How do we develop ethical leadership?

What do we mean by being an ethical leader and does it deliver any value to the organisation and employees within it?

We could define an ethical leader as someone whose behaviour is consistent with broader societal values and beliefs (Mayer, 2014). Consistency and ‘walking the talk’ is a critical component to coming across as an ethical and thoughtful leader. Behaving ethically delivers value to the individual leader – behaving in line with our values delivers greater levels of self esteem, confidence and benefits our overall well being.

But are there any benefits to being led by an ethical leader?

The benefits

Research demonstrates that when followers view their leader as ethical they are more likely to be satisfied with their jobs and report greater commitment to their organisation. They are also more likely to view their work as more important and meaningful, conduct themselves more ethically and actually perform better on the job (Mayer et al, 2010). As ethical leaders promote desireable behaviour, their followers are also more likely to give a little more, beyond the job description, helping out colleagues and customers.

Reciprocity plays a part. If a leader is good to you, plays fair, does the right thing etc., then chances are you will want to do the right thing by them, by colleagues and by the organisation. Leaders set the tone and provide the example of what acceptable behaviour is within an organisation and therefore an ethical leader is likely to encourage ethical behaviour. When organisations are run by ethical leaders a virtuous circle is created.

How do we develop ourselves as ethical leaders?

How can you be seen to be an ethical leader? There are a few tried and tested ideas:

  1. Talk about it as well as walk it – it is important that leaders provide an opportunity for individuals to discuss issues about ethics and values so that individuals understand how the decisions they make fit with the company’s espoused values and mission. However, talking about ethics is not enough. Ethical leaders must behave in line with their words.
  2. Find your mantra – having a mantra is a way to keep one’s values front of mind. Before taking an action, apply your mantra to guide your decision. For instance, this mantra could be “What would Mum/my kids think of this?” or “Would I feel comfortable if this appeared on the front page of The Times?”. An inspirational quote on a yellow stickie placed somewhere around your work area helps remind you of what’s important.
  3. Question self serving behaviour – as humans we have a unique gift for rationalising our past behaviour. We may put ourselves forward for a new project as we are aiming for a promotion and then rationalise that by saying we are the right person for the job. We may well be but pausing and thinking about whose interests are best served here may stop you falling into the self serving pitfall.
  4. Have a critical friend – developing a high quality relationship with someone who is not afraid to hold a mirror up to your behaviour becomes even more important as you move through the organisation.

There are things an organisation can and should be doing to encourage and enable ethical leadership. An ethics audit is one way in which an organisation can understand what’s actually going on in such areas as hiring, performance management, or reward. Employees must feel that their responses are confidential so employing an outside consultant is key here.

In addition, involving leaders in the development of an ethical leadership model reflective of the organisation’s values and mission provides a forum for leaders to share and develop their thinking in the area. Being an ethical leader cannot be a stand alone exercise – it needs the help, support and continual reinforcement of the organisation and colleagues.

If you would like help in developing an ethical leadership model or feel you might benefit through coaching to better understand your values and priorities, do get in contact.