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Learn how to build trust, credibility, and respect for both you and the organization by being an ethical leader.


  • What is ethical leadership?

  • Why practice ethical leadership?

  • When and by whom should ethical leadership be practiced?

  • How do you practice ethical leadership?

  • Specific components of ethical leadership

Consider a dilemma: You’re the director of a community-based human services organization that includes sites in several towns. A state budget crisis is threatening to reduce your funding by 30%. The head of the state funding agency suggests to you that you simply close down a site. That means both laying off dedicated staff members and denying services to a community and a group of people that has come to rely on you. Perhaps more important, it means deciding among several communities, to all of which you’ve made a commitment. How do you handle the situation?

Or think about this: You get wind from a contact at a foundation about a grant possibility that would be perfect for a collaboration with another organization. At the same time, you realize that your organization could probably successfully apply alone, and end up with a much larger amount of money than if you applied with a partner. In that case, the service you’d provide would be somewhat narrower, but still helpful to the people you work with, and the funding would help with your administrative expenses. On the other hand, the other organization, with which you have a good working relationship, is in financial difficulty, and a grant like this would do a great deal to help it survive. What will you do?

These are ethical questions. Leaders of organizations, initiatives, and institutions – not to mention politicians – face them nearly every day, and have to make decisions. The decisions they make, as well as the ways by which they make those decisions, determine whether or not they are ethical leaders. Whether you direct a small organization, are in charge of a group in a larger organization, head a large agency or institution, or simply sometimes take an informal leadership role in your daily life, the issue of ethical leadership is one you can’t avoid. This section is about ethical leadership: what it is, why it’s important, and how to practice it.

What do we mean by ethical leadership?

We can’t really discuss ethical leadership without looking first at ethics. Ask 100 people – or 100 philosophers, for that matter – what they mean by ethics, and you might get 100 different answers. The struggle to define ethical behavior probably goes back to prehistory, and serves as a cornerstone of both ancient Greek philosophy and most major world religions.

Ethical behavior, in its simplest terms, is knowing and doing what is right. The difficulty is in defining “right.” Different individuals, different cultures, and different religions define it in different ways. The accepted treatment of women and attitudes toward slavery in different cultures and at different times in history provide prime examples of how what’s “right” can vary.

Many people would define ethics and morality as identical, but it is helpful to view them somewhat differently. Ethics are based on a set of social norms and/or logically coherent philosophical principles; morality is based on a (usually broader) set of beliefs, religious and cultural values, and other principles which may or may not be logically coherent. Morality can, however, form the basis for an ethical system.

John Rawls, one of the most important ethical philosophers of the 20th century, makes a distinction between comprehensive moral systems, such as religions, which cover not only behavior, but such issues as humanity’s place in the universe, and less comprehensive systems, which cover the political, social, and/or economic spheres. Ethical leadership, at least for the purposes of this section, falls into the second category.

Even the meaning of “ethics” is open to interpretation. Some of the different ways that the term is defined:

  • Situational ethics. What’s right depends on the context of the situation. What’s right in one situation may be wrong in another.
  • Cultural relativism. Whatever a culture deems right is ethical for that culture. No one has any right to judge the ethics of another culture except on its own terms.
  • Professional ethics. Many professions – law, medicine, and psychotherapy are perhaps the most familiar, but the list is long and varied – have their own specific codes of ethics, which all members of those professions are expected to follow. Members of those professions are considered ethical in their practice if they adhere to the code of their profession.
  • Value-based ethics. The assumption here is that everyone has a set of values she lives by. A person is behaving ethically if her behavior matches her values.
  • Rule-based ethics. If you follow the rules – of your organization, your peer group, your culture, your religion, etc. – you’re behaving ethically.

None of the conceptions in this list is perfect, but these last two, in particular, have a glaring problem: not all value systems or rules reflect what is right, by most people’s definition. In the 1980’s, for instance, many people considered the ideas in Robert Ringer’s 1977 book, Looking Out for #1 – which explains human behavior in terms of selfishness and self-preservation – to be an excellent foundation for a value system of self-centeredness. In a more extreme case, Hitler’s value system, which many Germans adopted in the 20th century, glorified “Aryan” supremacy, and resulted in the murders of millions of people.

Although the law is a set of rules, simply acting legally is not necessarily the same as acting ethically. Many actions that are in themselves not illegal – using other people emotionally, treating your employees as disposable objects – are nonetheless unethical by most standards. By the same token, breaking an unjust law – sitting in at a segregated lunch counter, for instance – could be supremely ethical.

  • Ethics based on fairness. Ethical behavior consists in making sure everyone is treated fairly.
  • Ethics based on a set of coherent, generally-accepted principles. These are meant to be principles that most rational people can accept: honesty, justice, fairness, avoiding harm to others, taking responsibility for your actions, putting the greater good ahead of your own interests, etc..

There are problems with each of these conceptions, the main one for most of them still being the issue we started with: exactly what is right, and who defines it? At the same time, most of these ideas of ethics have their strong points as well, and those ideas can perhaps be incorporated into an ethical framework that isn’t so easily set out, but covers a broad range of situations.

The author’s attempt at a definition of ethical behavior, based on what seems to be the general thinking on the subject, is this:

Ethical behavior reflects a value system that grows out of a coherent view of the world, based on equity, justice, the needs and rights of others as well as oneself, a sense of obligation to others and to the society, and the legitimate needs and standards of the society.

This is hardly meant to be a perfect definition. Just what constitutes the legitimate needs and standards of society, for instance, has been argued over for centuries, and is constantly changing as societies evolve.

So, given that even the definition of ethics can be unclear, how do you ensure that your decisions and actions are ethical? Again, there seem to be as many answers to this question as there are people willing to answer it. One good set of answers comes from the West Virginia University Extension, in a course for volunteer leaders devised by Patricia Pinnell and Shirley Eagan. It takes the form of four questions to ask yourself about any decision or action you take:

  • Kid on Your Shoulder: Would you do it if your kids were watching?
  • Front Page of the Newspaper: Would you like to see it published on page 1 of your local newspaper?
  • Golden Rule: Would you be happy being on the receiving end of the decision or action? (i.e., “Treat others as you would like them to treat you.”)
  • Rule of universality: Would it be okay if everyone did it?

If you can honestly answer “yes” to all or most of these questions, then it’s likely that your decision or action is truly ethical.

Ethical leadership

Ethical leadership really has two elements. First, ethical leaders must act and make decisions ethically, as must ethical people in general. But, secondly, ethical leaders must also lead ethically – in the ways they treat people in everyday interaction, in their attitudes, in the ways they encourage, and in the directions in which they steer their organizations or institutions or initiatives.

Ethical leadership is both visible and invisible. The visible part is in the way the leader works with and treats others, in his behavior in public, in his statements and his actions. The invisible aspects of ethical leadership lie in the leader’s character, in his decision-making process, in his mindset, in the set of values and principles on which he draws, and in his courage to make ethical decisions in tough situations.

Ethical leaders are ethical all the time, not just when someone’s looking; and they’re ethical over time, proving again and again that ethics are an integral part of the intellectual and philosophical framework they use to understand and relate to the world.

Some important components of ethical leadership (we’ll discuss these more later under “How do you practice ethical leadership?”):

  • The ability to put aside your ego and personal interests for the sake of the cause you support, the organization you lead, the needs of the people you serve, and/or the greater good of the community or the world.
  • The willingness to encourage and take seriously feedback, opinions different from your own, and challenges to your ideas and proposed actions.
  • The encouragement of leadership in others.
  • Making the consideration and discussion of ethics and ethical questions and issues part of the culture of the group, organization, or initiative.
  • Maintaining and expanding the competence that you owe those who trust you to lead the organization in the right direction and by the best and most effective methods.
  • Accepting responsibility and being accountable.
  • Perhaps most important, understanding the power of leadership and using it well – sharing it as much as possible, never abusing it, and exercising it only when it will benefit the individuals or organization you work with, the community, or the society.

Why practice ethical leadership?

Most people would probably agree that leaders ought to be ethical (although there might be a lot of disagreement about what that means), but there are a number of good reasons why ethical leadership makes sense.

  • Ethical leadership models ethical behavior to the organization and the community. Leaders are role models. If you want your organization or initiative – and those who work in it – to behave ethically, then it’s up to you to model ethical behavior. A leader – and an organization – that has a reputation for ethical behavior can provide a model for other organizations and the community, as well.
  • Ethical leadership builds trust. Leadership – except leadership gained and maintained through the use of force and intimidation – is based on trust. People will follow an ethical leader because they know they can trust him to do the right thing as he sees it.
  • Ethical leadership brings credibility and respect, both for you and the organization. If you’ve established yourself as an ethical leader, individuals and groups within and outside the organization, will respect you and your organization for your integrity.
  • Ethical leadership can lead to collaboration. Other organizations will be much more willing to collaborate with you if they know that you’ll always deal with them ethically.
  • Ethical leadership creates a good climate within the organization. If everyone in the organization knows that power will be shared and not abused, that they’ll be dealt with respectfully and straightforwardly, that they’ll have the power to do their jobs, and that the organization as a whole will operate ethically in the community, they’re likely to feel more secure, to work well together, and to be dedicated to the organization and its work.
  • If you have opposition, or are strongly supporting a position, ethical leadership allows you to occupy the moral high ground. This is especially important if your opposition is ethical as well. You can look very small in comparison if your ethical standards are not up to theirs, discrediting your cause and alienating your allies.
  • Ethical leadership is simply the right way to go. Everyone has an obligation to themselves, to their organization, to the community, and to society to develop a coherent ethical system that seeks to make the world a better place. Leaders, for the reasons already stated, and because of the responsibilities of leadership, have a particular obligation in this respect.
  • Ethical leadership affords self-respect. Because you know that you consistently consider the ethics of your decisions, actions, and interactions, you can sleep at night and face yourself in the morning without questioning your own integrity.

When and by whom should ethical leadership be practiced?

The general pattern of most Tool Box sections includes these “when?” and “who?” questions. In this case, they are easily answered. Ethical leadership should be practiced all the time by anyone in a leadership position – whether that position is formal or informal, intentional or unintentional. There are no times when it’s more appropriate than others, nor are there people for whom it is more appropriate than for others.

There are definitely times when ethical leadership is more difficult than not – when there are hard choices to make, or when the right choice is clear but unpleasant (confronting a nice person who’s simply not doing his job, and making everyone else’s harder as a result, for example, or acting against your own self-interest). In fact, the difficult times are when ethical leadership is most important, because the stakes are high.

The stakes in ethical leadership may also vary widely, depending on the level and responsibilities of the leadership in question. Few directors of community-based organizations find themselves faced with the kinds of life-and-death decisions that may be experienced by national leaders, for instance. Yet their decisions can still have serious ethical and human consequences, even though those consequences may play out in a more limited sphere.

Ethical leadership is part – although by no means all – of the definition of good leadership. Being an ethical leader is a full-time job – it isn’t something you can put on and off at will. You either are or you aren’t, and if you are, you have to try to be one all the time.

How do you practice ethical leadership?

While this section generally refers to leaders as if they were the people at the head of organizations, initiatives, and communities, the Tool Box recognizes that anyone might take on a leadership role at any time. The question of ethical leadership isn’t only to be considered by people with official leadership titles – Director, Coordinator, Chair, etc.. The general guidelines for ethical leadership, with only a little adjustment, could double as general guidelines for ethical living. Putting the greater good above your own personal interests, for instance, is one of the ways that most societies and cultures define heroism. Thus, this section isn’t only for those who are designated as leaders: it’s for everyone.

Just as most people aren’t born leaders, but learn to be so through experience and hard work, people – even highly ethical people – learn to practice ethical leadership over time. Here, we’ll present some general guidelines for ethical leadership, and then look more specifically at what being an ethical leader entails.

Ethical leadership requires a clear and coherent ethical framework that the leader can draw on in making decisions and taking action.

A coherent ethical framework or philosophy doesn’t pop into your head overnight. It develops over time through your experience, your background, what you’ve been taught, and the actions of role models. In other words, your ethical framework is built from everything that’s gone into making you who you are.

That doesn’t mean that your personal history has to include a lot of instruction in ethics, or even role models who demonstrated highly ethical behavior. For some people, ethical standards arise in opposition to what they’ve seen and experienced. For others, they grow out of cultural or religious teaching, or out of academic learning in such areas as philosophy, history, psychology, or literature. For most of us, an ethical framework probably incorporates a combination of several of these factors, and others as well.

An ethical structure is necessary because it provides a guideline for making ethical choices. Its content – the actual standards that each of us holds himself to – may vary from person to person and, to some extent, from situation to situation. What’s important is that having an ethical framework provides you with a basis for making difficult ethical decisions, rather than leaving you to struggle with each separate decision in a vacuum. It’s like the difference between building a house from a set of plans, and building it from guesswork, one piece of wood at a time.

Many situations or problems just don’t allow for simple solutions, or even satisfactory ones. The first situation at the beginning of this section – close down a site to keep a program functioning at a high level in the face of budget cuts – is one in which people are likely to be hurt no matter what decision is made. A coherent ethical framework may not present you with a clear decision, but it will tell you what factors you must consider, and help you sort out which are more important. That process may still leave you with an array of choices, none of which seems totally acceptable. Ultimately, hard decisions are made not by ethical structures, but by people, who bring their ethical standards and their human feelings – as well as the opinions of others – into the mix.

Three necessary characteristics of a useful ethical framework are:

  • Internal consistency. Each of its principles should fit with all the others, rather than contradicting any of them.
  • Proactivity. It should tell you what to do, not what not to do.
  • Dynamism. It should be constantly reexamined and readjusted as your ethical thinking evolves.

Having such a foundation doesn’t make you an ethical leader, but it helps your development as an ethical person, a necessary characteristic for an ethical leader.

Your ethical framework should agree with that of the ethical framework, vision, and mission of the organization or initiative.

If you don’t buy into the ethical stance of the organization, you shouldn’t take the job in the first place. An organization that is dedicated to collaborative decision-making and equal status as an ethical principle, for instance, can’t be ethically led by someone who truly believes her ethical duty is to make decisions for everyone.

An exception here is when you’ve been hired to change the ethical framework and/or the culture of the organization. This might happen if a previous director proved to be highly unethical – misusing funds, treating staff members abusively or with disrespect – and a major shift in the organizational climate is called for. In that case, you’re expected to model and import a different set of ethical standards and assumptions, in order to restore the integrity of the organization.

An implication for ethical leadership here is that the vision and mission of the organization must be uppermost in any decision-making. An ethical leader does nothing to compromise the philosophy or the vision and mission of the organization. You should not, for example, accept funding that would require the organization to do something contrary to its best interests or ethical standards (e.g., use methods that it believes are ineffective or harmful).

An interesting ethical question arises when an organization is offered money by a funder whose philosophy or world view is contrary to that of the organization (a corporate foundation whose parent corporation has an anti-gay stance, for instance, or mistreats its workers in some way). One way of looking at this situation is that it’s simply unethical to take money from such a source. Another is that, as long as the funder doesn’t require you to endorse or act on its unethical stance or behavior, it’s better that the money goes to your organization than to one that does in fact support the funder’s philosophy. Some would see this as taking money under false pretenses, others as using it well. The “right” answer here really depends on the ethical standards of the organization.

Ethics should be a topic of discussion.

Just as an ethical framework must be constantly reexamined, both the ethics of an organization and the ethics of everyone in it should be regularly discussed by all concerned. Everyone’s ethical assumptions, including the leader’s, should be open to questioning, and everyone should be willing to hear that questioning without defensiveness and to consider it seriously. Only by serious discussion of ethical questions, and being willing to examine your own ethical assumptions can you continue to develop your ethical understanding. It was mentioned above that an ethical framework grows out of all you learn and experience. If you extend that statement to its logical conclusion, it follows that your ethical framework continues to grow as you continue to learn and have experiences, and that process – if you’re consciously examining ethical questions – goes on throughout life.

Ethics should be out in the open.

You should be able and willing to explain your ethical framework and your ethical decisions, and to stand by them (unless you’re convinced by someone else’s argument that they’re wrong or lacking in some way). Furthermore, you have a responsibility to stand up for what you believe in, not just to talk about it.

Ethical thought must be connected to action.

The best intentions in the world mean nothing if they remain intentions. Just holding an ethical viewpoint or philosophy doesn’t constitute ethical leadership. That viewpoint or philosophy must be translated into action, in both general and specific instances (i.e. in the way you treat people and steer the organization over time, as well as in the individual decisions you make).

Ethical leadership is a shared process.

Everyone in an organization or community should have the chance to exercise it – and to follow through with exercising it – when appropriate. That may be a matter of questioning a decision or action, of initiating one, of being a role model in a given situation, or of upholding the integrity of the organization.

Remember that, as a leader, you’re a role model whether you choose to be or not. People will take their cues about the way the organization should be, about organizational culture, and about what constitutes ethical behavior, from you. Remember that, and act accordingly. (That means paying attention not only to what you say and do, but to the appearance of it: regardless of the reality, you shouldn’t do anything that looks or could be interpreted as unethical.)

As an ethical leader, you should encourage others to take leadership roles, and mentor them when they do. This fosters the development of ethical leaders within the organization or community, which improves its functioning and gives it more resources when a problem or crisis arises. In addition, it trains a new group of leaders who can assume more responsibility as time goes on – thus relieving pressure on you – and take over leadership when you move on to something else.

Specific components of ethical leadership

Put the good of the organization and the general good before your own interests and ego.

One of the true tests of ethical leadership is making the decision that’s best for the organization even when it’s not in the leader’s self-interest to do so. (An organization’s director might cut her own salary in lean times, for instance, or, less drastically, expand others’ decision-making power at the expense of her own.)

It can sometimes be hard to distinguish the good of the organization from the good of the leader. A director taking on a new task might seem important for the organization, but might be counter-productive if it leaves him without enough time to carry out other necessary tasks, or leads to burn-out. Leaders, especially in small, community-based organizations, sometimes have to be careful not to sacrifice themselves beyond the point of usefulness.

In some ways, putting the greater good before your own can be thought of as the definition of ethical leadership, since it underlies so many of the other components. Leaders who sacrifice themselves for a cause or for others are often seen as heroic, but you don’t have to die in battle or go to prison – or fast as Gandhi and Cesar Chavez did – to qualify as an ethical leader. You simply have to be willing to put your ego and self-interest aside, and do what’s best for the organization or those for whom you’re responsible.

Encourage the discussion of ethics in general and of the ethical choices involved in specific situations and decisions as an ongoing feature of the organizational culture.

Everyone in the organization should be accustomed to analyzing the ethical implications of a given decision or action, and deciding whether and how those implications should influence their approach.

Institutionalize ways for people to question your authority.

Unless the goal of your organization is pure profit, warfare, or world conquest – and perhaps even then – the chances are that autocratic leadership will be bad for you (you won’t get the feedback and information you need to become more effective and make good decisions), bad for those you lead (many will be unhappy and resentful, and may intentionally or unintentionally become less effective as a result), and bad for the organization (much of the input and creativity of staff other than you will be lost, and lack of ownership of decisions and philosophy on their part could lead to a less successful organization and lots of turnover.) All should have some share in decision-making – at least in areas that affect them directly – and should have at least enough power to do their jobs well without interference.

A word – actually more than a word – here about power and its uses:

Erich Fromm, in Escape from Freedom (New York: Henry Holt [Holt Rhinehart and Winston], 1941, 1969) distinguishes between power over and power to. Power over is the ability to control other human beings, and to use them to achieve one’s own ends. Power to is the capacity to accomplish one’s goals without needing power over others. (That doesn’t necessarily mean without needing help, but it does mean that that help isn’t forced.)

Power over involves some degree of force and/or intimidation, whether physical, psychological, economic, social, political, or a combination thereof. In an organization or a community, the exercise of such power can lead to enormous negative consequences – the need to continue indefinitely the application of force or intimidation at the cost of other goals (and often at the cost of the leader’s humanity), and, among followers, resentment and rebellion, turf- and self-protection, lack of concern for others or for the work, a power vacuum when the leader is absent, etc.. (Fromm describes the human taste for this kind of power as psychological cannibalism.)

Power to implies none of this. In the context of ethical leadership, it can be seen as both the personal power – i.e. the internal resources of knowledge and self-knowledge, learned skills, talent, determination, work ethic, empathy, interpersonal skills, etc. – and the ability to marshal other resources – i.e., assistance from others, adequate time, funding, etc. – that enable you to get things done. Gaining and exercising this kind of power takes working at personal development (interpersonal skills, self-knowledge and understanding, empathy, an ever-expanding world view, unselfishness, objectivity) and being willing to share power.

Ethical leaders are concerned with power to: in fact, that’s the only kind of power they see. Any authority is only legitimate insofar as it makes it possible to accomplish goals. Power isn’t, or shouldn’t be, a means of gaining status or of advancing your self-interest, or – worst of all – of proving you’re stronger or better than others. It’s a means to accomplish positive goals that are meant to benefit a large number of people, not only the leader herself.

As a result, ethical leaders encourage and mentor others to lead, and share power when it’s appropriate, on the assumption that such sharing will speed the development of new leadership and increase the possibility of success. Power is a positive force in their philosophy, to be used for the accomplishment of goals that lead to healthier communities and better quality of life, rather than to more power for themselves, self-aggrandizement, or the advancement of their own self-interest. Using power properly and well – sharing it and never abusing it – is a basic feature of ethical leadership.

Don’t take yourself too seriously.

In addition to the serious business of understanding and making ethical choices, ethical leadership encompasses maintaining your perspective and a sense of humor. Leaders are human, and need to remain so. Once you start protecting your leadership turf too vigorously, your effectiveness – as well as your claim to ethical behavior – is likely to diminish.

Consider the consequences to others of your decisions, and look for ways to minimize harm.

Rushworth Kidder (How Good People Make Tough Choices) New York: William Morrow, 1995) describes a moral dilemma as the choice, not between right and wrong, but between two rights. Trying to decide what’s more important in a situation where something is gained at a loss to something else that may seem equally worthy is a real challenge for ethical leadership.

Two rights may sometimes also seem to be two wrongs. Laying off a staff member in order to maintain services in another area can be viewed as benefiting some participants by cutting back personnel in other areas or as harming the staff member and other participants. The same applies if you make the opposite decision, and cut back services – some people seem to benefit, some are harmed. Decisions like this require the application of your ethical framework, as well as a dose of human sensitivity. There’s no good solution here, short of finding more funding, but there may be one that’s less bad than the alternatives.

Treat everyone with fairness, honesty, and respect all the time.

This seems almost too obvious to include here, but it’s one of the most important pieces of ethical leadership. The way you’re viewed – and who you actually are – can be judged by how you treat others, regardless of how society views them. “All men are created equal” doesn’t mean that everyone’s the same, or has equal potential and talents, but it does mean that everyone’s of equal worth, and deserves to be treated so.

Treat other organizations in the same way you treat other people – with fairness, honesty, and respect.

That means being open in all your dealings, informing other groups of what you’re doing that may affect them, being a good and reliable collaborator, etc.. If you’re known as someone who’s always honest and fair, that reputation will attach itself to your organization as well, and other organizations will want to work with you.

Collaborate inside and outside the organization.

Collaboration brings more possibilities and more ideas into whatever you do, builds bonds among organizations and among people within an organization, spreads power and responsibility so that more voices are heard and stress is reduced, and increases opportunities for funding and creative programming. Collaboration also establishes you as someone who’s willing to share power and resources, and who’s more concerned with doing a good job and providing the best services possible than with protecting turf and authority.

While collaboration is often desirable, we don’t mean to imply that you have an obligation to collaborate in every situation – especially when it would bring no benefit to your group or organization, or would involve other entities with which you would prefer not to work. When collaboration can be mutually beneficial, when it can lead to better outcomes for the people you work with, or a more powerful alliance for your cause, or when it can afford gains to all the collaborating groups, it’s generally the way to go. Refusing to collaborate simply because of turf issues or reluctance to admit that another organization might be able to do a good job is not generally the stance of an ethical leader.


Set up and maintain communication channels with and among all those you work with. If everyone knows that you’ll let them know what you’re considering, as well as any important information you have that they don’t, it will increase their trust in you, and make rumor, innuendo, suspicion, and resentment far less likely.

Work to become increasingly interpersonally competent.

Depending upon where you’re starting from and what’s necessary, this might include:

  • Improving your understanding of nonverbal communication – body language, facial expression, tone and pitch of voice, etc..
  • Using nonverbal communication to indicate attention and respect (or other attitudes when appropriate).
  • Maintaining or improving active listening skills.
  • Striving for clarity in all communication, spoken and written, so that there are no misunderstandings.
  • Learning how you’re perceived by others and other groups, and using that learning to adjust your behavior if necessary.
  • Increasing empathy.
  • Constantly striving for a better understanding of interpersonal relationships.
  • Constantly striving for a better understanding of yourself.

Try to become culturally sensitive and culturally competent.

Learn about and become comfortable with the diverse cultures in the community, and get to know individuals from those cultures. Other efforts here might include:

  • Learning, or improving your grasp of, the language of the population with which you work.
  • Learning about the traditions, behavioral and communication norms, and history of the cultural groups in the community.
  • Joining in ethnic and other celebrations and rituals.
  • Making an effort to hire people from various cultures.
  • Learning how to deal with cultural traditions that are at odds with the majority culture, and the dislocation that can mean for some immigrant groups.
  • Identifying and establishing a working relationship with other organizations that serve the same populations you work with, for purposes of both cross-referral and consultation.

Work to be inclusive.

That means working with – and being willing to hire – people from all ethnicities, races, classes, cultures, sexual orientations, etc.. It also means using diversity creatively, by encouraging people to learn about and value one another’s traditions and views, and to be willing to discuss them openly when there’s conflict or disagreement.

Take your leadership responsibility seriously, and be accountable for fulfilling it.

One director of a community-based organization included as part of his job description “Catch the flak and pass on the praise.” As a leader, you are responsible for what happens under your leadership. Just as you hold others accountable for doing their jobs and for their errors in judgment, you have to hold yourself – and allow others to hold you – accountable as well. As an ethical leader, you should build accountability into your position, whether it’s formal or informal, and be prepared to deal straightforwardly with the consequences of your decisions and actions.

Taking responsibility and working to correct mistakes and improve unacceptable performance are part of a leader’s job, as is making sure that the organization’s dealings with everyone are ethical. Blaming others – even though others may have made the mistakes or failed to do their jobs in specific situations – doesn’t remove the leader’s overall responsibility for making sure that those things don’t happen, and simply makes her look like a coward.

That’s the reason that a jury convicted the Chairman and CEO of Enron, Ken Lay and Jeffrey Skilling, regardless of their defense that they didn’t know about the illegal accounting that inflated the company’s standing. Even if that were true, they should have known – it was their responsibility, and the jury held them accountable.

Constantly strive to increase your competence.

People depend on leaders to be competent: it’s the reason for the trust that is placed in them, the reason for their leadership in the first place. It’s your responsibility as an ethical leader to maintain and increase your competence, so that you can continue to steer the organization in the right direction, and those you lead can continue to trust your leadership.

Part of that responsibility is recognizing and admitting what you’re not good at, and either getting better at it, or delegating it to someone who is good at it. (Few CEOs would think of handling the financial management of their companies; that’s why they hire financial officers.) Another aspect of competence is not taking on responsibilities you can’t handle, or tasks you don’t have the time or resources to do.

Maintaining and increasing competence can be accomplished in many ways. Continuing education (actual courses, either at an educational institution or online), attendance at conferences and workshops, professional reading, regular meetings with others in similar positions to discuss leadership issues, keeping a journal of lessons learned on the job, acquiring knowledge and ideas from a variety of people – all these and other methods can be used to help you become a more effective leader.

Don’t outstay your usefulness.

Organizations, particularly community-based organizations, need to grow and change as they mature. Ethical leaders recognize when they’ve done all they can, or when the organization simply needs someone else at the helm if it’s to continue to develop.

“Founder’s disease” is the name given to the all-too-familiar refusal of a leader to recognize that the organization he founded needs to grow beyond his influence. Many such leaders, thinking mistakenly that the organization or initiative they started can’t function without them, believe they’re nurturing their baby when, in fact, they’re stifling it. Organizations and other groups, like children, need to take on more and more responsibility for themselves as they mature. Just as parents who can’t let go keep their children from growing up (or face rejection as the children struggle for independence), leaders who can’t let go damage their organizations.

Never stop reexamining your ethics and your leadership.

As we’ve pointed out several times in this section, ethical leadership doesn’t end – it’s practiced all the time and over time. Cincinnatus, a 5th Century B.C. Roman, was called from plowing his field and made dictator in order to save a Roman army in danger of defeat. Quickly defeating the enemy, he gave up his dictatorship after only 16 days and went back to his farm...but he remained a leader regardless, simply because people saw him as one. He was so much regarded as a leader, in fact, that, according to the Roman writer Livy, he was called upon again to be dictator 20 years later, when he was over 80.

Ethical leadership doesn’t end, and neither should your effort to continue to explore and practice ethical leadership.

In Summary

Leadership is a privilege and a responsibility that demands a good deal from those who practice it, whether formally or informally. High on that list of demands is the need to be ethical, both in personal life and in leadership. Because leaders are role models whether they choose to be or not, they set the tone for the ethical stance of their individual followers, of the organization or group they lead, and, to some extent, of the larger community.

Ethical leadership requires from the leader a coherent ethical framework that will guide her decisions and actions all the time, not only in specific situations. Among the most important of the characteristics that define an ethical leader are openness and honesty; the willingness to make the discussion of ethical issues and decisions a regular part of the organizational or group conversation and culture; the urge to mentor others to lead; the drive to maintain and increase competence; the capacity to accept and seriously consider feedback, both positive and negative; the ability to put aside personal interest and ego in the interest of the cause or organization; the appropriate use of power, which is never abused or turned toward the leader’s own ends; and consciousness of the human beings behind the labels of “opponent,” “ally,” “staff member,” “participant,” etc..

Finally, and perhaps most important, an ethical leader never stops reexamining his own ethical assumptions and what it means to be an ethical leader. Like so many other important tasks, maintaining ethical leadership is ongoing; like only a few others, it can last a lifetime.

Phil Rabinowitz

Online Resources

Brochure for student organizations at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

Community Policing

Center for Ethical Leadership,a non-profit corporation based in Seattle. Consulting, training, etc., for nonprofits, schools, government, business, etc..

Center for Ethical Leadership at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin.

CEO Refresher: “Ethical Leadership: The State of the Art,” by Herb Rubinstein.

“Ethical Leadership in Turbulent Times”, Darden School of Business, University of Virginia. A Powerpoint presentation summarizing several styles of leadership.

A Bridge Paper of the Business Roundtable Institute for Corporate Ethics, “Developing Ethical Leadership,” R. Edward Freeman and Lisa Stewart.

ERIC Digest 107, June 1996: “Ethical Leadership,” by Larry Lashway, on ethical leadership in schools.

Exploring Ethical Leadership. Instruction for volunteer leaders in ethical leadership from the West Virginia University Extension Service, developed by Patricia Pinnell and Shirley Eagan.

Workforce, a management journal. Five Standards of Leadership Practiced by Ethical Leaders, Editor’s Choice article on ethical leadership of companies.

Print Resources

Community Links, Ph. VIII, No. 3, Issue 12, Summer 2000.

Fromm, E., Holt H., Holt, R., & Wiston. (1941, 1969). Escape from Freedom. New York, NY.

Kidder, R. (1995). How Good People Make Tough Choices. New York, NY: William Morrow.

Lucas N. Global Leadership: A Turn of the Kaleidoscope. Chapter 4 of Concepts, Challenges, and Realities of Leadership: An International Perspective.

MacGregor, B., Sorenson, G., & Matusak L. (edited) Selected Proceedings from the Salzburg Seminar on International Leadership

Rawls, J. (1971). A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

 “What Exactly Does Ethical Leadership Mean These Days?” An interview with John Hawkins, Leadership Edge, a leadership consulting firm.