Ethics and Leadership

Leadership is not a family legacy or a genetic gift, it is a kill you can only gain from practice. Becoming a leader means you must have the will to say “yes” or “no” for each decision-making moment you are involved, then be able to take responsibility for all the possible outcomes. It is critical for the leaders to make a good decision because it will not only define the leader’s value, character and leadership styles, but also have an impressive impact on the team, the organization, the country, most importantly, the people get related.

image:Hitler vs Gandhi, source:

When we talk about leadership, we talk about power, the power that comes from being a leader could be used for bad as well as good. Ethical burden, from this point of view, plays an important role in limiting the abuse of power. To be more specific, leadership ethics is the heart of leadership, leaders will try to cast “light” not “shadow” in making ethical decisions. We usually use the very unpleasant comparison between Hitler and Gandhi when we try to show how different leadership style shaped the world history and the lives of people. Clearly, they are both leaders and have the influence to lead their people towards a common goal, however, the big difference of their leadership is the ethics they upheld. One bought the light to drive away all the darkness that surround people, the other on the opposite, spread the fear, shadowed the world with his absolute power.

The ethical dilemma didn’t only exist in history, it exists at present, and we need to constantly deal with them in the future. It is critical to learn how to think and act ethically, especially as a leader, you may have the power to affect but you also must make sure to use it in a right and good way. Instead of presenting the ethical issues with big themes such as wars and movements, I will focus on one of the controversial characters in the classic TV show Grey’s Anatomy.

It has been a long journey since this American medical drama television series premiered in 2005, with the high popularity among the audience, it had come to its fifteenth season this year.

(picture of Grey’s Anatomy, source:

In the latest episode of this show, Grey’s Anatomy, again, brings the audience to explore a difficult ethical question: how to make a good and right call? It is a big surprise to the audience that Alex Karev, the person who is deemed as “not a leader material” has been assigned to be the intern chef of the hospital. With Alex’s typical negative attitude, temper and rudeness, he found out that problems and situations are so complicated that can’t simply be solved in an Alex way.

A guy was rescued from a fire, and when he was sent into the hospital, his pre-existing disease on the lung went worse after the smoke inhalation. His doctor Alex, under this circumstance, told the patient that a surgeryis necessary to cut off the bleb in his lung or he might be in danger anytime when it bursts. However, the patient can’t afford the surgery fees without the cover of insurance since it is not an “emergency situation”, that is to say, the insurance can’t be active until the bleb bursts.

Alex was stuck in an ethical dilemma, and it seems there is only one way to go: approve the request of the patient as the patient owns the right to refuse treatment. Yes, it is a right decision, but considering it will put the patient’s life in a danger, this is not a good call from a good doctor, our character eventually makes his own way out by stabbing the patient with a tiny needle in order to make up an “emergency situation”. As a result, the patient was sent into an emergency surgery under the name of “penetrating chest wound”.

Ethical dilemmas occur when important values come into conflict, the decision makers, mostly the leaders must make a choice between these values. In the case of Alex, justice versus mercy dilemma, equity, fairness and the application of the law conflict with care and compassion. Like each person has their unique leadership style, they have their own way to make decision, this closely relates to people’s personality and life experience.

Eventually, one of the interns report the situation to Richard (the retired chef), Alex told Richard a story that he had to steal a car to drive her sick sister to the hospital. When Richard asked him “why didn’t you just call an ambulance?” Karev didn’t answer directly, instead, he asked: “you know how much an ambulance ride costs?”

Not everyone could share the same feelings, compassion is a precious human emotion and a necessary quality that a good leader should have.

“the right or wrong? ” source: , used with permission.

It is true that the ethical issues in medical dramas can’t be exactly same as what happened in the reality. “Medical dramas only supplement and not provide the core of our education on medical ethics”. Will Alex get a pass from Medical Ethic Committee this time? Only Shonda Rhimes could know the answer. One thing could be sure, Alex did provide a good example for the application of ethical leadership, he made a good decision to help the patient get rid of the “time bomb”, however,  a further question we will ask: is this the best choice to have?

One of the Medical Ethic Committee meetings in Grey’s Anatomy, source:, used with permission

Ethical dilemma usually involves multiple stakeholders, and the outcome will be affected by uncertainty constantly. Therefore, it is important to think about the consequence and all the risks that might emerge from the process before we make a decision. We admire the moral courage that Alex presented to us and this is the charm of this character, his kindness, compassion and boldness will keep attracting the audience, but this is not enough to define a good leader.

One of the biggest risks of Alex’s decision is the patient could probably die from the unpredictable situations during the surgery, if it happens, Alex might commit a crime for forcing the patient to accept the treatment. Perhaps, one way that Alex could use is inquiry. For example, ask for the involvement of the social workers, or try to communicate with the insurance agency to see if there is any choice available for the patience to get financial help.

After all, we can’t always solve such ethical dilemmas by stabbing the patient, a careful balance must be reserve to maximize the values and assign the priorities to the decision that could make the best outcome.


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