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Ethical Irony and the Relational Leader: Grappling with the Infinity of Ethics and the Finitude of Practice

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  14 August 2017

Carl Rhodes
University of Technology Sydney
Richard Badham
Macquarie Graduate School of Management


Relational leadership invokes an ethics involving a leader’s affective engagement and genuine concern with the interests of others. This ethics faces practical difficulties given it implies a seemingly limitless responsibility to a set of incommensurable ethical demands. This article contributes to addressing the impasse this creates in three ways. First, it clarifies the nature of the tensions involved by theorising relational leadership as caught in an irreconcilable bind between an infinitely demanding ethics and the finite possibilities of a response to those demands. Second, it examines this ethical challenge in acknowledgement of the hierarchical discourses and power dynamics in which leadership relationships are constrained and enacted. Third, it proposes “ethical irony” as a way leaders can respond to the demand for ethics without resulting in either an escape from ethics, or being crushed by its burden. Three dimensions of ethical irony are examined: ironic perspective, ironic performance, and ironic predilection.

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Copyright © Society for Business Ethics 2017 

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