How do morals, values and character impact ethical leadership?

Who are you?

What do I mean by morals, values and character?  For now, let’s use something simple.  How do you show up in the world? 

How does a liar introduce themself?

Ever met anyone who openly describes themselves as a liar or coward? Nope, me neither.  Although in 2018 CIPD Survey nearly a third of people said that their managers often behaved unethically.

What is my message?

There is one thing I would like you to do after reading this blog.  Spend some time thinking about your values.  Weigh up what you say and what you do.   For example, you may want to be a compassionate leader.  But do you hesitate for fear that it will impact your working relationships and how others see you?  

Alice Quote 1

Can we spot those who might behave unethically?

The economist Robert Frank decided to explore this in more detail.  He found that people send fairly reliable signals to each other.  For example, people can identify cooperative people 75% of the time and non-cooperative about 60% of the time. We can spot the good guys most of the time. But not all of the time.  This is where dialogue comes in.

“Forgetting pain is convenient. Remembering it, agonizing. But recovering the truth is worth the suffering.”

The Cheshire Cat


Why do we need to question ourselves and others?

Alasdair MacIntyre is a Scottish philosopher.  He encourages us to constantly reflect and question ourselves and others.  He wants us to use conversation to explore what is really going on.  This will help us avoid being “helplessly in the grip of our own particular beliefs”.  He also encourages us to find compromise.   Whilst “it is not always possible to find common ground” it is important to try.  This will also make sure that you are open about the influences on your thoughts and actions.  I love MacIntyre’s approach.  He believes that an ethical life is more or less impossible.  But there is hope!  He is a champion of grounding ethical life in the development of human character.  He starts with a commitment to the truth as central to human well-being.

What does this mean for ethical leadership? 

If MacIntyre is to be believed, then ethical leadership is a classic “journey not a destination”.  O’Connell & Bligh (2009) identified nine ways in to be a more ethical leader.  They are:

  1. Use an ethical lens
  2. Make ethical decisions
  3. Consider the long-term impact of decisions
  4. Consider others well-being and treat others fairly
  5. Role model ethical behaviour
  6. Communicate the importance of ethics
  7. Understand yourself and those with whom you work
  8. Hold other accountable for acting ethically
  9. Offer support and development on how to act ethically

Can our Moral Compass help?

But how do you begin?  I like the idea of ethical leaders focusing on high quality conversations. 

  1. Understand your own moral compass by talk to friends and colleagues
  2. Understand your colleagues’ moral compasses through observation and conversation
  3. Use this understanding to help inform your discussions and decisions

Leaders need to find time to allow discussion and debate.  This will lead to more understanding of each other.  In turn this should promote more ethical decision making.  See Sarah Harvey’s blog “Time to get curious about active listening.” She provides tips on how to learn something new about the other person. (Even if you have doubts about their moral compass).

Is it all worth the effort?

Ethical leaders are those leaders that are sensitive to the interest of all employees without fear or favour.   Various studies have revealed that ethical leadership can improve:

  • organisational culture
  • job satisfaction
  • motivation and engagement
  • willingness to report problems
  • extra effort on task performance


What do we think?

We believe that being an ethical leader means “doing well by doing good”.  We see the practice of ethical leadership as extremely dynamic. What was ethical yesterday may not be ethical tomorrow.  We focus on helping leaders adopt a mindset that promotes ethical behaviour.

We work with individuals and organisations to help them think deeply.  We enable a diverse dialogue to discover and define ethical leadership in their situation.  We help them measure the impact of their ethical leadership on themselves and their organisation.  Our programmes offer unique experiences to educate and inspire the practice of ethical leadership for all.

Alice Quote 2

What do you think?

Thank you for taking the time to read this post.  I would love to hear your feedback, comments, questions and observations:

If you would like a copy of the references for this blog post, please email me.  [email protected]

Caroline Wynn – Leaders Athenaeum