Ethical Leadership

By Dr. Mary Kay

Updated Over a Week Ago

Minute Read

Ethical leadership is a fundamental characteristic that any successful leader must have. In one of my previous articles, I discussed that 1 in 10 Americans believe their company’s leaders are ethical and honest. Let’s explore what ethics are, what a code of ethics is, and how great leaders practice ethical leadership.

Valuing employees, respect, and integrity are common core values visually displayed in mission statements or employee handbooks. Great leaders realize that it is not the phrasing within the documents that make a difference.

The real difference comes from the leader’s behavior – how they show up every day. Below are some examples of ethical leadership.

You Inspire Others to Be Ethical

No matter what style of leadership a manager, teacher, or parent possesses, there are ethical leadership behaviors to consider in the relationship between the leaders and the people they influence. A true measure of leadership is the leader’s ethical influence on their followers or stakeholders.

An ethical leader considers positive and negative views and the rights of everyone involved and ensures that decisions are made ethically and members are held accountable. The moral actions of a leader enhance their credibility and integrity, which causes followers to trust.

Employees, students, and children establish faith in their leader’s decision-making and the leader’s choices by listening to and watching what they do.

You Are Always on Stage

Ethics is connected to how leaders interact with others and how leaders act when they think no one is around. When a leader is courteous, kind, and respectful toward others, people associate these outward actions with a high level of ethical conduct.

When people see a leader pick up trash or help a stranger when they think they are not being watched, this tells their true character. The most visible attitudes and behaviors are caring and concern for others’ needs.

Giving a Speech on Ethical Leadership

You Communicate with Care

Recently, I worked with a team of senior leaders who wrote leadership metrics for key leaders within their company. The result was a metric they named “Communicate with Care.”

An ethical leader is one that genuinely emulates a high sense of consideration by being responsive to all people – not just the people they like or the people they consider to be worthy of their time.

Additionally, great leaders encourage people from all walks of life, even those with little leadership experience, to develop their leadership abilities. Kotter (1990) describes this development of leaders as creating a “leadership-centered culture.”

When leaders generate a team of ethical leaders, the organization becomes a learning organization, which attracts and retains the best leaders, resulting in a leadership center in which followers are encouraged to grow.

You Admit Your Mistakes

People expect their leaders to get the job done by acting upon what they know and being honest by admitting when they do not know the answer. Being ethical requires being vulnerable.

When leader openly expresses their lack of ability or understanding, they are an example showing that it is a safe environment where people are free to make mistakes and ask questions.

By setting their ego aside, the leader builds trust by demonstrating the competency of authentic leadership. An ethical leader can be genuine, which provides followers a safety net to offer opinions and ideas on how to get things done.

Admitting a Mistake

You Inspire Ethical TeamWork

Organizing a team of experts requires the leadership skill of valuing team success over individual success. An ethical leader can take all the talents of those on the team (or in the family) and synergize them into a high-performing team that achieves extraordinary results. This is not an easy task.

For instance, talented employees are often so good at what they do that they bring their attitudes of individualism to work with them. As a result of combining experts, team member friction may lead employees to voluntarily leave if the leader does not turn unproductive discussions into team synergy.

People associate ethical Leadership with a leader who can bring people together rather than allowing cliques or employee (family) division. This leadership skill of blending individual achievement and community is associated with great leaders that build high performing teams based on ethical principles.

You Run an Ethical Operation

Employees want to work for ethical organizations. Ethical operations include hiring ethical, talented people, promoting the most qualified based on their leadership skills and technical expertise, rewarding ethical performance results, and operating a culture of commitment by living the stated core values of the organization.

Through the balance of talent and accountability, the organization has the structural design to achieve its goals and objectives ethically and effectively. A significant contributor to effectiveness is the adherence to a performance system that rewards those employees that contribute and provides consequences to those employees that do not.

Guiding Ethical Leadership Principles

You Have Guiding Principles

A component of ethics is the principle of mutuality. When a relationship is productive, both parties take responsibility for making the relationship work. From the workplace perspective, this means that when an employer pays for an employee’s knowledge, in return, the employee provides the organization with the best possible work they are capable of.

I like the ethical practices and principles of the W.L. Gore Company. The Gore Company is consistently known as one of the best companies to work for. Their organization has practiced ethics as part of its business for many years.

The company bases its business philosophy on the belief that, given the right environment, there’s no limit to what people can accomplish.

Gore associates operate according to four basic principles:

  • Fairness to each other and everyone with whom we come in contact
  • Freedom to encourage, help, and allow other associates to grow in knowledge, skill, and scope of responsibility
  • The ability to make one’s own commitments and keep them
  • Consultation with other associates before undertaking actions that could impact the reputation of the company

Are you interested in creating a code of ethics for your family or work team?

The following outline provides a forum to get started:

  • Determine the purpose of the code.  Is it to inspire, create a code of conduct, a statement of values, or a foundation for creating expectations within a team?
  • Think carefully about the process by which the code should be created.  Who should be involved?  How large of a group?  What members should be included in the code development to help create an effective code and one that all members can buy into?
  • How will the code be implemented?  What steps must be taken to ensure all members understand and know the guiding principles?
  • A code of ethics should be tailored to the needs and values of the family or the organization. The Josephson Institute of Ethics suggests six “pillars of character” that could be utilized as a starting point for discussion when preparing to identify values to include in your ethics code.  The six pillars are trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring, and citizenship.
  • How will the code be followed?  How will the code communicate accountability?  How should the code be communicated so all members can follow code expectations?   How often should the code be revised or updated?

How Does Ethical Leadership Impact Your Company?

If you have ideas about ethical leadership that might be helpful to readers, share them in the comments section below. Thanks!

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Dr. Mary Kay
Dr. Mary Kay
Dr. Mary Kay is a business leadership strategist, executive coach, trainer, author, and co-founder of the About Leaders community. She’s consulted with hundreds of companies and trained over 30,000 leaders. Her Ultimate Leader Masterclass helps managers become more confident, decisive leaders.
  • Stephen B. Carman says:

    “The most difficult challenge in shaping a company’s culture is recognizing that you have to put yourself [as a leader] and your beliefs on display all the time; otherwise you have little hope of influencing others” (Deal, 1999, p. 210).

    I appreciate you bringing in the idea of guiding principles. These form the core of who we are (in public and in private) and are difficult to mask.

    If we understand character to be the mental and moral qualities distinctive to an individual, then ethical leadership is not something that is fluid, but constant–even, and especially when decisions are difficult and tensions are high.

    Strategy can be fluid. Processes can be fluid. But ethical behavior is timeless and generally cross-cultural (e.g., cheating, lying, stealing, etc.).

  • Timothy Cummuta says:

    Great article Dr. It is a shame that the few unethical leaders that come and go seem to create an environment of distrust that the media tends to blow greatly out of proportion to include all business leaders. Business in general gets a bad rap. The vast majority of professional business leaders I meet are of the highest caliber. They are typically extremely ethical, highly moral, and care deeply about the individuals that work for them and with them. It would be great if we could get that message out, don’t you think?

  • Tim Signorelli says:

    Terrifci Article and one that resonates with me. I think of ethics and integrity as going hand in hand. The most challenging for an ethical leader, is one who follows a string of unethical leaders in an organization. Coming in and building trust in that type of organization where the staff have endured a toxic atmosphere takes great deal of patience, persistence and resillience. You article provides an excellent guide for such leader.

  • Dr. Mary Kay Whitaker says:


    Thanks so much for adding to the discussion. I really like the distinction you make of ethics being constant and timeless compared to fluid. This is so true! You can redo a process but very, very, hard to recover from unethical choices.

  • Dr. Mary Kay Whitaker says:

    Thanks Tim C. for letting us know that you encounter highly ethical leaders. This is refreshing and I agree we need to highlight those great leaders that are making a difference through their ethical leadership. Sounds like a great idea for an article?

  • Dr. Mary Kay Whitaker says:

    Hi Tim S., I really appreciate your kind remarks. You hit the nail on the head when you stated how tough it is coming in after a toxic leader. How does the new leader keep his or her patience and energy to change the culture? I know our readers would love some tips on how to turnaround the distrust and baggage they feel. Deep, deep scars.

  • Debbie Ruston says:

    Great article Mary Kay….this should be a clear indication of how much work needs to be done in the leadership in organizations. 1 in 10…this is an unacceptable figure! Those visionary leaders that realize this, and understand and take pro-active steps to develop leadership within their organization, will transform their leaders, their employees and their profits.

  • Desta Mulugeta says:

    Your Discussion is sound pretty that give me much insight!!!
    As you discuss it well ETHICAL LEADERS are those who ‘walk the talk’ as manifested by:
    Respecting Others
    Serving Others
    Showing Justices
    Manifesting Honesty
    Building Community
    Commitment and

  • Qualities of Good Leader - Entrepreneurship Blogger Bunny says:

    […] leader should have a strong morale, principles, and honesty. A person with strong ethics always upholds his team and he is not afraid to face the truth and reality. It gives a positive […]

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