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What Is Different About Ethical Leadership?

Ethical Leadership

ADHERING to an ethical code during challenging times is a standout trait in many historical and present-day leaders that we’ve come to admire. Certain principals cut across the lives of such leaders as they transcend traditional leadership roles and prioritize the well-being of the communities, economies, and global society they serve.

Ethical leaders embody a respect for the sanctity of each individual, regardless of culture, country, race, or religion. They have a strong orientation toward justice and fairness. While circumstances vary, their belief that everyone is entitled to the same basic dignity and rights remains a driving force for action. They have an underlying moral courage even when going against great odds. People follow them precisely because of the moral heroism they convey.

Consider, for example, these leaders:

Nelson Mandela – Beginning in his 20s, Mandela led a peaceful, nonviolent movement for civil rights in South Africa, for which he was imprisoned for 27 years. He was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 1993 for his efforts to dismantle apartheid and later became the country’s first Black president.

Hamdi Ulukaya – Ulukaya immigrated to the U.S. from Turkey to escape the mistreatment of Kurds. As founder and CEO of Chobani, a top-selling yogurt company, he “operates on a simple fundamental principle, that we do well by doing good.” He has given his employees 10 percent of the company and has donated millions to fight food insecurity, while ensuring 30 percent of his workforce are immigrants and refugees.

Whether leading a country, a movement, or a corporation, principled leaders act from a clear ethical foundation. They engage with issues that may not be found in a job description or easily measured by traditional metrics. At the same time, they ensure that they’re effective in delivering results.

However, engaging in ethical issues is a changing realm for leaders. As witnessed by the pandemic, the world can change overnight, bringing new challenges, new dilemmas, and new choices that must be made. Keeping people safe in the broadest sense of the word becomes a foremost concern.

Principled leaders must operate in a transparent and consistent manner in accordance with the values and beliefs of the organization. They need to provide sound reasons if they make choices that seemingly contradict organizational values.

Clearly, ethical leadership requires a degree of introspection. An aspiring ethical leader needs to identify guiding principles and determine where to develop or reinforce existing skills — including compassion and love, trusting oneself and others, interest in others/inquisitive mindset, perseverance, and non-conforming, among other important traits.

In attempting to evolve into a leader that can promote an ethics-based culture in your organization, ponder these questions:

1. What consequences may your intended decisions have for those around you?

2. In what way do the decisions you make — or the ones you avoid making — trigger consequences on a broader level (interdepartmental or across the organization)?

3. What ideas do you hold about society at a deeper level? In what way does this play into your behavior as a leader?

4. What societal, environmental, and ethical impacts does your organization have on a larger scale?

5. To what extent is your leadership team attuned to their ethical responsibilities? Is there room for improvement?

6. Assuming you can name a variety of personal values you embrace and cherish, how conscious are you of these when leading?

7. In what way do you contribute or want to contribute to the greater good? Where do you make exceptions? Why?

8. In what way do you contribute to the peaceful coexistence of individuals, teams, departments, and groups of people beyond your organization? What are you satisfied with? Where do you identify room for improvement?

Overall, ethical leaders serve something greater than themselves. They have generative will — an urge and desire to create, leave a mark, improve, and serve society and establish community. What matters is the objective of a better world, a better team, a better culture, a better future.

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Leading Forum
Claas Florian Engelke provides consulting services in the fields of leadership advisory, assessment, and development. He invites clients to question themselves in order to foster incessant learning and aspire to be the best versions of themselves. Richard B. Swegan is an author and the founder and principal consultant of ARCH Performance. With a background in human resources and safety, Rick provides consulting to a variety of organizations on the developmental needs of potential leaders. Their new book, The Practice of Ethical Leadership – Insights from Psychology and Business in Building an Ethical Bottom Line (Routledge, March 28, 2024), offers effective suggestions for developing ethical leaders. Learn more at ethicalbottomline.com.

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