The Ethics of Leadership

Here is one irrefutable fact about leadership: an organization and the bulk of the people who work in it will seldom be more ethical than the organization’s leadership. 

 

When key leaders in an organization demonstrate less than ethical behavior it gives permission for the entire organization to behave the same way. (Think Wells Fargo for a current example) 

 

Truly ethical leaders know that ethics are not a part time kind of thing. They don’t talk about business ethics or personal ethics, they simply talk and demonstrate ethics at all times. They know that you either are ethical all the time or you are not ethical. There is no in between.

 

Ethical leaders always do what’s right. There may be some dispute about exactly what “right” is but they do what they believe is right. They do it regardless of the consequences. They don’t seek popularity, they practice ethics.

 

Ethical leaders show respect for their people. They listen to them, truly listen without prejudging what they might say. They value differing points of view and when they must overrule or choose an opposing viewpoint they do so with respect and compassion. 

 

Ethical leaders know that they primarily lead by example whether they intend to or not. They understand that their people will do what the leader does far faster than they will do what the leader says. They set an ethical example in everything they do and hold high expectations that everyone in their organization will do the same.

 

Ethical leaders do not accept unethical behavior from anyone in their organization. They don’t overlook violations in an attempt to avoid confrontations. They are consistent when applying policies even when it’s inconvenient for them. 

 

Ethical leaders hold themselves accountable. They allow everyone in their organization to hold them accountable as well. They are transparent and open with their actions and in their communications. Their actions match their words…always. 


The term “ethical leader” is actually redundant. The fact is, if you’re not ethical then you may hold a position of leadership but you most certainly are not an Authentic Leader.


Ethical Leadership

This is a short post and while it might be short it is most certainly NOT sweet. Sorry about that but this is not a topic any of us can afford to sugarcoat. 

In a perfect world “ethics” and “leadership” would be redundant. You would never need to see the words “leadership” and “ethical” together because when you saw one the other would just be assumed. Unfortunately, we do not live in a perfect world.

In business, in politics, in nonprofit organizations, and even in some religious organizations, ethics is anything but a given.

No organization will have higher ethical standards than the organization’s leaders. Leaders are the model for the type of behavior that will be accepted in an organization. Leaders who merely pay lip service to the importance of ethics should expect limited attention to ethics from their people.

Leaders who want to develop high ethical standards within their organization should make certain that their people understand that ethics are more than a training program. Almost every strategy session and planning meeting should include a discussion of any potential ethical implications. Open communication and shared responsibility for an organization’s ethical behavior will create an environment of trust where people can feel safe when speaking about ethics. When ethics can be openly discussed then they become more than a class or a manual, ethics become a way of life for the organization and it’s people.

There can be no exceptions when ethics are involved. Ethical leaders don’t allow excuses; they know that when excuses come through the door ethics go out the window. Ethical standards are either absolute or there are no ethical standards. Everyone, absolutely everyone, in an organization must be held accountable. Senior leaders and high profile managers set the tone for an organization’s ethics, if the tone they set is one of allowable exceptions then exceptions may become so common that no one takes ethics seriously.

Ethical leaders understand that the influences their people experience are constantly changing and as a result they must remain on guard for any and all ethical traps that their people could fall into. When ethics become ingrained into everyday actions those “traps” are far less dangerous. 

Ethical organizations are a product of ethical leadership. If you’re concerned about the ethics of your organization then look in the mirror, the odds are you’ll find at least part of the problem looking right back at you.