Ethical Leadership

Ethical leaders adhere to certain values and beliefs irrespective of whether they are in the home or office. In essence, ethical leaders are motivated and guided by the inherent dignity and rights of other people.

Understanding ethical leadership

Ethical leadership is a form of leadership where individuals conduct themselves in accordance with ethical principles and values.

In the workplace, ethical leaders promote and model acceptable forms of conduct to subordinates and expect them to embody the same behaviors with conviction.

In this way, leaders present others will a set of actions they can use for the greater good. 

Ethical leadership is a management technique that will work for any organization in any industry.

However, its importance to organizational success is still misunderstood.

In its 2022 Global Integrity Report, Ernst & Young found that while 97% of business executives believed integrity was important, only 33% believed ethical behavior was a key component.

Benefits of ethical leadership

At the organizational level, some of the benefits of ethical leadership include:

Positive workplace culture

Subordinates who work under ethical leaders tend to possess better morale and work more productively.

They feel that those above them are not only motivated by the desire to make themselves (or the organization) more money.

Enhanced brand value

Leaders who act according to ethical principles and values represent the company more favorably than those who don’t.

Principle-driven brands earn respect and loyalty from clients, customers, and societies.

Investment attraction

Investment in ethical companies is becoming more popular as investors look to park their money in companies with modern, socially-responsible values.

These companies also tend to be less volatile investments because their leaders do not act in ways that attract controversy.

The qualities that define ethical leadership

In truth, ethical leadership is comprised of numerous different qualities. But we like to think that the six listed below are the most important:


Ethical leaders embrace the power and duty that comes with their position without abusing it.

They are always responsible and present in situations where their leadership may be tested.


This means that a leader’s values and principles are always aligned with their actions.

Ethical leaders walk the walk and do not simply talk the talk.


Ethical leaders respect all those around them, irrespective of their salary, expertise, or other identifying characteristics.

Their respect for the worth of every person fosters an inclusive and diverse workplace culture.


In the context of ethical leadership, transparency mostly relates to stakeholder communication.

Ethical leaders welcome feedback, maintain open dialogue, and disclose information others need to do their jobs effectively.


Ethical leaders consider the viewpoints of all concerned when solving problems.

They work hard to ensure that individuals can establish a positive working relationship once a conflict is resolved.

They also treat everyone equally, condemn improper behavior, and do not show favoritism toward certain individuals.


Like most leaders, ethical leaders are willing to evolve and adapt.

They navigate major changes using their principles and values and encourage subordinates to do the same.

Key takeaways:

  • Ethical leadership is a form of leadership where individuals conduct themselves in accordance with certain principles and values both inside and outside the office.
  • Some of the benefits of ethical leadership at the organizational level include positive workplace culture, enhanced brand value, and investor attractiveness. Despite these benefits, however, many business executives do not consider ethical behavior to be a key part of integrity.
  • Some of the most important qualities of ethical leadership include fairness, adaptability, transparency, responsibility, integrity, and respect.

Key Highlights

  • Definition:
    • Ethical leadership involves individuals adhering to ethical principles and values in both personal and professional contexts.
  • Workplace Impact:
    • Ethical leaders set an example of proper behavior for subordinates and expect them to follow suit.
    • Promotes a positive workplace culture and fosters a sense of responsibility for the greater good.
  • Benefits of Ethical Leadership:
    • Positive Workplace Culture: Employees under ethical leaders have better morale and higher productivity.
    • Enhanced Brand Value: Leaders embodying ethical values contribute positively to the company’s reputation.
    • Investment Attraction: Ethical companies attract socially-conscious investors, reducing investment volatility.
  • Key Qualities of Ethical Leadership:
    • Responsibility: Ethical leaders embrace their role responsibly and exhibit integrity in their actions.
    • Integrity: Actions align with values, demonstrating authenticity and credibility.
    • Respect: Treats all individuals with respect, fostering inclusivity and diversity.
    • Transparency: Encourages open communication, welcomes feedback, and provides necessary information.
    • Fairness: Considers multiple viewpoints, resolves conflicts, treats everyone equally, and condemns improper behavior.
    • Adaptability: Navigates changes while adhering to principles, encouraging flexibility among team members.
  • Challenges:
    • Despite its benefits, ethical behavior is not always considered a key component of integrity by some business executives.

Connected Leadership Concepts And Frameworks

Leadership Styles

Leadership styles encompass the behavioral qualities of a leader. These qualities are commonly used to direct, motivate, or manage groups of people. Some of the most recognized leadership styles include Autocratic, Democratic, or Laissez-Faire leadership styles.

Agile Leadership

Agile leadership is the embodiment of agile manifesto principles by a manager or management team. Agile leadership impacts two important levels of a business. The structural level defines the roles, responsibilities, and key performance indicators. The behavioral level describes the actions leaders exhibit to others based on agile principles. 

Adaptive Leadership

Adaptive leadership is a model used by leaders to help individuals adapt to complex or rapidly changing environments. Adaptive leadership is defined by three core components (precious or expendable, experimentation and smart risks, disciplined assessment). Growth occurs when an organization discards ineffective ways of operating. Then, active leaders implement new initiatives and monitor their impact.

Blue Ocean Leadership

Authors and strategy experts Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne developed the idea of blue ocean leadership. In the same way that Kim and Mauborgne’s blue ocean strategy enables companies to create uncontested market space, blue ocean leadership allows companies to benefit from unrealized employee talent and potential.

Delegative Leadership

Developed by business consultants Kenneth Blanchard and Paul Hersey in the 1960s, delegative leadership is a leadership style where authority figures empower subordinates to exercise autonomy. For this reason, it is also called laissez-faire leadership. In some cases, this type of leadership can lead to increases in work quality and decision-making. In a few other cases, this type of leadership needs to be balanced out to prevent a lack of direction and cohesiveness of the team.

Distributed Leadership

Distributed leadership is based on the premise that leadership responsibilities and accountability are shared by those with the relevant skills or expertise so that the shared responsibility and accountability of multiple individuals within a workplace, bulds up as a fluid and emergent property (not controlled or held by one individual). Distributed leadership is based on eight hallmarks, or principles: shared responsibility, shared power, synergy, leadership capacity, organizational learning, equitable and ethical climate, democratic and investigative culture, and macro-community engagement.

Ethical Leadership

Ethical leaders adhere to certain values and beliefs irrespective of whether they are in the home or office. In essence, ethical leaders are motivated and guided by the inherent dignity and rights of other people.

Transformational Leadership

Transformational leadership is a style of leadership that motivates, encourages, and inspires employees to contribute to company growth. Leadership expert James McGregor Burns first described the concept of transformational leadership in a 1978 book entitled Leadership. Although Burns’ research was focused on political leaders, the term is also applicable for businesses and organizational psychology.

Leading by Example

Those who lead by example let their actions (and not their words) exemplify acceptable forms of behavior or conduct. In a manager-subordinate context, the intention of leading by example is for employees to emulate this behavior or conduct themselves.

Leader vs. Boss

A leader is someone within an organization who possesses the ability to influence and lead others by example. Leaders inspire, support, and encourage those beneath them and work continuously to achieve objectives. A boss is someone within an organization who gives direct orders to subordinates, tends to be autocratic, and prefers to be in control at all times.

Situational Leadership

Situational leadership is based on situational leadership theory. Developed by authors Paul Hersey and Kenneth Blanchard in the late 1960s, the theory’s fundamental belief is that there is no single leadership style that is best for every situation. Situational leadership is based on the belief that no single leadership style is best. In other words, the best style depends on the situation at hand.

Succession Planning

Succession planning is a process that involves the identification and development of future leaders across all levels within a company. In essence, succession planning is a way for businesses to prepare for the future. The process ensures that when a key employee decides to leave, the company has someone else in the pipeline to fill their position.

Fiedler’s Contingency Model

Fielder’s contingency model argues no style of leadership is superior to the rest evaluated against three measures of situational control, including leader-member relations, task structure, and leader power level. In Fiedler’s contingency model, task-oriented leaders perform best in highly favorable and unfavorable circumstances. Relationship-oriented leaders perform best in situations that are moderately favorable but can improve their position by using superior interpersonal skills.

Management vs. Leadership


Cultural Models

In the context of an organization, cultural models are frameworks that define, shape, and influence corporate culture. Cultural models also provide some structure to a corporate culture that tends to be fluid and vulnerable to change. Once upon a time, most businesses utilized a hierarchical culture where various levels of management oversaw subordinates below them. Today, however, there exists a greater diversity in models as leaders realize the top-down approach is outdated in many industries and that success can be found elsewhere.

Action-Centered Leadership

Action-centered leadership defines leadership in the context of three interlocking areas of responsibility and concern. This framework is used by leaders in the management of teams, groups, and organizations. Developed in the 1960s and first published in 1973, action-centered leadership was revolutionary for its time because it believed leaders could learn the skills they needed to manage others effectively. Adair believed that effective leadership was exemplified by three overlapping circles (responsibilities): achieve the task, build and maintain the team, and develop the individual.

High-Performance Coaching

High-performance coaches work with individuals in personal and professional contexts to enable them to reach their full potential. While these sorts of coaches are commonly associated with sports, it should be noted that the act of coaching is a specific type of behavior that is also useful in business and leadership. 

Forms of Power

When most people are asked to define power, they think about the power a leader possesses as a function of their responsibility for subordinates. Others may think that power comes from the title or position this individual holds. 

Tipping Point Leadership

Tipping Point Leadership is a low-cost means of achieving a strategic shift in an organization by focusing on extremes. Here, the extremes may refer to small groups of people, acts, and activities that exert a disproportionate influence over business performance.

Vroom-Yetton Decision Model

The Vroom-Yetton decision model is a decision-making process based on situational leadership. According to this model, there are five decision-making styles guides group-based decision-making according to the situation at hand and the level of involvement of subordinates: Autocratic Type 1 (AI), Autocratic Type 2 (AII), Consultative Type 1 (CI), Consultative Type 2 (CII), Group-based Type 2 (GII).

Likert’s Management Systems

Likert’s management systems were developed by American social psychologist Rensis Likert. Likert’s management systems are a series of leadership theories based on the study of various organizational dynamics and characteristics. Likert proposed four systems of management, which can also be thought of as leadership styles: Exploitative authoritative, Benevolent authoritative, Consultative, Participative.

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