Skip to content Skip to Live Chat
Close Nav

Online Degrees

Part of Western Governors University

January 30, 2020


What is ethical leadership?

Leader at whiteboard in board room teaching two women on laptop

Ethical leadership is defined as “leadership demonstrating and promoting ‘normatively appropriate conduct through personal actions and interpersonal relations’.” When you boil it down, this really means that ethical leadership is defined as putting people into management and leadership positions who will promote and be an example of appropriate, ethical conduct in their actions and relationships in the workplace. 

In the business world today, ethics are an increasingly important element and point of discussion. So leadership with ethics is very important to understand, to develop, and to recognize in the business world. If you want to become a business leader, learning about ethical leadership is crucial to help you get there. It's your responsibility to model moral behavior in the workplace when you're in a position of power in an organization. Integrity, moral behavior, and ethics are key to being a great leader.

Learn about the value of ethical leadership, how to become an ethical leader, and see examples of leadership with ethics around us in the business world today.

The importance of ethical leadership.

Leadership that is ethical is important for a variety of reasons, for customers, employees, and the company as a whole. Leadership skills are crucial to help create a positive ethical culture in a company. Leaders can help investors feel that the organization is a good, trustworthy one. Customers are more likely to feel loyal when they see leaders in place in an organization. Good press is likely to come when there are ethical leaders in an organization. Partners and vendors will similarly feel they can trust and work well with an organization when they see leadership that is ethical displayed. 

In the short-term, ethical leaders can help boost employee morale and help them feel excited about their management and their work. It can increase positivity and collaboration in your organization and make everyone feel happier to be at work.

In the long-term, ethical leadership can prevent company scandals, ethical dilemmas, and ethical issues. It can also help organizations gain more partnerships and customers, which can lead to more money at the end of the day. Loyal employees are also a crucial element of long-term success for a business.

At the end of the day, Leadership with ethics and ethical principles have major short-term and long-term benefits for organizations and individuals alike. 

A professional stands in front of a group of her colleagues during a meeting.

The traits of ethical leaders.

There isn’t just one correct way to lead ethically. However, there are some basic elements that are fairly consistent among ethical leaders. Behaving in an ethical manner takes consideration and thought. Developing these traits will help you start on the journey to become an ethical leader. 

  • Leads by example. Ethical leaders should have the same expectations for themselves as for those that work for them. Ethical leaders help their employees with daily tasks, so they have an in-depth understanding of what the other workers do and the challenges that can come with their work. These leaders are then able to guide employees as they do their daily tasks. Ethical leaders also show how to be ethical and moral in their own work, which is a crucial example to other employees. When employees see that their leaders are constantly making decisions with integrity and honesty in mind, they are also willing to make those ethical considerations in their work. 

  • Willing to evolve. Good leaders need to be able to evolve and adapt to the changes that are sure to come in the business world. As businesses expands, get bought out, merge, and more, adaptability is key for success. Good organizational leaders are willing to take the changes that are coming and meet them head on. This helps encourage employees to be adaptable and evolve with changes as well. Whatever comes for a business, leaders can help steer the ship in a positive and ethical way.

  • Respects everyone equally. Respect is a vital element of ethical responsibility. Leaders that are ethical will respect everyone, from their superiors to their employees, equally. Not showing respect to the people around you can quickly create a negative or hostile work environment. It’s a sure way to lose trust and create issues inside your organization. Not showing the same level of respect can make people think they’re being treated unfairly, and can cause even more problems in the workplace. 

  • Communicates openly. Leaders who have ethics need to excel at communication to make sure their organization is a place of trust and honesty. Without communication, issues can go undetected for a long time. This can create hostility and distrust in your organization. Leaders who have ethical behavior focus on having good communication that is honest and open with every single person in their organization. 

  • Manages stress effectively. Leaders and managers are faced with stressful situations every day, both in their work life and their personal life. It’s not acceptable to take out your personal or even your professional stress on your workers. This is taking advantage of a power dynamic and can create anger, frustration, or fear in your employees. Leaders who have ethics know how to handle their stress in a productive and positive way. Regular outbursts aren’t acceptable and will make your other workers feel stressed as well. Good leaders who practice ethical behavior find ways to deal with their stress, and encourage their employees to improve if needed, in positive, helpful ways. 

  • Mediates fairly. A moral leader is an expert in solving problems in a way that is fair to everyone involved. They consider all the opinions and people involved in order to be fair and impartial. Good organizational leaders are compassionate and kind when helping solve problems and issues. They want to make sure everyone can continue to work together well after the disputes are resolved, and are focused on positive interactions moving forward. Employees will trust leaders who practice ethics who they know will listen and care about them.

Ethical leadership examples.

Let’s now look at some examples of ethical leadership, and some poor examples of leadership, so you can understand even more clearly how to become a leader who models behavior that is ethical.

Poor examples of leadership.

  • Sam is in a meeting with his staff when a concern is raised by Taylor. Sam brushes it off as something that’s not a very big deal. As a result, Taylor won’t bring up issues in the future that end up losing them a customer.

  • Kelly is good friends with Grace at the office. Grace and Aaron work together often, and are having an issue when it comes to priorities and meeting deadlines. When listening to the dispute, Kelly assumes that Grace is correct and doesn’t take Aaron’s grievances into account very seriously. Aaron can sense this bias, and takes the dispute to HR, who finds that there was an issue and Kelly didn’t take care of it.

  • Joel tells his employees they need to be constantly accurate with clocking out for lunches every day. But often, Joel will take a lunch in his office, so he doesn’t clock out, but he isn’t working. This poor example leads his employees to distrust him, to gossip about him, and feel frustrated.

Good examples of leadership.

  • Lisa is a restaurant manager who helps her waitstaff when they are busy. The staff appreciates the fact that Lisa notices and is willing to help them out.

  • Kerry is going through some issues with her family at home which is making her feel stressed. She takes five minutes to herself when she gets to her office every morning to help her leave the stress at home, and get through the day. Her staff is very appreciative that she is kind and calm during work.

  • George is leading his team through a merger with another organization. Many of his employees are stressed, but George is a confident and positive model of how to do work well without being overly anxious. His staff feels more confident and at-ease because George is so relaxed and positive. 

If you’re going into business, it’s just as valuable to know valuable leadership qualities as it is to know the specific skills and lingo. WGU can help you have the qualifications and credentials you need to succeed, but it’s vital to also learn and start to develop ethical leadership qualities as an important part of your career journey. 

Share this:

One online university. Four colleges. Flexible degrees.

Our focus on your success starts with our focus on four high-demand fields: K–12 teaching and education, nursing and healthcare, information technology, and business. Every degree program at WGU is tied to a high-growth, highly rewarding career path. Which college fits you?

Want to see all the degrees WGU has to offer? View all degrees