Ethical Leadership

“Ethics” is defined by The Oxford English Dictionary as the moral principles that govern a person’s behavior or conducting of an activity. Ethical behavior is inherently tricky to understand in a concrete fashion, mainly because ethics can be described in various ways.

For example, the Oxford English Dictionary defined the key to ethics as maintaining moral principles, but whose moral principles are they? Without getting too philosophical, we can deduce that most people act in line with their own beliefs. However, should those actions be out of line with the common social belief, those actions may be considered unethical.

This is an important point to make because it allows us to explain the nature of understanding and awareness. In today’s post, I will explain the nature of ethical leadership as well as some common tips to keep in mind when leading your own teams or making difficult decisions.

What Is “Ethical Leadership?”

Ethical leadership is simply leadership that is directed through mutual respect for beliefs, values, dignity and human rights. It is the goal of every good leader to hone respect for their subordinates and to command respect in return.

Ethics is not limited to social responsibility, nor is it limited to the laws and ordinances that govern our society. Being ethical in terms of business practices is a combination of obeying laws and considering the social dynamic of the organization or group.

The question I am asked most often has to do with diversity, more specifically, the difference in values and opinions between members of a team that may either help or hinder organizational performance. Yes! Diversity can both help and hinder. And the only distinction between help or hinder is whether there is respect involved for differing opinions.

Diversity will help a team when mutual respect is had for each other. With respect comes open-mindedness, and the discipline to entertain a thought or idea without implementing it. Doing so helps every member of the team feel heard and considered, and implements a beneficial team atmosphere and attitude.

The diversity that will result in hindrances occurs as a result of disrespect, that is, the inability to consider other people’s opinions, beliefs, values, ideas, or the like.

It should be the leader’s job to promote trust and respect among all members of an organization. This trust and respect will pay back dividends with honesty, justice, community, and in turn, more respect.

Tips For Ethical Leadership

Avoid Bias

Biases can be found anywhere, and relate to a lot of different factors of diversity. People can be biased towards race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, whether you like coffee or tea, anything!

As a leader, your choices and decisions must be grounded in evidence and logic. Bias destroys these things. Nobody is perfect, and as imperfect people, many of us have beliefs and opinions that may be outdated or farfetched.

Every person is only a cumulation of their experiences and their deductions around those experiences. Bias tends to play a part in decisions when you are unwarranted in thinking a certain way based mainly on feelings or past experiences. Bias is considered unfair and can be an elusive way for hidden prejudices to come to light.

The most difficult thing about biases is that they are often personally justified and, therefore, able to affect our decisions whether we realize it or not!

The best way to defeat, or manage, our biases is to become aware that they exist. More specifically, aware of how we communicate them so that we can monitor and control them when we make decisions.

Here are some quick tips to help become aware and monitor bias.
1. Choose your words very very carefully.
Often, our biases are subconscious, which is why they have such an easy time slipping past our conscious awareness. Your subconscious may have already made a decision without your conscious approval, which may come across in your language without you realizing it. Pay careful attention to your language to determine if there is an underlying bias within your decision making.
2. Constant Questioning
By making the habit of questioning yourself and your decisions, you can effectively locate and catch any bias as it arises. Note: This does NOT mean become cynical. Questioning is a good habit to have regardless because questioning allows you to also gauge the decisions and actions of others. Questions, ultimately, allow you to avoid becoming a cheep to the thoughts of the social masses, and instead, practice your ability to think on your own.
3. Look Solely For Facts
It’s easy to just make a gut decision all the time. Our brains like solving issues quickly, and in the heat of a moment, a decision may have to be made off the top of our heads. However, for the most part, they don’t. Before coming to a conclusion, try to gather as many hard facts that you can about your options, balance those hard facts with your own thoughts and opinions based on strengths and weaknesses and logical reasoning.

Communication Is Key

Open communication is necessary for creating a knowledgable company culture.
Open communication is necessary for creating a knowledgable company culture.

It is safe to say that a vast majority of people relate their personal and professional successes to their ability to communicate. Communication should not be taken lightly, it is an essential part of building a productive and effective team.

Allowing open communication is just one way (but a very effective one) to build trust between team members. Allowing other people to express their concerns, ideas, and thoughts in a safe and respectful way is the best kind of communication there is. It all ties back to respect, remember?

Open communication should be encouraged and enforced among all levels of an organization, imagine the growth and efficiency that could occur if an issue was dealt with the moment it arises, without the inherent fear and avoidance that poor communication could incur.

Ultimately, communication is about making people feel comfortable with relaying information, and in effect, this comfort allows the information to flow much more smoothly between people within the organization itself. Consider one of the main consulting firms Mckinsey and Co.

In his book The Mckinsey Mind, Ethan Rasiel speaks about the power of knowledge management systems. Typically, how an employee from Mckinsey can request information from any other person within the company and hear back, with a personal phone call, within just 24 hours. Communication like this is necessary for beneficial interactions and information.

Communication ties to ethics in the way that it allows each individual to feel heard and influential. All people just want to feel as if they are important, Dale Carnegie mentions this in his book, How To Win Friends and Influence People. Being able to communicate different ideas without backlash is a great way to allow others to feel heard.

For more on interpersonal communication, read the following post titled, How To Communicate Effectively

Promote Honesty

Although effective communication should do this to some degree already, promoting honesty is about creating a space for people to be vulnerable, without the expected backlash that could occur as a result. The saying goes, judge others not by their actions, but by their intentions.

It should be obvious that ethical people are honest and communicative. The key is being honest even during difficult times, or times when there is a lot at stake that lies contingent on honesty. It is the leader’s job to set the example for their teams and be honest and considerate in even the most difficult times.

There is a common adage, say what you mean and mean what you say. This saying brings to light the nature of being genuine to yourself and your abilities. Tell the truth, and if you make promises, keep them at all costs. There is nothing more important to an organization (or people) than trust. Not even money.

Another way to induce honesty into your life is to simply take actions that are prideful to you or your team as a whole. Often times, prideful actions are ethical, and we have a natural urge to show and explain it to others. Prideful actions become something that we would like to define ourselves as to other people. Doing so is a great motivator for honesty. Consider the saying, “an innocent man is unafraid to testify.”

Encourage Initiative

Initiative is the ability for people to begin things on their own. This is required of any effective organization that wishes to decrease bottlenecks in communication and solution-implementations.
Initiative is the ability for people to begin things on their own. This is required of any effective organization that wishes to decrease bottlenecks in communication and solution-implementations.

The mark of every good leader is their ability to work themselves out of a job. Encouraging initiative is a great way to do just that!

Initiative is the ability to assess or begin things independently of other people. Ultimately, it can be described by the phrase “don’t bring me solutions, bring me answers.”

A leader that encourages initiative is encouraging independence, hence “working themselves out of a job”. Ultimately, encouraging team initiative is an outstanding way to make good use of diversity, and save time and headaches in the case of the leader him/herself.

Leaders want their employees to thrive, and this can’t happen if the leader is taking to much control of the team efforts and acting as a micro-manager. An ethical leader will reward and encourage a person (or the teams) ability to think independently and avoid codependence on the part of the leader.

Think of it this way, a leader that does not encourage initiative is willingly creating a bottleneck that halts solutions and progress from occurring. They are that bottleneck. Consider the “Drama Triangle” mentioned in my last blog post, The Ultimate Guide to Being More Proactive, for more information.

Lead By Example

A leader that does not lead by example will not be taken seriously: They become a hypocrite. To be an ethical leader, you must not only preach ethical characteristics among your team, but you must make a conscious and constant effort to enforce and implement them yourself.

Ethical leaders are humane and just, will little tolerance for unethical conduct by themselves or others. The ethical leader will always promote integrity, which can be defined by doing the right thing even when it is not convenient, or nobody is watching. Integrity is a tell-tale sign of ethical behavior and loyalty.

Leading by example will often show others that you take ethics very seriously, which will influence others to do so as well. By being a leader that shows mutual trust, team-building, and sound (bias-free) decisions, you will ultimately develop an organization that values these traits. Over time, the leader will influence the entirety of an organization.

As a metaphor, you will be the captain steering the entire ship in the right direction and providing guidance towards the right way of thinking.


Over time, true leaders influence the entirety of an organization. Being ethical is only one of many good leadership characteristics, but is it regarded as one of the most important as well.

Ethical leaders create ethical organizations, it is as simple as that. Keep in mind that ethics can be defined in a myriad of ways: Social, personal, team, and lawful ethics are all important and should be accounted for in the organization’s behaviors.

Ultimately, the ethical leader is proud, unafraid, and willing to move forward and influence their teams to succeed.

Click here for a related blog to the qualities of good leaders!

-Austin Denison


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