Ethical Leadership

A leader’s actions during a crisis speak to both a symbolic and substantive perspective that is important for ethical leadership.

Symbolic actions are often represented by words or even the mere presence among those affected by the crisis. Substantive action includes those things a leader does to enact meaningful action in order to help those affected recover from the crisis.

When substance and symbolism are in balance, they serve as a catalyst for action. This action calms the collective concerns and leverages what could be divergent groups into a collective synergy where people work together to bring things back to normal.

Normative Ethics

There is also an ethical component that may be at work. Normative ethics concern what people believe to be right or wrong. A few of these ethical theories will be described in the context of how a leader responds to crisis.

Utilitarian Ethics

Those who believe the proper course of action is the one that maximizes overall happiness are operating from a utilitarian ethical theory.

The consequences of one’s conduct are the true basis for any judgment about the morality of that conduct. From this perspective, a morally right act is one that will produce a good outcome. This is where we encounter the common phrase: “the end justifies the means.”

When crises like hurricanes Sandy or Katrina impact a large geographically and socioeconomically diverse group, agreement on what constitutes “happiness” is equally diverse. If not careful, leaders will be pulled in many different directions on how they respond, verbally and behaviorally.

The debate about whether the NYC marathon should have continued as scheduled in the wake of Hurricane Sandy is a good illustration of the tension of balancing diverse views of happiness in the midst of crisis recovery.

Deontological Ethics

When one is oriented by the adherence to rules, they may be operating from deontological ethics.

This approach judges the morality of an action based on the action’s adherence to a rule or rules. While rules serve a useful purpose under normal conditions, especially when standardization and consistency are valued, if not careful, when a crisis strikes, leaders can hide behind the bureaucracy or rules which were created with the intent to be administered under “normal” situations.

Effective leaders understand that an unplanned crisis requires a bold and courageous decisions that sometimes mean a rule is sidelined for the benefit of those in need.


Altruism is an ethical theory that holds that individuals have a moral obligation to help, serve, or benefit others, if necessary at the sacrifice of self-interest.

An altruistic leader will be compelled to set aside their personal interests, schedule, and comfort in order to lead in both a symbolic and substantial way.

While this is admired by many, crises like natural disasters make it impossible for leaders to personally serve all those affected. Wise leaders will create a network that serves those in need in meaningful ways.


Closely associated with altruism is the ethics of care that emphasize the importance of relationships. The basic beliefs are that:

  • All individuals are interdependent for achieving their interests
  • Those particularly vulnerable to our choices and their outcomes deserve extra consideration
  • It is necessary to attend to the contextual details of the situation in order to safeguard and promote the actual specific interests of those involved.

Effective leaders understand the importance of relationships, but when in crisis, resist the temptation to pander to relationships that benefit the leader. Words and deeds when in crisis are tempered so that all receive a fair and balanced opportunity for their needs to be met, especially those who are vulnerable.

What is Ethical Leadership?

How have you seen ethics help or hinder a leader when facing an organizational crisis? Thanks for your comments!

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Stephen Carman
Stephen is an organizational Talent Development Architect & Strategist. He has a Master’s Degree in Organizational Management and is pursuing a Ph.D in Organization & Management at Capella University.