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There are few topics as important as leadership ethics. To illustrate that fact, think back to your leaders. Chances are you had supervisors, managers, teachers, counselors, athletic coaches, drama and music directors, professors, residence life staff, and other leaders who brightened your life. They set a good example, had high moral standards, helped you determine right from wrong, encouraged you to become a better person, and made coming to school or work a pleasant experience. You and your group accomplished more than you thought possible under their guidance. On the other hand, you may have had leaders who darkened your life by acting unfairly, bullying, lying, claiming all the credit for themselves, pressuring you to abandon your personal standards, and refusing to do their fair share. You dreaded going to class, to practice, or to your job. You and your group failed to live up to your potential.

As you can see from your own experience, leaders have the power to do great good or harm. Educational writer, Parker Palmer, believes that the difference between moral and immoral leadership is as sharp as the contrast between light and darkness, between heaven and hell. According to Palmer in Leading from Within (1996), “A leader is a person who has an unusual degree of power to create the conditions under which other people must live and move and have their being, conditions that can be either as illuminating as heaven or as shadowy as hell.”

Casting light rather than shadow puts ethics—judgments about what is right or wrong—at the heart of leadership. Most of us look forward to the benefits of leadership—recognition, a higher salary, more opportunity to chart the direction of a small group, department or organization, and greater control over others. However, when we assume the perks of leadership, we also assume some ethical burdens. Functioning as a leader means taking on a unique set of ethical challenges. We should make every effort to benefit rather than damage others, to cast light instead of shadow.

In this module, we’ll identify the ethical requirements that come with stepping into the leader role and focus on how you can meet those challenges. Keep in mind that, as a leader, you are responsible, not only for your own behavior but also for the ethical behavior of your group. You need to act as a moral person, carrying out your duties in an ethical fashion and acting as a role model for those you lead. How followers behave will depend a great deal on the example you set by acting with integrity and compassion and by living up to personal and organizational standards. You also need to act as a moral manager, drawing attention to ethics, setting ethical standards, rewarding those who meet the standards (and holding those who don’t accountable), creating just procedures, and making principled decisions. The good news is that acting as a moral person and moral manager will likely make you more, not less, successful as a leader. Ethical leaders can be more promotable and effective; their followers are more committed and satisfied (and less likely to engage in deviant behavior); and their organizations perform better.

Before moving on, take a few moments to complete the following self-assessment which asks you to rate yourself on the skills we’ll be examining in more depth.

Further Reading

Bedi, A., Aspasian, C. M., & Green, S. (2016). A meta-analytic review of ethical leadership outcomes and moderators. Journal of Business Ethics, 139, 517536.
Brown, M. E., & Trevino, L. K. (2006). Ethical leadership: A review and future directions. Leadership Quarterly, 17, 595616.
Ciulla, J. B. (Ed.). (2014). Ethics, the heart of leadership (
3rd ed.
). Praeger.
Johnson, C. E. (2021). Meeting the ethical challenges of leadership: Casting light or shadow (
7th ed.
). SAGE.
Palmer, P. (1996). Leading from within. In L. C.Spears (Ed.), Insights on leadership: Service, stewardship, spirit, and servant-leadership (pp. 197208). Wiley.