Ethical Leadership

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A leadership strategy without ethical clarity produces moral and economic bankruptcy.” – Bill Donahue 

Leadership is not just about guiding a team or organization towards success; it’s also about doing so morally and socially responsibly through the best leadership courses. The key to doing this is being an ethical leader!

At its core, ethical leadership is a style of leadership that prioritizes ethics and values in decision-making. It involves leading by example and setting some standards for ethical behaviour within an organization. Ethical leadership has roots in ancient philosophy and has been a part of leadership discourse for centuries. Thinkers like Aristotle and Confucius emphasized the importance of virtuous leadership.

In today’s world, ethical leadership has gained prominence due to increased scrutiny of corporate practices, ethical dilemmas, and the desire for transparency. This reflects a growing recognition of the importance of ethics in leadership. Let’s better understand what ethical leadership is, why it is important, and how one can be an ethical leader through this article!

Characteristics Of Ethical Leaders

Ethical leaders set a positive example for their followers by displaying unique characteristics like honesty, integrity, and fairness in all their dealings. Here are some key characteristics of ethical leaders.

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1. Integrity

Ethical leaders are unwavering in their commitment to honesty, transparency, and moral rectitude and always display integrity. Integrity consistently upholds strong moral principles, even when facing challenges or temptations. Ethical leaders recognize that integrity is not a selective trait; it applies to all aspects of their personal and professional lives.

In the workplace, leaders with integrity inspire trust among their team members and stakeholders. Additionally, employees who see their leaders acting with unwavering honesty are likelier to emulate these behaviours. This trust forms the foundation of a positive organizational culture where open communication and ethical decision-making thrive.

2. Empathy

Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of others. Ethical leaders possess a keen sense of empathy, allowing them to connect with their team members deeply and emotionally. Empathy translates into active listening, compassion, and a genuine interest in the well-being of others, enabling leaders to recognize and address their employees’ needs, concerns, and aspirations.

Empathy also plays a crucial role in conflict resolution. Ethical leaders use empathy to mediate disputes and find mutually beneficial solutions. Considering the emotions and viewpoints of all parties involved creates an atmosphere where conflicts are resolved fairly and respectfully.

3. Accountability

Accountability is a fundamental attribute of ethical leadership. Ethical leaders take full responsibility for their actions and decisions, whether positive or negative. They understand that accountability is not about assigning blame but taking ownership of their choices’ consequences. By embodying accountability, ethical leaders foster an environment of transparency and integrity where individuals are not afraid to admit their errors and work collectively to achieve ethical goals.

Moreover, accountability extends beyond individual actions to the organization as a whole. Ethical leaders ensure that their organizations adhere to ethical standards and legal regulations. They are vigilant in preventing unethical behaviour, such as corruption or discrimination, and they address such issues promptly and decisively.

4. Fairness

In the workplace, fairness translates into equitable treatment of employees, regardless of their background or status. Ethical leaders treat everyone impartially, avoid favouritism or discrimination, and address opposing viewpoints fairly. They base their decisions on objective criteria rather than personal biases or preferences. For instance, an ethical leader would ensure that promotions, raises, and opportunities are distributed based on merit and performance rather than personal connections or bias.

By promoting fairness, ethical leaders create a sense of justice and equality within their organization. This not only boosts employee morale but also reduces conflicts and resentment among team members. Employees who believe they are treated fairly are more likely to be motivated, engaged, and committed to their work.

5. Courage

Being an ethical leader means making tough decisions and standing up for your own values and principles, even in adversity. Ethical leaders recognize that upholding ethical standards may sometimes require challenging the status quo or confronting uncomfortable situations. By displaying courage, ethical leaders prioritize the organization’s and its stakeholders’ long-term well-being over short-term gains.

In the workplace, courage is evident when leaders speak out against unethical practices, regardless of the potential backlash. It means addressing issues such as workplace harassment, discrimination, or ethical violations head-on rather than turning a blind eye. This sends a clear message that appropriate conduct is non-negotiable within the organization.

6. Inspiration

Ethical leaders can inspire and motivate others through their behaviour and vision. They lead by example, demonstrating that ethical conduct is not merely a requirement but a source of inspiration that drives individuals and teams to excel. They connect individual roles and responsibilities to the organization’s broader ethical mission, demonstrating how each person’s contributions contribute to the greater good. This instils a sense of pride and fulfilment in employees, increasing their dedication to ethical goals.

Furthermore, ethical leaders also inspire trust and loyalty. When employees see their leaders consistently adhering to ethical principles, they are likelier to feel a deep sense of trust and loyalty towards their leaders and the organization.

7. Humility

Humility is an often overlooked but vital characteristic of ethical leaders. Ethical leaders are not flawless; they acknowledge their imperfections and are willing to learn from their mistakes. They understand that humility is not a sign of weakness but a strength that fosters growth and development. Their openness to feedback creates an environment where employees feel comfortable sharing their perspectives and ideas, knowing their input is valued and respected. 

Moreover, humility enables leaders to remain grounded and avoid the pitfalls of arrogance or ego-driven decision-making. This fosters a culture of continuous improvement and self-reflection. They encourage team members to embrace humility, leading to a more collaborative and adaptable work environment where ethical growth and development are ongoing priorities.

These characteristics create a strong foundation for ethical leadership, promoting ethical conduct, trust, and organizational success. Why is practising ethical leadership important anyway? Continue reading to learn about the magic of ethical leadership!

Importance Of Ethical Leadership

The significance of ethical leadership is multifaceted and deeply intertwined with the essence of human values and principles. Howard Schultz, the visionary mind behind Starbucks, is widely recognised as an ethical leader who transformed Starbucks into a global coffeehouse chain while adhering to strong ethical principles. Let’s illustrate the five importance of this type of leadership through the ethical leadership example of Howard Schultz, the former CEO of Starbucks.

Importance Of Ethical Leadership

1. Trust Building

Trust is a fragile and invaluable currency in the world of leadership. Leaders who adhere to ethical principles, consistently demonstrating integrity, transparency, and a commitment to doing what is right, naturally earn the trust and respect of their team members and stakeholders.

Howard Schultz built trust through his commitment to ethical principles. In the late 2000s, during the economic downturn, Schultz made a bold decision and temporarily closed down thousands of Starbucks stores to retrain baristas in the art of making coffee despite the potential revenue loss. This move demonstrated his commitment to maintaining the quality of Starbucks products and the well-being of employees. Customers and employees saw this as a transparent and ethical response to the crisis, bolstering trust in Schultz’s leadership.

2. Long-term Success

By adhering to ethical principles, leaders build a reputation for integrity and reliability. This reputation can attract top talent, loyal employees and customers, and investors who believe in the company’s ethical stance. 

Schultz’s ethical approach and prioritization of fair trade coffee emphasize long-term success over short-term gains. He invested in sustainable sourcing practices and ethical labor conditions for coffee growers. This commitment not only aligned with Schultz’s personal ethical values but also attracted ethically-conscious consumers. Over time, Starbucks became known for its ethical sourcing practices, attracting loyal customers and investors who believed in its mission. This ethical foundation has been a key factor in Starbucks’ continued growth and profitability.

3. Employee Morale

Ethical leaders cultivate a positive work environment where employees feel valued and respected. Employees who perceive their leaders genuinely care about their well-being are likelier to be engaged and motivated. 

Schultz was deeply committed to ensuring a positive and inclusive work environment at Starbucks. He understood that happy employees translate into satisfied customers. Under his leadership, Starbucks offered comprehensive healthcare benefits to even part-time workers, implemented tuition assistance programs, and encouraged baristas to share ideas for improving the company. Schultz’s commitment to employee well-being boosted morale and strengthened the company’s culture of empathy and compassion.

4. Legal Compliance

Staying on the right side of the law is not just a matter of avoiding penalties; it’s a moral obligation. Ethical leaders ensure that their organizations comply with legal and regulatory requirements.

When Schultz learned of a potential legal issue regarding employee stock options, he promptly launched an internal investigation and took corrective action to rectify the situation. His commitment to legal compliance ensured Starbucks operated within the bounds of the law and demonstrated that ethical behavior was non-negotiable. This fostered a culture of compliance by setting an example of ethical behavior and promoting transparency. 

5. Reputation Preservation

In an age of instant communication and social media, a company’s reputation can be its most valuable asset or its Achilles’ heel. Ethical leaders understand that a tarnished reputation can be catastrophic. That’s why organizations led by ethical leaders tend to have a reputation for trustworthiness, responsibility, and reliability. 

Schultz’s ethical leadership was crucial in preserving Starbucks’ reputation during crises. In 2018, when Starbucks faced a public relations disaster due to a racial profiling incident at one of its stores, Schultz responded swiftly and decisively. He closed thousands of stores for a day to conduct racial bias training for employees, taking responsibility for the incident and demonstrating Starbucks’ commitment to addressing the issue. His ethical response helped mitigate the damage to the company’s reputation and facilitated a faster recovery.

Various ethical leadership examples, such as Schultz’s example, stand as a testament to the different practices exhibited by ethical leaders worldwide and the importance of the same. Such real-life examples make us more aware as business leaders. Wondering what makes ethical leadership so different from the unethical leadership style? Continue reading to find out!

Ethical Leadership v/s Unethical Leadership

A deep-seated commitment to moral values and principles drives ethical leaders. Conversely, unethical leaders follow a distinct psychological path driven by self-interest, often at the expense of others and ethical principles.Ethical Leadership vs Unethical Leadership

1. Decision-Making Approach

A strong moral compass often drives ethical leaders. They possess a well-developed sense of empathy, allowing them to consider their decisions’ impact on others. They are motivated to do what is right for themselves and the greater good. Their decision-making is guided by principles such as fairness and justice, and they prioritize long-term success over short-term gains.

On the other hand, unethical leaders may be motivated by ego, self-interest, or a desire for immediate gratification. They might exhibit traits of narcissism, where their own needs and desires take precedence. This self-centred focus can lead to decisions that benefit them personally, even at the expense of others. The allure of power and material gain can cloud their judgment, causing them to disregard ethical considerations.

2. Transparency

Ethical leaders value trust and understand the importance of open communication. They believe in the psychological principle of reciprocity, knowing that honesty begets trust. They are driven by a genuine desire to build strong relationships with their team members and stakeholders, and they recognize that transparency is a key ingredient in achieving this.

Unethical leaders may be driven by a fear of vulnerability or a desire to maintain control. They might believe withholding information or operating covertly is the best way to achieve their goals. This behaviour can be rooted in a lack of trust in others or a misguided belief that secrecy will protect their interests.

3. Accountability

Ethical leaders demonstrate a well-developed sense of responsibility driven by their internal moral compass. They understand the psychological principle of cognitive dissonance, which motivates them to align their actions with their values. Admitting mistakes and taking accountability aligns with their desire to maintain internal consistency and integrity.

Contrasting to this, unethical leaders may exhibit traits of self-preservation. They might avoid accountability to protect their image and avoid negative consequences. Their decision to deflect blame or scapegoat others can be rooted in a fear of personal repercussions or a desire to maintain a façade of infallibility.

4. Employee Well-Being

Ethical leaders often possess strong empathy and compassion. They understand the psychological concept of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, recognizing that satisfied, motivated employees are essential for organizational success. Their commitment to employee well-being stems from a genuine concern for others’ welfare and a belief in the reciprocal benefits of a content workforce.

Unethical leaders driven by self-interest may disregard the psychological well-being of employees. Their focus on personal gain or power may lead them to exploit their workforce to achieve short-term goals. They may exhibit traits of Machiavellianism, where manipulation and exploitation are deemed an acceptable means to an end.

5. Organizational Culture

Ethical leaders often understand the psychological concept of social modelling. They recognize that their behaviour sets an example for others within the organization. They are motivated to create a positive work environment and a culture where employees are inspired to act ethically. They lead by example, knowing that their actions influence the behaviours of those around them.

Unethical leaders may inadvertently shape a toxic workplace culture driven by fear and self-interest. Their unethical behaviour can spread throughout the organization, as employees may mimic their actions or engage in self-preservation to survive in such an environment. The psychological phenomenon of conformity may also play a role, as individuals conform to the unethical norms established by their leaders to fit in or avoid repercussions.

While the difference between ethical and unethical leadership is eye-opening, continue reading to learn about some quick ways to leave behind unethical leadership styles and develop ethical leadership skills.

4 Ways Of Developing Ethical Leadership Skills

Developing ethical leadership skills is not just about understanding the concept; it’s about applying it effectively in real-world situations. Here are some practical frameworks and actionable suggestions to help leaders enhance their ethical leadership skills:

4 Ways Of Developing Ethical Leadership

1. Practice Ethical Reflections

The golden rule of practising ethical leadership is introspection and critical thinking about your values, principles, and ethical decisions. It helps you understand your ethical strengths and areas for improvement. Set aside regular time for ethical reflection and consider specific ethical dilemmas you’ve encountered in your management and leadership positions. 

Analyze your past decisions and actions, evaluating whether they aligned with your ethical principles. Identify areas where you may have compromised on ethical principles and consider how you could have acted differently.

Bonus Tip: Use journaling as a tool to record your reflections and insights. Document the reasoning behind your ethical choices to better understand and strengthen them. 

2. Seek Feedback

Seeking feedback from others provides valuable insights into your ethical behaviour and leadership style. It helps you gain a broader perspective and identify blind spots. Create an environment where colleagues, team members, and mentors feel comfortable providing feedback on your leadership. Specifically, ask for feedback related to your ethical decision-making, communication, and behaviour. 

Act on constructive feedback by improving your ethical leadership practices and avoid becoming defensive when receiving feedback. Express gratitude to those who offer feedback, as it encourages ongoing dialogue and trust.

3. Mentorship And Training

Learning from experienced mentors or coaches in ethical leadership can accelerate your growth. They can offer guidance, share their experiences, and provide valuable insights. Seek out mentors or coaches who exemplify ethical leadership. Look for individuals with a track record of making ethical decisions and fostering ethical cultures. 

Participating in ethics training programs and educational opportunities is fundamental to developing ethical leadership skills. Identify courses suitable to your needs and actively participate and apply your learnings from the training.

4. Practice Ethical Decision-Making 

Practising ethical decision-making in various scenarios can sharpen your ethical reasoning skills and prepare you for real-life ethical challenges. The Ethical Decision-Making Framework provides a step-by-step approach to making ethical decisions. It helps leaders navigate complex moral dilemmas effectively.

You can engage in ethical decision-making by identifying the ethical dilemma, gathering all available information, evaluating alternatives, implementing the decision, and monitoring and reflecting on the outcome. This structured approach ensures all your actions and decisions are well-thought-out, making you a reliable and moral leader. 


Leaders who embrace ethical principles, exhibit ethical leadership characteristics, and navigate ethical decision-making challenges will create positive work environments and contribute to society’s greater good. Understanding ethical leadership and incorporating the principles of an ethical leader along with other leadership styles like laissez-faire leadership, charismatic leadership style, transformational leadership style, etc. is not just about being a better leader; it’s about being a better human being. As you embark on your journey toward ethical leadership, remember the words of Mahatma Gandhi:

You must be the change you want to see in the world.”

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