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Leadership For Beginners

Leadership and Ethics

Leadership vs Management
Leadership Styles
Leadership and Ethics
Leadership and Culture
Leadership and Gender
Leaders on Leadership
Leadership Quotes
Other Useful Sources

Following the leader may not always be the ethical thing to do



"Leadership consists not in degrees of technique but in traits of character; it requires moral rather than athletic or intellectual effort, and it imposes on both leader and follower alike the burdens of self-restraint".

- Lewis H. Lapham

By Kathleen Varela

Ethics is usually argued to be a central theme in what makes for good and effective leadership. Ciulla (1998, p 6) states, “those who seek to define leadership generally agree that leadership consists of the relationship between followers, leader and the situation, but there is less agreement on the ‘how’ of leadership, that is, the types of decisions and conduct that should be considered good leadership”. Unethical leaders will trade on sincerity in order to benefit themselves and in many cases, these individuals are found out. Leaders should act ethically not out of fear of being caught when doing wrong. Rather, they should embrace ethical behaviour because of the freedom, self-confirmation, and success that it brings to their vision and goals (Svensson & Wood, 2007, p 257).



Ethics, Values and Morals

Values can be defined as constructs representing generalised behaviours or states of affairs that are considered by the individual to be important (Gordon, 1975, p 2). Values are developed throughout life from influences such as religion, education, experiences and our parents and affect behaviour as we act in accordance with our values and beliefs. Leaders usually align their values with those of their followers in achieving their vision. Martin Luther King Jr valued a non-violent approach which was influenced by his religious values, and so his followers also valued this and pursued the right for equality through non-violent measures. Dubrin et al (2006, p 128) define morals as, “the standards that an individual or group has about what is right and wrong”. They continue that ethics is the study of morality in which people engage in ethics when they examine a society’s moral standards and the personal moral standards they have absorbed from family, church, friends, society and other influences, and ask whether these standards are reasonable to unreasonable. Decisions are made through an individual’s or group’s code of ethics and what may be ethical to some, may be unethical to others as morals and values vary between people.



Ethical Leadership

There are no surprises that some leaders often choose to behave unethically in order to benefit themselves. William Aramony, a religious and charitable leader, was forced to step down as President of the United Way under allegations that “he lived lavishly and romanced women with thousands of dollars of the charity’s money” (Fulwood, 1995). Leadership is always about self and others. The first and final job of leadership is the attempt to serve the needs and the well-being of the people led (Gini, 1996, p 12). Leaders and followers are engaged in a common enterprise; they are dependent on each other, their fortunes rise and fall together. Clearly, we cannot expect every decision and action of a leader to be perfect but rather it is the extent of unethical choices he or she makes. Leaders must keep in mind the decisions they wish to pursue as followers are likely to follow the behaviours they undertake as they lead by example and have much influence over their followers. If the leader is corrupt, the organisation or their followers will also evidence corrupt behaviour (Davidson & Griffin, 2003, p 585).


Deciding what is ethical may be a dilemma as the values of the community or employees may be different from those of the leader. Many unethical decisions and actions occur not because the leader did not know what was right, but because he or she failed to recognise the ethical implications in the situation or rationalised the conduct to justify doing something unethical (Dubrin et al, 2006, p 135). Leaders with strong virtuous values are more likely to act ethically than are leaders who are operating with a weak or non-existent value system. Some situations may force leaders to behave unethically regardless of the system of values they possess. An example would be of a business leader in which he chooses to save the organisation at the expense of unemployment for a large number of his employees.


Effective leaders are credible, with excellent reputations, and high levels of integrity (Toney, 1994, p 76). In the long run, effective leaders appear to be the most successful leaders, and effective leaders practice ethical leadership in their organisation or with their followers.



Ethical Decision Making

Most decisions that affect other people have an ethical dimension attached to it. The decisions that a leader makes will affect others and will have an impact on a large number of people. Dubrin et al (2006, p 128) explain some of the major theories about right and wrong and how they can be used to make ethical decisions. It is important that you take note of the diverse backgrounds that people come from in an attempt to understand how these concepts may be differently perceived by others, than of your own.



Using a utilitarian model, an action is ethical if the benefits produced are greater for the largest number of people than could be produced by any other action. The ethical nature of the decision is made on the basics of the consequences of that decision. This model assumes that we can measure the potential benefits and harm from each course of action, as this is a requirement for being able to determine the greatest good (Dubrin et al, 2006, p 129). Although the problem is that what may be of benefit to some people, may not be as beneficial to others so it is difficult to determine the interests of others whilst also acting the best interests in their own.



The virtue theory holds the view that the foundation of ethics lies in the development of good character traits, a person is said to be good if he or she has virtues (Arjoon, 2000, p 159). Virtue theory argues that the aim of moral life is to develop general dispositions called moral virtues and to exercise and exhibit them in many situations that human life sets before us. Dubrin et al (2006, p 133) states that if the decisions to engage in such actions tends to develop a person’s character by making him or her more virtuous then such actions are morally right. If the decisions to engage in such actions tend to make people less virtuous then these actions are morally wrong.




Ethics does play a huge part of effective leadership. It is important that leaders must remember that the decisions they make and the behaviours they wish to pursue will affect the followers, in that they are likely to follow in the same footsteps of their leader. A few theories can be used in making ethical decisions by leaders and the utilitarianism and virtue theory have been briefly outlined.

Nelson Mandela was known to be a great ethical leader.

After being released from prison after plotting to overthrow the government he emerged from this experience with the highest sense of moral and ethical values, not bitter or searching for vengeance but insisting on the removal of injustices, a gentle man personally transcending his brutal captors and their regime.

More information on Leadership & Ethics:

Ethics in Leadership

Ethics, Moral, Character and Transformational Leadership

Virtue Ethics and Leadership

Leaders on Ethics


Arjoon, S.  (2000).  Virtue theory as a dynamic theory of business.  Journal

of Business Ethics.  28 (1), p 159 – 178


Ciulla, J.B.  (1998).  Ethics in the Heart of Leadership.  Quorum Books:



Davidson, P. and Griffin, R.  (2003).  Management: An Australian

Perspective 2nd Edition.  John Wiley & Sons Australia: Queensland


Dubrin, A.J., Dalglish, C. and Miller, P.  (2006).  Leadership 2nd Asia-


Pacific Edition.  John Wiley & Sons Australia: Queensland


Fulwood, S.  (1995, April 4).  Former head of united way is convicted.  Los

Angeles Time, p 18


Gini, A.  (1996).  Moral leadership and business ethics.  Academy of

Leadership Press  (p 1 – 19). Chicago: Loyola University


Gordon, L.V.  (1975).  Measurement of Interpersonal Values.  Science

Research Associates: Chicago


Toney, F.  (1994).  Actions and traits that result in profitable companies. 

Journal of Leadership Studies.  1 (4), p 76


By Laura Phillips, Kathleen Varela and Zoe Cooper