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What is Ethical Leadership: How to be an Ethical Leader

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What is Ethical Leadership: How to be an Ethical Leader

What is Ethical Leadership? We are constantly witnessing unethical behavior on the part of a business or political leaders around the world. These are leaders who act deliberately to the detriment of large groups of consumers or society as a whole.

More than obvious is the need for the so-called "Ethical leadership", i.e. leaders who follow certain ethical rules and do not compromise with them. Various studies have shown that ethical leaders make their followers more loyal, gain their trust, inspire them to do good, and in turn make them more ethical.

Let's take a closer look at this topic.

What is Ethical leadership?

Ethical leadership is leadership behavior that adheres to certain principles and values ​​and is recognized by the majority as a solid foundation for the common good.

Most often, ethical leadership is associated with principles and values ​​such as honesty, integrity, fairness, trust, transparency, and respect.

Ethical leadership should be a conscious decision. The leader should strive consciously and purposefully for ethical leadership behavior. In the absence of a conscious effort for ethical leadership, it is very easy for a leader to fall victim to his or her destructive instincts or bad habits that will lead him or her to unethical behavior and even ethical collapse.

Why is it important for a leader to be ethical?

From a collective perspective, an ethical leader inspires his followers to behave ethically. By setting a personal example of ethical behavior, others observe it and would be willing to act specially.

On a personal level, if one wants to be a successful leader, one should think long-term and adjust to systematic and sustainable ethical behavior. Attempts to find quick solutions and achieve speculative short-term results are usually at the cost of a bad reputation, which in turn leads to missed opportunities to realize their full personal potential in the future.

6 elements of ethical leadership

Various studies of ethical leadership highlight six of its elements - principles and rules that ethical leaders follow.

These are:

  • Honesty. Ethical leaders are honest people and treat their followers and even their competitors fairly.
  • Justice. Ethical leaders treat everyone equally and condemn acts of malicious injustice and manipulation.
  • Respect. Ethical leaders respect others around them, regardless of their position. They are good listeners and show understanding of other people's points of view.
  • Integrity. Ethical leaders are consistent people whose words match their actions. They do not limit themselves to general talk but act in defense of what they say.
  • Responsibility. Ethical leaders are responsible and proactive people with an internal locus of control who act within their means to bring about the change they want.
  • Transparency. Ethical leaders communicate transparently with all stakeholders and are ready for open dialogue, receiving feedback, and disclosing information.

How to become an ethical leader?

Here are some steps that should be taken by any leader who wants to become an ethical leader:

Clarify your values. The ethical leader is aware of his values. Determine which are your most cherished values, for example, the Top 5 of the values ​​you believe in the most. These personal values ​​of yours form the backbone of your value system and it would be difficult for you to compromise with them.

Clarify the values ​​of your organization. Whether you are a business leader or even a political leader, the organization you lead also has some values ​​that shape its organizational culture. These values ​​should be communicated clearly and consistently to all members of the organization. Make values ​​visible.

Be a role model. When you are aware of personal and organizational values, start creating an appropriate environment for your followers in the organization by setting the right tone for the action.

People will adapt their behavior according to their behavior, and they in turn will be role models for other people around them.

Everyone in the organization must be aware of the consequences of behavior that is contrary to the norms of ethical behavior that result from values.

Works with ethical people. The people you choose to work with - employees, suppliers, partners - will send impactful signals to the world around you as a leader and what you believe in. Choose your people wisely according to the three key personality traits.

Never ask your people to act unethically. Such action will instantly ruin your reputation as an ethical leader and create demotivation and/or a cynical attitude towards work.

Be brave. An ethical leader may face daily difficult situations or moral dilemmas in which he must make bold and unpopular decisions.

Courage is an important virtue associated with emotional and physical forces that motivate a person to take action to achieve his intentions and allow him to overcome difficulties and obstacles.

It must be cultivated consciously with the right thoughts, the right actions, and the right attitude towards the world around us.

In summary

Ethical leadership is a leadership behavior that adheres to certain principles and values ​​and is recognized by the majority as a solid foundation for the common good.

In real life, ethics and leadership do not always go hand in hand. This can bring certain benefits to unethical leaders, but it corrupts, demotivates, or repulses their followers, and is not a testament to high leadership skills. Read more: Manager or Leader: What are the differences and similarities.

One of the reasons so many people are interested in the ethical aspects of leadership is the high potential for abuse of power.

Another reason is the declining public trust in business leaders and community leaders, fueled by recurring public scandals promoted by the media.

The issue of ethics in leadership is very relevant in Bulgaria due to the constant news about abuses of power, abuse of office, and corrupt practices.

Despite the growing interest in ethical leadership, there is considerable disagreement about its proper definition and evaluation.

The main aspect of leadership is influence, and influential leaders can make a significant contribution to the lives of their followers and the fate of the organization.

According to Gini (1998), the main question is not whether leaders use power, but whether they use it wisely and for good. Leaders can use their power to grow their careers and improve their economic well-being at the expense of members of the organization and society.

Leaders need to be ethical and moral

It is important for leaders to be ethical and moral because nowadays they are required to act as transformational leaders to be more satisfied with their followers and achieve higher results.

Transformational leaders become role models for their followers, they encourage their followers to use creativity, and imagination and put maximum effort into their work.

However, the ethics of these leaders is often questioned, as they may not aim for the good of their followers, but personal gain, for example. Another important point is that when leaders are more morally elevated, their followers also become more moral (Burns, 1978).

Difficulty in assessing the ethics of leaders

Difficulty in assessing the ethics of leaders is the objectivity in determining the evaluation criteria, as well as their relative importance. Several criteria are used to assess leaders and their morality: their values, level of moral development, conscious intentions, freedom of choice, ethical or unethical behavior, and the types of influence used.

Assessments of the ethics of action usually include the goal, the extent to which the action is in line with moral norms (means), and the consequences for the individual and society (the result). The three criteria are usually considered concerning each other, and the usual question is to what extent the goal justifies the means.

Moral standards for valuing resources include the extent to which a leader's behavior violates basic social laws, denies the rights of others, endangers the health and lives of others, or involves attempts to exploit others for personal gain. Examples of behavior that is considered unethical are:

Falsifying information, stealing goods for personal use, blaming others for personal mistakes, provoking unnecessary hostility and mistrust among others, selling secrets to competitors, favoritism in response to bribes, as well as showing aggressive behavior that can hurt others.

The "crisis of leadership" and the social notion of moral leadership

Leader and morality, ethics, and leadership are words that we interpret inseparably. Many of the key themes that reveal the nature of leadership have moral content: relationships, authenticity, influence, impact, ethos, responsibility, altruism, authenticity, and loyalty.

"Ethics is the heart of leadership" - the title of J.'s work. Ciulla is both a magnetic maxim and a provable thesis (Ciulla, 2014).

Some concepts have been discredited as scientific terms because they have been used by political leaders (temporary) and circulated in their doctrines. Alas, among them are word combinations such as moral leadership, multiculturalism, and ethics.

When the media "living" sphere does not give examples of leadership, this discredits the meaning of the term. Leadership in public civil service has always been important for the social notion of moral leadership.

Applied ethics specialist S. Bok writes that “moral leadership comes first from people in the public sphere” (Bok, 2011). This is a centuries-old tradition: in Europe, it also comes from Aristotle, who argued that government officials have an important role in educating citizens.

The line is continued by Machiavelli, after whom both Jesuit maxims and psychological constructs related to leadership qualities are named: Machiavellianism is an important personality trait for leadership potential.

Over the last two decades, the finding of a major crisis in public leadership has been repeated in various contexts.

The crisis of leadership in our institutions is the most immediate and dangerous threat facing the world today, as leadership is insufficiently understood, writes W. Bennis - one of the most cited authors on the subject (Bennis, 2009).

However, in such a social environment, new interdisciplinary problems of moral leadership arise, which have crystallized in global communication.

They can be expressed and understood in the border area between applied ethics and cross-cultural research. In this article, an attempt was made to clarify conceptually and based on critically summarized consulting experience specific aspects of moral leadership in the context of cross-cultural ethics.

Possibilities of concepts and models, insufficiently included in leadership research and coming from business ethics, organizational ethics, and intercultural communications, are highlighted.

The first step, however, is to look at the language, at the peculiarities of the expression that contains the words moral leadership.

A matter of leadership: what hinders ethics?

Organizational language and erroneous messages in communications are neglected aspects in researching and learning ethical behavior in business.

On the one hand, morality and ethics are "junk", understandable to any member of homo sapiens. On the other hand, common phrases or banalities have become an essential part of the everyday language of managers and company trainers.

These arguments were first put forward by organizational consultant M. Evans (2009), one of the founders of Cultureship, a team that supports an organizational culture based on ethics. To achieve such a goal, one must start by talking to managers.

They often use trivial phrases to explain problematic situations in their work, which can be called differently - clichés or stencils, an ie. pattern that follows automatically. Organizational issues are expressed through superficial non-significant and overly generalizing expressions.

Such common words and phrases are used to explain failures, bankruptcies, and minor failures. According to M. Evans, a "decisive correction of vicious managerial language" is needed (Evans, 2009).

Trivial explanations of daily failures hinder ethical communication in business. It opposes a concrete and public discussion of how to reach the "high levels" of ethical standards set out in the codes, from an everyday life full of aggression and pressure, dictated by "here and now" decisions that bring revenue and recognition.

The use of stencils in explaining failures is a sign that there is a gap between the floors in a business organization.

"It's all a matter of management" is a banal statement

Examples of trivial statements are judgments such as "it's all a matter of management", and "there are problems in leadership, in management style, in leadership".

They do not describe the specific difficulties and set aside the real complexity of the problem and the way out of it. And one more important thing - the messages are unaddressed.

The reason for the attachment to stencil phrases is their truthfulness. Vague and unequivocally unambiguous problems of organizational everyday life make us use labels like: "This is a lack of leadership", and "there is no good communication".

There is a strong desire to make a quick diagnosis. With different perceptions of people (managers, employees, outsiders) about the problem situation and how to deal with it, banal judgment is a way to generalize meaning that is understandable to all.

By using examples of organizational dialogue, it is possible to illustrate a more precise reconstruction and correct understanding of the problem situation.

Banal "diagnoses" stop communication. When the "diagnosis" (identification of the problem situation) is limited to generalized findings of the boss, then the phrase "It is about leadership" comes to the rescue - the most commonly used universal cliché.

It is a substitute for analysis and assessment of the problem situation, to formulate and seek answers to questions: "If the problem is leadership, then more or less leadership is needed in the case of the organization?"; "Do we want leadership or just a change of leadership?" Do we want a leader? Do we need a leader who is one of us or who comes from outside?

Don't use commonplace phrases like "It's about leadership."

The less often the organization uses the banal phrase "It's about leadership", the more it can successfully deal with its problems. Leadership is the most trivial term.

The above phrase is a mantra, it is always at hand to cover up other problems. It can be used in cases such as complaints from fraudulent customers, incorrect execution of orders, frustrated suppliers, a mismatch between order and payment, incorrect payment for overtime work, as well as in other moments of frustration and dissatisfaction in the organization.

Concretizations of the hollow expression "it's about leadership" are the following most common organizational cues:

  • 1. "The boss is incompetent";
  • 2. "The boss also needs help and assistance";
  • 3. "People do not have the necessary skills";
  • 4. "Senior management does not want to be responsible (it does not care about the organization)";
  • 5. “There is no one to set an example; there is no one to ask the question openly ";
  • 6. "There is not enough interpersonal sensitivity, empathy, finesse in small things";
  • 7. "Everyone avoids direct contact with the employer (boss)";
  • 8. "No one wants (can't remember, doesn't give money for) a consultant or training";
  • 9. "No one notices the small successes (everyone sees the negative)."
  • 10. "There is only casual communication with staff, and that is the authoritarian habit of communicating through complaining and nagging, not encouraging and directing."

Leadership messages have moral content

Leadership messages are doomed to remain vague and declarative if there is no specific name. Changing the language habits of the organization is the mobilizing initial step that "with the power of moral attraction" could attract others to the desired change.

Questions and Answers

What is Ethical Leadership: How to be an Ethical Leader

Ethical leadership is a vital aspect of successful and responsible leadership. It involves leading with integrity, honesty, and a strong moral compass, prioritizing the well-being of individuals, the organization, and the broader community. In this article, we explore the concept of ethical leadership and provide practical tips on how to become an ethical leader.

What does ethical leadership entail?

Ethical leadership goes beyond achieving business goals and focuses on doing what is right, just, and fair. Ethical leaders demonstrate transparency, humility, and a commitment to ethical decision-making. They inspire trust and respect among their team members and stakeholders by consistently upholding ethical standards.

How can ethical leaders promote ethical behavior within their organizations?

Ethical leaders play a crucial role in promoting ethical behavior within their organizations. They lead by example, modeling ethical conduct and values in their actions and decisions. Additionally, they establish clear ethical guidelines, encourage open communication, and provide support for employees facing ethical dilemmas. By fostering a culture of ethics, ethical leaders empower their teams to make principled choices.

What are the benefits of ethical leadership in organizations?

Ethical leadership offers several benefits to organizations. Firstly, it cultivates a positive work environment, fostering employee satisfaction and engagement. Secondly, it enhances the organization's reputation and credibility, leading to increased stakeholder trust and loyalty. Moreover, ethical leadership contributes to long-term sustainability and resilience, as ethical decisions often result in better long-term outcomes.

How can leaders ensure ethical decision-making?

To ensure ethical decision-making, leaders should regularly evaluate choices through an ethical lens. They can employ ethical frameworks, such as the "golden rule" or the "utilitarian principle," to assess the consequences and impacts of their decisions on various stakeholders. Seeking input from diverse perspectives and consulting with ethical experts can also aid in making well-informed and ethical choices.

What role does emotional intelligence play in ethical leadership?

Emotional intelligence is essential for ethical leadership as it enables leaders to understand and manage their emotions and those of others effectively. Empathy, a key component of emotional intelligence, helps leaders consider the feelings and perspectives of others, leading to more compassionate and ethical decision-making.

How can ethical leaders navigate ethical dilemmas effectively?

Ethical leaders can navigate ethical dilemmas effectively by adhering to their core values and principles. They should consider potential consequences and the impact of their decisions on various stakeholders. Seeking advice from ethical mentors or consulting with the organization's ethics committee can provide valuable guidance when facing complex dilemmas.

What are the key traits of an ethical leader?

Key traits of an ethical leader include integrity, humility, transparency, accountability, and a commitment to fairness. Ethical leaders are authentic in their actions and interactions, and they prioritize the well-being of their team members and stakeholders over personal gains.

Can ethical leadership be developed and cultivated?

Yes, ethical leadership can be developed and cultivated through continuous self-awareness and learning. Leaders can participate in ethics training, seek feedback from colleagues, and actively engage in ethical discussions to enhance their ethical decision-making abilities.

How can ethical leaders address ethical misconduct within their organizations?

Ethical leaders must address ethical misconduct promptly and impartially. They should investigate any violations of ethical standards thoroughly and apply appropriate consequences, while also ensuring support and guidance for those involved in the misconduct to prevent future incidents.

Navigating Ethical Leadership: A 10-Year Journey

Over the past two decades, my career has been defined by a commitment to ethical leadership. It has been a challenging yet rewarding journey, filled with lessons, growth, and moments that have shaped my perspective on leadership. In this reflection, I will share a personal story that encapsulates the essence of ethical leadership and the principles that have guided me throughout my career.

The Early Years

My journey into ethical leadership began when I was a young manager at a technology startup. The company was thriving, but its success came at a price. Pressure to cut corners, maximize profits, and overlook ethical concerns was palpable. It was during this time that I faced a pivotal moment that would set the tone for my leadership philosophy.

The Dilemma

One day, I discovered that a product we were about to release had a serious security flaw. The engineering team wanted to push it out anyway to meet a tight deadline. My superiors were eager to please investors and didn't want any delays. It was a moral dilemma that tested my commitment to ethical leadership.

My Decision

After careful consideration, I decided to speak up. I brought the issue to my superiors, explaining the risks and potential consequences to our customers. It was not an easy conversation. I faced resistance and criticism, but I knew that sacrificing ethics for short-term gains would erode our long-term success.

The Outcome

Ultimately, the product release was delayed, and we invested extra resources in fixing the security issue. It was a tough period, but the experience taught me invaluable lessons. Our reputation remained intact, and our customers appreciated our commitment to their safety. This incident solidified my belief that ethical leadership is not just about making the right choices but also about championing those choices, even when it's difficult.

Lessons Learned

Over the years, I continued to encounter ethical challenges in various forms. Through these experiences, I honed my approach to ethical leadership:

Lead by Example: I realized that ethical leadership starts with setting a strong example. If I expected my team to uphold high ethical standards, I needed to demonstrate those standards in my own behavior.

Communication is Key: Open and transparent communication is essential. Whether it's addressing ethical concerns, sharing values, or explaining decisions, fostering a culture of communication builds trust.

Long-Term Vision: Ethical leadership requires a focus on long-term goals and sustainability. Short-term gains can lead to long-term losses, while ethical decisions often pay dividends in the future.

Resilience: Ethical leaders must be prepared to face resistance and adversity. Upholding ethical principles may not always be popular, but it is the right path.

Continuous Learning: Ethical leadership is not static. It evolves with changing contexts and new challenges. Staying informed and adapting is crucial.


Two decades of practicing ethical leadership have shaped me into the leader I am today. My commitment to ethics has not only guided my decisions but has also inspired those around me. While the journey has been marked by challenges, it has been deeply fulfilling, knowing that I have contributed to a workplace culture built on integrity, trust, and a long-term vision for success. Ethical leadership is not just a professional choice; it's a way of life that brings immense satisfaction and, ultimately, sustainable success.

About the author

Amelia Williams, Senior Writer at Business Value-Oriented Principles

Amelia Williams is a respected Human Resources Consultant at the Australian Chamber of Career Development. Amelia has created numerous teams and established career development for all her colleagues in the last 6 years as a Human Resources Manager. In her free time, she teaches voluntarily in various institutions.

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