To be an ethical leader, it’s not enough to be an ethical person (Part 2)


This blog is the second of a two-part series on ethics in leadership. The first part can be found here. 3 minute read.

In my last blog, I argued that ethical leaders bring substantial benefits to their organisations, their employees and themselves. If we then assume this to be the case, what can organisations do to develop ethical leaders? Or, if you’re a leader yourself, what can you do to focus more on ethics in your leadership skills?

I would argue that being an ethical leader requires, first and foremost, being an ethical person. Without being an ethical person, attempts to lead ethically will be seen as hypocritical and ingenuine by employees. So, let’s start with what it means to be an ethical person.

Being an ethical person

Being an ethical person, for me, means having traits such as integrity and honesty. It means trying to do the right thing, living one’s values and showing concern for others and for society. Fortunately, I personally believe that the vast majority of leaders are ethical people.

However, research has suggested that many senior leaders feel that being an ethical person and making ethically sound decisions is enough.[1] Indeed, by having principles, taking into account societal needs and being fair and caring when making decisions, leaders often feel they can be classified as ‘ethical leaders’.

The same research nevertheless suggests that these leaders are widely perceived as ‘ethically neutral’ by their employees. In other words, these leaders have falsely assumed that their own morals, values and decisions will have been observed and understood throughout the organisation.

Realisations such as this have led to a dual-pillar approach to ethics in leadership which argues that being an ethical person is necessary, but not enough, to be an ethical leader.[2] This begs the question then: ‘What do leaders need to do to make the jump from being ethical people to ethical leaders?’

What it takes to be an ethical leader

To realise the full range of benefits of ethics in their leadership, leaders need to demonstrate socially observable behaviours that make them stand out as ethical figures against an otherwise ethically neutral ground.1 Just three key behaviours that can help them to do so:

  • Openly communicating ethics and values – ethical leaders have a sophisticated understanding of their own ethics and values and those of the organisation. They then openly communicate these to employees, using methods such as storytelling to bring their values to life and make them memorable.
  • Role modelling their ethics and values – ethical leaders embody rather than simply articulate personal or organisational values. They understand that their actions speak louder than words and so actively demonstrate the behaviours that show others what’s important to them and the business.
  • Rewarding and challenging ethical and non-ethical behaviours – ethical leaders actively and publicly reward behaviours that are ethically sound, whilst simultaneously taking steps to challenge or confront behaviours that conflict with their personal or organisational values.

I hope this short, non-exhaustive list demonstrates that being an ethical leader requires a lot more than simply being an ethical person. But, given its noteworthy benefits, I think it’s a facet of your leadership approach that’s worth developing.

What should I be thinking about?

To further develop how you use ethics in your leadership, consider asking yourself questions such as the following:

  • What are my important values and principles? How do I actively communicate these to others?
  • To what extent do my decisions (i.e. what I prioritise as important when push comes to shove) and my calendar (i.e. how I spend my time and attention) reflect these values?
  • How often do I publicly reward positive behaviours that embody this organisation’s values? How often do I challenge or confront behaviours that conflict with this organisation’s values?


You can learn more about leading with ethics and meaning in our white paper: The future of leadership: developing a new perspective

[1] Treviño, L. K., Brown, M. & Hartman, L. P. (2003). A qualitative investigation of perceived executive ethical leadership: Perceptions from inside and outside the executive suite. Human Relations, 56(5), 5-37.

[2] Treviño, L. K., Hartman, L. P. & Brown, M. (2000). Moral person and moral manager: How executives develop a reputation for ethical leadership. California Management Review42(4), 128-142.

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