Last Updated 17 May 2021

Developing Ethical Leadership

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There is no standard definition of the term ethical leader, but in business its most common justification is given as, a leader with good character and strong values, having the potential to resist any temptation that he might face on his way. Nevertheless, the significance of a good character and strong values cannot be denied, but the complexities in ethical leadership are far much in reality with a high rate of stakes. To lead an organization in this changing global environment of competition, technological advancements and decentralization is a herculean task.

Often, executives are considered to only have a lust for organizational profits and their own compensations. But, the true picture is seemingly different. Most of the executives have an objective to be effective to their fullest possible extent, and to make their organizations and the world better by creating value for all the people who are affected by them. As stated by Edward F and Lisa S. (2006) True leaders consider their cohorts as not only the people who follow them but they also look at them as the people who are striving to serve the same objective which they have.

These people establish their own individuality and autonomy which needs to be respected so that a moral community can be maintained. In order to evaluate a leader, one must consider all the things that are related to him directly or indirectly, these things may include the leader’s cohorts, the scenarios which these people face, the leader’s skills and procedures and finally the results that orients from these set of procedures. A genuine leader is one whose values, purposes and visions are for the benefits of his entire organization and its main stakeholders.

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Characteristics of Ethical Leaders Ethics and values lies at different standards for executives and managers in today’s turbulent world. However, a common framework can be provided which can help in the development of ethical leadership. It will help leaders to understand the number of facets ethical leadership has apart from being just a matter of good character and strong values. The most important characteristics of an ethical leader are as follows:

  1. Ethical Leaders Communicate and Personifies the Values of the Organization: Leaders may only tell the employees about the values of the organization but ethical leaders actually personify these values making themselves a role model for the employees to follow. For instance, L. O’Brien and Landon T. (2004) stated that the CEO of Citigroup Japan, Chuck Prince fired a number of employees in 2004; these employees were involved in a series of unethical activities. Not only this, the CEO personally apologized in front of the Japanese officials. This act of the CEO not only echoed around Japan but also set a new example for the employees within the organizational culture, that all of them are accountable for the decisions they take which can affect the organization by any means.
  2. Focus on Organizational Goals Rather Than on Their Own Self : Ethical leaders understand that their place is important, i. e. not as an individual but as the person who have to have the sense of responsibility about the organizational values, goals and so on. They also realize that the values of the organization are for the betterment of the employees. The best example in this regard is of JetBlue airways, the founders of the airline, by beginning a process of matching employee donations according to their salaries, today, the entire salaries go the JetBlue Crewmember Catastrophic plan charity, to assist the employees with calamities that are not insured. This contributed to employee loyalty leading to the uncountable success of the organization.
  3. Find and Develop the Best People : Ethical leaders pay more attention in finding people and developing them accordingly because they think of it morally crucial. Finding people who are simply the best requires the proper assessment of a candidate in the selection procedure. Moreover, assessing a candidate’s integrity is way more significant from the evaluation of his skills and competence.
  4. Create Mechanism of Dissent : Realizing their power by the virtue of their position, is not something many of the executives have within them. People will follow what they think is legitimate; this authority trap needs to be broken. In order to do so, there must be an established and unambiguous push back mechanism for the employees. Some executives usually go down a number of levels in the organization to see what really is going around. In this regard, General Electric’s famous workout program provided the frontline employees with a way to push back against the conventional policies and authority of management.
  5. Frame Actions from the Perspective of Ethics: Ethical leaders considers their leadership as an ethical task and this involves taking the right claims of other’s i. e. considering the effect of one’s deed on the other. They also want to understand how they can be influential in effecting the character of others. The ethical leaders are not immoral themselves; it’s just that their values turn out to be a poor guide for them. However, ethical leaders always takes the responsibility of taking moral judgments but, there goes a prudence here, it is very easy to term certain actions as ethical and become righteous in the eyes of others.

As difference in values, principles and cultures may cause a conflict; ethical leadership requires an attitude that is modest rather than righteous, that is, having a commitment to one’s own principles while being open to learn new things and have conversations with people having a different view about the world. Becoming an Ethical Leader Becoming an ethical leader is a simple task. It just requires answering a series of questions that will examine one’s commitment to his values, behavior and the courage of accepting the responsibility his actions that may affect someone in any way.

Also, ethical leaders take the responsibility of their actions on their employees, suppliers, stakeholders and above all the customers. One must ask him/herself the following questions in order to become an ethical leader: What are the values and principles that are most significant to me? Does my personality reflect these values? What do my peers and sub ordinates say about my values? Have I designed any pushback mechanism for the people who work under me? How should people remember my leadership when I am gone?

Apart from these questions, there are few more that one must answer in order to become an ethical leader, if the answers to these questions reflect your values and your behavior, tells you about your reputation among the employees and your peers, then you must be able to reassess yourself on the basis of these answers. If they turn out to be in your favor then you might have the capability of becoming an ethical leader, but the main thing to remember is to follow your conscience (Bonner, 2007). Impediments to Show Ethics in Leadership According to Reilly, E. C. (2006) often the consideration of obstacles that may arise in the way of ethical leadership teaches a great lesson. In order to create the successors of ethical leadership in organizations, leaders must train the employees and themselves to overcome these obstacles. They should encourage the employees to ask them whatever they feel is obstructing them in following the values. Following are a few of the impediments that ethical leaders may come across:

  • Lack of guts and independence of thought: this might be due to lack of confidence in employees as well as in leaders
  •  Lack of imagination: It occurs when leaders cannot see their way through to solutions that are ethically better.
  • Staleness: It is one of the major reason that hinder leaders to act ethically, this is something which occurs when the leader is on the same job for too long and do not see any further creativity in it.

The absence of form dedication required for ethical leadership is also an important factor leading to staleness. Developing Ethical Leadership There are some crucial steps which an organization needs to consider for developing best ethical leaders. It is a global frame work in which most of the businesses operate now a day.

Standsbury, J. (2009) argued that the first step is to initiate a conversation about how the stakeholders are benefited by the organization and about the understanding of the values that are in the organizational culture. This conversation does not needs to be a formal one, it could be as short as a moment of ethics in very board meeting during which the ethics of the organization will be discussed and any further changes or reinforcement of the values may be viewed in that ethics moment, or it could be about how appropriately the meeting was designed according to the company values.

Many organizations conduct leadership developmental programs. These are of great importance, but the element of ethical leadership should also be included in it so that it would be easier for the executives as well as the employees to understand the organizational values. It can also include the employee’s perspective of ethical leadership. Executives can share the information with employees about how ethical leadership can be put into practice in their respective organization. Conclusion Ethical leadership must be demonstrated on all levels of the organization.

Not only the executives, but all the employees must have the knowledge about the organizational values and they must be behaving in accordance. As for Ethical leadership’s conventional view of only earning organizational profits and increasing production has now become obsolete, one must understand that organizational leaders also have the responsibility of maintaining the organizational standards of ethical and moral conducts. Moreover, good leaders are not only competent but they also follow organizational values and act ethically as well as transform people in accordance to their ethical needs.


  1. Bonner, W. (2007). Locating a space for ethics to appear in decision-making: Privacy as an exemplar. Journal of Business Ethics, 70, 221-234.
  2. Edward F. and Lisa S. (2006), “Developing Ethical Leadership”, Institute for Corporate Ethics.
  3. L. O’Brien and Landon T. (2004), “It’s Cleanup Time at Citi,” The New York Times.
  4. Reilly, E. C. (2006). The future entering: Reflections on and challenges to ethical leadership. Educational Leadership and Administration, 18, 163-173.
  5. Standsbury, J. (2009). Reasoned Moral Agreement: Applying discourse ethics within organizations. Business Ethics Quarterly. 19(1), 33-56.

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