethics of his business' existence.  In this, there is ethical conduct.

Yet, an equally compelling case can be made that Jobs was not an ethical leader.  Part of this stems from the use of Foxconn labor factories in China.  When a business leader knowingly embraces labor conditions in which people die and are mistreated in the construction of products, some level of ethical questions have to be raised:


We can admire the design perfection and business acumen while acknowledging the truth: with Apple’s immense resources at his command he [Jobs] could have revolutionized the industry to make devices more humanely and more openly, and chose not to do so.

At the same time, Jobs did not embrace a fully ethical treatment of his employees.  Stories are abundant about Jobs' treatment of workers and colleagues.  Some of them feed the legend of Jobs as a tireless and driven leader who sought only the best from his staff.  Yet, another portrait can be drawn of a leader who used belittlement to gain what he wanted.  In these conditions, a fair question of Jobs' approach to ethics can be raised.  In his study about workplace leadership, Robert Sutton suggested that Jobs' ethical legacy has to be examined:  “It is troubling that there’s this notion in our culture that if you’re a winner, it’s okay to be an asshole.”   I think that the question of Jobs' ethical considerations have to be placed in the context of what ethics are.  If business ethics are defined as the loyalty that leaders have to their companies, then perhaps Jobs could be seen as adhering to these ethics.  At the same time, if ethics is defined as the manner in which one human being interacts and connects with another one, Jobs' ethical issues could be raised with viability here.

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