Would you say that Steve Jobs was an ethical leader?
As stated in the earlier response, the way one answers this question is at least somewhat connected to how one defines "ethics." Many people define ethics as being similar to possessing integrity, and usually associate it with qualities such as honesty, compassion, and consistent actions on the side of what benefits society. In other words, an "ethical" person is someone who doesn't engage in hypocrisy, and who is more focused on benefiting the greater good than merely serving their own personal needs.
Having struggled with poverty in his youth, Jobs might be easily criticized for not being more of a philanthropist, given how wealthy he became. An article in the Harvard Business Review states he clearly was not much of a philanthropist, given his estimated worth at over $3 billion, as compared to technology moguls who have made similar wealth and who are known for their philanthropic actions (such as Bill Gates). One could argue this points to a lack of ethics in terms of trying to serve the greater good.
Jobs has also been criticized for a somewhat hypocritical stance on the use of personal technology by school-age children. Jobs did not allow his own children to use the iPad (arguably one of the most popular and successful of the company's products) because he wanted to limit the use of technology in the home. And yet, Jobs never made much of an attempt to speak out about what he perceived as the negative effects of personal technology effects on education or child development. Despite his personal beliefs, Jobs did not offer any public statement about the use of technology among young children. This seems problematic, given the company's sale of millions of iPads around the world to families who let their children play with them, or schools who encourage their use among young children. One possible interpretation of this seeming contradiction is that Jobs cared more about the profits of the company than about communicating his own beliefs regarding such exposure to computer devices at a young age, which might have resulted in lower sales figures. This speaks to a possible lack of integrity and ethics.
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.