We may not always refer to celebrities as leaders, but we associate many leadership traits with their celebrity status. In recent weeks we have all watched as one of our beloved celebrity leaders was catapulted into a new starring role. This time he commands your attention as the protagonist of yet another a mind-numbing reality series chronicling the questionable social behaviors of celebrities and their faux friends. Perhaps we don’t consider celebrities leaders because we often regulate our thoughts of leadership to organizational contexts. However, leadership is a social phenomenon that can be examined in any environment with human engagement. For this Emmy-caliber series that examines the sexually predatory behaviors of a man with means, let us focus on Cosby as the leader.
Heathcliff Huxtable: Our Eight-Year Commercial about a Man Playing an Ethical Leader in a Sitcom
Heathcliff Huxtable personified ethical leadership. By definition, he regularly demonstrated appropriate behavior through personal actions and interpersonal relationships. [i] As the patriarch of the family, he navigated the seven dimensions of ethical leadership with ease. He was fair. He was a man of integrity. He provided ethical guidance. He had an affinity for people and the community at large. He clarified roles. He shared power.[ii] He operated from an ethical leadership zone – a space on the leadership spectrum in which leaders have the best interest of others[iii] at heart and positively influence others’ self-efficacy, moral identity, optimism, and social responsibility. From 1984 until 1992, we all watched the cascading effect of Dr. Huxtable’s ethical leadership as it influenced the lives of his peers, his children, their friends, and our own households.
A Spotlight on Unethical Leadership: The Real Mitches[iv] of Hollywood starring Bill Cosby
This new age Cosby reality show, did not cast a Huxtable-like protagonist. Instead, they shopped us a story of a leader endowed with wealth and power. Both give the leader access to an array people, pleasures, and resources. Yet those endowments also increase the likelihood of unethical conduct, self-serving behavior, and exploitation.[v] To that script let us add a group of participants who have thus far failed to exercise their collective voice – Cosby’s friends, hereafter referred to as the Mitch Circle. In fact, for most of us, the social learning curve relative to leadership begins long before we immerse ourselves in organizations with co-workers. We begin exploring our personal and interpersonal leadership behaviors within our networks of friends. In the leadership discourse, circles of friends are merely social networks in which no formal leadership exists. In this case, the Mitch Circle is a self-managing group in which members fluidly assume roles, responsibilities, and leadership positions.[vi] They operate against a backdrop of ethical neutrality in which moral character is assumed, but without the emergence of an ethical leader, group members simply improvise. [vii] In the absence of ethical leadership members of the Mitch Circle engage in activities that protect their in-group status and affiliation with the star. They withhold relevant information from the public. They deny knowledge of the star’s transgressions. They adopt codes of silence. They enact all of these pro-group unethical behaviors to avoid social exclusion. [viii] In essence, a Mitch Circle will adopt an empty group conscientiousness, enabling an unethical leader to crush the collective voice in order to protect their privilege.[ix]
The Huxtable-Cosby Continuum: A Lesson in Ethical Leadership
Leadership behavior fascinates because it lives on a spectrum. Consequently, we cannot simply characterize someone as an ethical leader or not. Individuals can exhibit Huxtable-like traits of ethical leadership in some situations and at others times embody the Cosby mitch we have come to hate. Examining celebrity leadership under the guise of ethics transforms our admiration for one man and his comedy into our lament of a Shakespearian-like tragedy. The same educated man who gave us Fat Albert, the Cosby Show, A Different World, Cosby, and the largest single donation to an HBCU of its time has also given us fifteen years of drug-induced sexual assault allegations and at least 35 faces of victimization.
Ethical leadership manifests at the intersection of the moral person and the moral persona. Connecting to your inner Huxtable promotes upward mobility in your life and the lives of others around you. Reinforcing the darker side of your leadership continuum with a social circle that enables your inner Cosby can be tragic for you, those mitches, and at least 35 others. Where do your person and your persona intersect?
[i][i] Brown, M. E., Trevino, L. K., & Harrison, D. (2005). Ethical leadership: A social learning perspective for construct development and testing. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes. 97, 117-134.
[ii] Kalshoven, K., Den Hartog, D. N., & De Hoogh, A. H. B. (2011). Ethical leadership at work questionnaire (ELW): Development and validation of a multidimensional measure. The Leadership Quarterly, 22, 51-60.
[iii][iii] Aronson, E. (2001). Integrating leadership styles and ethical perspectives. Canadian Journal of Administrative Services, 18, 244-257.
[iv][iv] Slang for a man who acts like a bitch. Term made popular by comedian Kevin Hart.
[v] De Hoogh, A. H., & Den Hartog, D. N. (2009). Ethical leadership: The socially responsible use of power. Power and Interdependence in Organizations, 338-385,
[vi] Cote, S., Lopes, P. Salovey, P. Minors, C. (2010). Emotional intelligence and leadership emergence in small groups. The Leadership Quarterly, 21(3), 496-508.
[vii] Trevino, L. K., Brown, M., & Hartman, L.P. (2003). A qualitative investigation of perceived executive ethical leadership: Perspectives from inside and outside the executive suite. Human Relations, 55, 5-37.
[viii] Thau, S., Derfler-Rozin, R., Pitesa, M., Mitchell, M., Pillutla, M. (2014). Unethical for the sake of the group: Risk of social exclusion and pro-group unethical behavior. Journal of Applied Psychology, in press (1), 98-113.
[ix][ix] Walumbwa, F. O., Morrison, E. W., & Christensen, A. L. (2012). Ethical leadership and group in-role performance: The mediating roles of group conscientiousness and group voice. The Leadership Quarterly, 23(5), 953-964.