How to Become a More Ethical Leader

Published: Jan 24, 2019

There are several tried-and-true tactics that may be employed to improve one’s reputation as an ethical leader. You may already be using some of these strategies, and others you can add to your repertoire.

Strategy 1: Make Sure to Walk the Talk
Many leaders believe that doing the right thing is important, but talking about ethics or values should be relegated to other life domains such as family or religion. They may believe that employees’ values are set by the time they start working at their organization. Although values are important drivers of behavior, ethical leaders play a critical role in raising awareness that certain decisions have an ethical component. For example, an ethical leader may highlight that a decision to do business in a certain country may not be illegal, but adhering to the country’s business norms may violate the company’s code of conduct. It is critical for leaders to discuss ethics and values, and how the decisions they make fit with the company’s espoused values and mission. Talking about ethics is not enough. Ethical leaders must behave in line with their words.1 When leaders espouse the importance of being ethical, but then promote individuals who are disrespectful or dishonest high performers, it can damage how much the leaders will be trusted in the future.

Strategy 2: Find Your Mantra
Being ethical may seem to be natural, but it takes a lot of work. Much like athletes who need to train, ethical leaders must develop tools to keep their moral compass working at all times.2 Developing a mantra is a way to keep one’s values at the top of one’s mind. A few examples of a mantra are the following: What would my children/parents think if they saw me engage in this behavior?; Would I be comfortable if this was on the front page of the Wall Street Journal?; What would someone I respect or a religious deity think of my actions? It is useful to have a mantra, as well as other reminders, such as regularly reading an inspirational quote about living a good life, decorating office space with reminders of what matters in life, or keeping a journal to reflect on one’s actions.

Strategy 3: Avoid Self-Serving Pitfalls
We have a unique gift for justifying and rationalizing behavior,3 as we are skilled at interpreting our own actions as not violating ethical principles. It is important to see when we may be falling into these biases. We tend to fall for self-interested reasons when we really want something such as a promotion, a big account, or meeting performance objectives. When wrestling with an ethical decision, make sure to ask if your ethical decision was aligned with your self-interest. If it is in line with a personally desired outcome, you may consider revisiting your decision, making sure you are doing what is right—and not just what is best for you. For example, your company decides to move and you, as the leader, decide you are entitled to the largest office. Is it fair, given your seniority, or are you considering if you are using “fairness” to justify your own self-interest? To be clear, falling into these pitfalls does not mean you are a bad person. But being vigilant helps you act more in line with your values.

Strategy 4: Do Not Go at It Alone
Becoming an ethical leader is not a solo voyage. Developing high-quality relationships with trusted individuals will give you honest feedback about your behavior. An interesting thing happens as you move up in management—employees will be less likely to critique your behavior. As a result, you tend to get an overly rosy view of your own and the organization’s actions.4 People must be able to tell you when you are not acting in line with your values, and also show pride in you when you do the right thing—especially under difficult circumstances. Having a support group is valuable when you must make difficult ethical decisions. Being an ethical leader is not a solitary road; it should include a community of trusted challengers and advocates.

1 T. Simons, “Behavioral Integrity: The Perceived Alignment between Managers’ Words and Deeds as a Research Focus,” Organization Science 13 (2002): 18-35.
2 L.K. Treviño and M.E. Brown, “Managing to Be Ethical: Debunking Five Business Ethics Myths,” Academy of Management Executive 18 (2004): 69-81.
3 A. Bandura, “Moral Disengagement in the Perpetuation of Inhumanities,” Personality and Social Psychology Review 3 (1999): 193-209.
4 L.K. Treviño, G.R. Weaver, and M.E. Brown, “It’s Lovely at the Top: Hierarchical Levels, Identities, and Perceptions of Organizational Ethics,” Business Ethics Quarterly 18 (2008): 233-52.

© 2014 David M. Mayer. All rights reserved. Excerpted with permission of the publisher from How to Be a Positive Leader: Insights from Leading Thinkers on Positive Organizations, edited by Jane E. Dutton and Gretchen M. Spreitzer. 

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