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What is Ethical Leadership?

Ethical leadership is a relatively loosely defined philosophy of leadership. To many, it is seen to equate to moral leadership or leading with a sense of great fairness.

Principles of Ethical Leadership

To others, it provides a basis for more detailed explanation and application, frequently connected to principles of:

Or it may be extended more structurally, as in the 'Triple-Bottom-Line' or 3P (Profit People Planet) concept of business management, or another view of this sort of ethical business approach, P4 (Purpose, People, Planet, Probity). These are all vast concepts, which make it very difficult and perhaps impossible to define ethical leadership precisely and absolutely.

Ambiguous Definitions of Ethical Leadership

Two other challenges arise:

  1. The shifting and variable meanings of ethical
  2. The cultural and religious nature of ethical interpretation

'Ethical' means different things to different people, and to a great degree is a changing and fluid notion. 

  • What was ethical a generation ago may not be today. 
  • What is ethical today may be considered unethical in a few years' time.

For example, a generation ago it was not generally considered unethical to smoke tobacco in a workplace or to eat produced battery hen's eggs. Today these practices are generally considered unethical. Today it is not considered unethical to refer to a red-haired person as 'ginger'. Or to advertise certain financial or sex services on television. These practices might perhaps become considered unethical in the future.

Ethical Dilemmas

  • Is Facebook ethical in the way it uses its hundreds of millions of users personal details to target advertising at them?
  • Is the drinks industry ethical in producing alcoholic drinks which will appeal to under-age drinkers?
  • Are governments ethical when they are almost entirely staffed by men?
All these are subject to debate and personal opinion. How then can it be possible to form a firm definition of ethical leadership when we don't know exactly what ethical means?

Similarly, modern leaders in this globalised world must attempt to reconcile the conflicting interpretations of 'ethical' in all cultures represented by and affected by the leader's activities and responsibilities. 

  • Is a product or service or communication developed in Washington DC ethical in Tehran? Probably not, and probably vice-versa too. 
  • Is a proposition or decision in Barcelona ethical in Beijing? Probably not, and vice-versa. 
  • Ethical disparities exist widely between different cultures, and this adds to the obstacles in defining and applying a single workable ethical leadership philosophy.

So we have to consider ethical leadership on a more pragmatic and local level.

Ethical leadership may necessarily be limited to and more easily understood and applied by, considering the leader's own and society's ideas of 'right and wrong', and encouraging followers to adopt the same values.

  • It becomes tricky when a small group of followers on reasonable grounds (perhaps religious or cultural) say, "Sorry, but that's actually not ethical to me, and I can't do it.."

The ethical leader must respect the rights and dignity of others, and the rule of law, but what if different versions of this exist within the same group of followers? 

Not surprisingly, as if these caveats were not enough, like other leadership philosophies, the distinctiveness of Ethical Leadership as a philosophy has begun to blur in recent years. As educators and commentators extend its meaning, there is a growing overlap between both servant leadership and authentic leadership.

  • An example is the Center for Ethical Leadership's definition: "Ethical leadership is knowing your core values and having the courage to live them in all parts of your life in service of the common good." 
  • Knowing and living from your core values is central to authentic leadership. Acting in service of the common good features strongly in servant leadership.

We have a philosophy that is not only very open to variation and interpretation but also has substantial overlaps with other leadership philosophies. So the philosophy is a guide, and it's flexible, but it's not a strict code, and it's certainly not a reliably transferable or teachable process for effective leadership.

The demand for leaders to behave ethically seems to have increased markedly during the 21st century. This has been driven greatly by the global financial crisis, corporate frauds, environmental disasters, etc. which have been judged failures of ethical standards - not failures of skills, resources, technology, strategy, or business acumen. 

Leaders have been judged to lack ethical consideration, which suggests the need for more ethical bias in the ways leaders are selected and developed.

  • To conclude, there is a gap in leadership for ethics, and ethical leadership philosophy is part of the answer, but for the reasons explained, it is not the whole answer.


James Scouller Biography

We are grateful to James Scouller for his help, patience, and expert contribution in producing this leadership guide.

James Scouller is an expert coach and partner at The Scouller Partnership in the UK, which specialises in coaching leaders. He was chief executive of three international companies for eleven years before becoming a professional coach in 2004. He holds two postgraduate coaching qualifications and training in applied psychology at the Institute of Psychosynthesis in London.

James Scouller's book is called "The Three Levels of Leadership: How to Develop Your Leadership Presence, Know-how and Skill" which was published in May 2011.