Ethical Leadership: Leading with Character, Values and Effective Communication (2023)

Gary Bernstein, the CEO of the Jewish Community Alliance of Northeastern Pennsylvania, discusses ethical leadership – leading with character, values and effective communication.

Ethical leadership is understanding what your basic values are and to live them in all aspects of your life in service toward the common good. Ethical leadership involves behaving in a manner that respects the rights and dignity of others; a concept that is at times in direct conflict with more traditional models of leadership.

In the past, the main goal of leadership has been to grow outputs and profits. However, in the 21st Century this understanding has begun to slowly contract as more organizational development and human resource professionals proclaim leaders also have the duty for ensuring standards of moral and ethical behavior.

Good leadership then, refers not only to competence, but also to ethics that transform organizations and people’s lives. Corporate misconduct in the last decade has caused harm to millions of investors, customers and employees. Governments and business are responding by introducing more rules and regulations. But it is an organization’s culture that determines whether it is ethical or not, not regulations. And it is the leaders who have the ultimate influence upon the culture. “The leader is responsible for the set of ethics or norms that govern the behavior of people in the organization. Leaders set the moral tone.” (Bennis & Nanus 1985 p.186)

When leaders are perceived as unethical, it is easy for those around them to follow suit. Consider the business world, for example. Often when top management are viewed as unethical or immoral, workers respond in kind by being absent more frequently, stealing supplies from the office, performing poorly, or becoming apathetic or indifferent.

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If leaders don’t think their ethics are on display, think again. Based upon various polls conducted throughout the last decade, several researchers have concluded Americans do not believe people in power are ethically sound. One study concluded that 55% of the American public believes most business executives are dishonest, and an even higher percentage feels white-collar crime occurs on a regular basis.

Even studies of executives themselves show that a majority believe executives they know “bend the rules” to get ahead. For many years, corporate America has been blemished by unethical decision-making and disreputable behavior. As examples, one can recall Ford’s defect in the Pinto’s gas tank, false advertising by Nutri-System and Jenny Craig, fraud and illegal cash management by E. F. Hutton, Salomon Brothers’ Treasury auction scandal, fraudulent accounting schemes by Enron, embezzlement practices from Tyco managers, and mutual fund abuses by Morgan Stanley. And more recently, Bernard Madoff pleaded guilty to the biggest investor scheme in history, defrauding investors of billions of dollars.

The sport industry has certainly not escaped scandal and faulty decision making with the unending attention on steroid use and unfortunate conduct of highly visible professional athletes. Indeed “ethical mistakes are responsible for ending careers more quickly and more definitively than any other errors in judgment or accounting” (Osland, Kolb, & Rubin, 2001, p. 102).

By looking at these examples, the need for ethics in leadership becomes even more apparent. Ethical leaders act ethically as an inspiration to others and communicate and manage their organization’s culture to promote ethical action.

Ethical leadership requires ethical leaders. If leaders are ethical, they can ensure ethical practices are carried throughout the organization. Leaders are naturally in a place of authority both on and off the job, so ethical leadership must concentrate on how leaders leverage this power in the decisions they make, actions they engage in and ways they influence others.

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Leaders are responsible for inspiring followers to perform actions, complete tasks and behave with certain manners. Top and effective leaders not only set the tone by encouraging open and honest communication but also influence processes and encourage empowerment and self-efficacy of their followers, as they foster the internalization of corporate vision.

The nurturing aspect of leadership can also raise an organization’s culture and employee’s values to higher levels of ethical behavior. By demonstrating ethical leadership, we promote a high level of integrity that stimulates a sense of trustworthiness and encourages subordinates to accept and follow its vision.

Character and integrity provide a strong foundation for other personal characteristics that direct our ethical beliefs, values and decisions. To improve our ethical leadership skills, we need to set reasonable boundaries and have a clear purpose behind those boundaries. Communicate boundaries in a positive manner and keep the focus on what “to do” rather than “not to do.”

Give others an opportunity to contribute to the process of establishing appropriate boundaries in the workplace. Ethical leadership is very important in organizational communication. Business leaders’ decisions must be similarly beneficial for the business and people both. The leaders should have clear ethical values of doing business and make these values known to others in their circle clearly. It will compel them to convey complete and accurate information through all means on personal, professional and legal grounds. This way you will have the respect and admiration of your employees and a peace of mind for yourself knowing you have done well.

Dealing otherwise will generate mistrust not only at organizational but social level and may even culminate into a big collapse, too. The burning example of not having ethical leadership in the company is the collapse of Enron, which fell from the high of sky because of unethical practices by its leaders.

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“Ethical leadership starts with a basic commitment to communication. The listening aspect of communication is often now placed on the back burner. You will hear someone described as charismatic or articulate, yet are they saying anything of value or substance? I believe when representing a value system, an individual must first understand what exists within the organization. You need to recognize why something is important and can it be strengthened?” (Broderick, 2021)

If you have the responsibility of leading and influencing others, it’s important that you remain aware of the impact you have on them in integrity and ethics. Employees who see ethical behavior modeled by their manager or supervisor are more likely to act in kind. Additionally, employees who rate their leader as “ethical” typically have greater job satisfaction and higher levels of commitment. People take the lead from what you do, not what you say. If your actions and words don’t align, they will spot it, and people will become cynical about everything you communicate.

Hannah Burandt, Head Swim Coach at Cleveland State University said, “In my work, my ethical leadership that I demonstrate is my day–to-day interactions with my athletes, treating everyone as fair as possible, giving them 100% of my coaching ability no matter if they are the fastest or slowest on the team. Always being honest in my discussions with my athletes, being fair in my decisions when helping choose athletes for relay slots, following the rules to the T when it comes to recruiting, paperwork and compliance. For instance, when at a meet where the rules say I am not allowed to speak to recruits I am open and honest about those rules when sought out by recruits.”

It is almost impossible to change someone’s values so recruit the right people in the first place. Ethics is the heart of leadership. All leadership is values driven. The journey of ethical leadership begins with examining personal values. Ethical leadership can be learned in a variety of ways. Thoughts and actions must be consistent and congruent. Character development is critical in the process of being a good leader.

As a leader, one is expected to uphold a higher standard. Leaders with personal integrity set examples by making ethical decisions to guide their companies. They must recognize their own personal values and have accountability and respect for their employees and peers, as well as maintaining HR compliance.

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The old saying “lead by example” goes hand-in-hand with ethical leadership as employees who see business owners and managers practicing what they preach will be more likely to respect their employers. These employees are also more likely to be ethical workers because they are led by example.

Effective leaders create habits that exemplify commitment to the organizations culture. For decades, accounting firm Arthur Andersen was the most respected accounting firm in the world, in part because of its employee’s belief in the origin of how founder Arthur Andersen told a large client there “was not enough money in Chicago” to induce him to fabricate the numbers. Unfortunately, the leaders of Andersen forgot this lesson and began emphasizing revenue over character, which is why the firm no longer exists.

In conclusion, while there is no single or precise way to produce and foster an ethical organizational culture, dedicated leaders will benefit by keeping these ideas in mind, and by remembering all their actions send messages to their employees, stakeholders and the community.


  • Bennis, W., and Nanus, B. (1985) Leaders: The Strategies for taking charge. New York: Harper & Row.
  • Broderick, J. (2021) Personal Interview conducted
  • Burandt, H. (2021) Personal Interview conducted
  • Osland, J. S., Kolb, D. A., & Rubin, I. M. (2001). Organizational behavior: An experimental approach. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc.


What is ethical leadership communication? ›

Ethical leadership is defined as “leadership demonstrating and promoting 'normatively appropriate conduct through personal actions and interpersonal relations'.” When you boil it down, this really means that ethical leadership is defined as putting people into management and leadership positions who will promote and be ...

What are the values of ethical leadership? ›

Ethical leadership means that individuals behave according to a set of principles and values that are recognized by the majority as a sound basis for the common good. These include integrity, respect, trust, fairness, transparency, and honesty.

What are the 4 main ethical principles in leadership? ›

The principles of ethical leadership include honesty, justice, respect, community and integrity.

Why is communication important in ethical leadership? ›

Ethical leaders who practice role clarification are transparent and communicate openly to make responsibilities, expectations, and performance roles clear. Leaders who practice people orientation genuinely show care, respect, and support to followers. They also meet their needs.

What is an example of ethical leadership? ›

An example of ethical leadership would be in the case of managers who manage several employees in an organization and respect all the members, listen to their views and opinions, support their interests and beliefs, and encourage the subordinates to always act in fairness, practice honesty, and be considerate of each ...

What is effective ethical leadership? ›

Ethical leadership is the practice of demonstrating appropriate conduct inside and outside the office. It is mainly concerned with moral development and virtuous behavior. Ethical leaders display good values through their words and actions.

How important is value and ethics in leadership? ›

Ethics and values give consumers a standard to hold the business to, which can help to build their comfort level with the company. This can help to strengthen business relationships with both customers and other companies.

Why are values important in leadership? ›

Why are leadership values important? Leadership values are important because they help you determine how you want to achieve your goals and what type of leader you want to be with your team. Your core leadership values play an important role in guiding how you make decisions and what actions you take on a daily basis.

What are values important in leadership? ›

as demonstrated by self respect and respecting others regardless of differences; treating others with dignity, empathy and compassion; and the ability to earn the respect of others.

What are the most important values and principles of ethical leadership? ›

According to scholars and practitioners, ethical leaders have five principles: respect, service, honesty, justice and community. Let's have a look at these in more detail. Ethical leaders really listen to their colleagues. They will be empathetic and tolerant of others opinions even if their views do not align.

What are 4 ethical characteristics? ›

Pierce, Director of the Institute for National Security Ethics and Leadership, the most ethical organizations are the ones that are able to develop these four abilities in their employees: moral awareness, moral courage, moral reasoning and moral effectiveness.

What are examples of ethical values? ›

Recommended Core Ethical Values
  • Integrity, including. Exercising good judgment in professional practice; and. ...
  • Honesty, including. Truthfulness; ...
  • Fidelity, including. Faithfulness to clients; ...
  • Charity, including. Kindness; ...
  • Responsibility, including. Reliability/dependability; ...
  • Self-Discipline, including.

What is the importance of being an effective and ethical communication? ›

Your actions are just as important as what you say or write. Honest communication not only builds trust, it also helps you and others identify and work on any fissures that may arise in the intersection between authority, power, and teamwork. Without honesty, communication fails at its core purpose.

What is ethics in communication and why is it important? ›

Simply put, ethical communication refers to communicating in a manner that is clear, concise, truthful, and responsible. But in a profession that does not have an explicit set of guidelines, it can be challenging to discern right from wrong.

What are the benefits of ethical leadership? ›

Here are some of the benefits of ethical leadership in an organisation and its positive effect:
  • Customer Loyalty: ...
  • Attract Potential Investors: ...
  • Improved Hiring: ...
  • Improved Morale: ...
  • Positive PR: ...
  • Better Partners and Vendors: ...
  • Legal Practices:
28 Feb 2021

Why is ethical leadership important nowadays? ›

An ethical leader ensures the values a company upholds are matched by the behavior expected of and demonstrated by employees. “The employees are doing what they are rewarded for, or held accountable for, in the systems the managers have put into place.

What makes an effective leadership? ›

The best leaders are able to empathize, or understand and share feelings, with their team members. Integrity. Effective leaders live by strong values that guide their decisions and behaviors. They know right from wrong, are honest in their interactions with others, and practice ethical leadership.

How do you promote ethical leadership? ›

Here are 6 ways leaders can promote and foster ethics in any organization:
  1. Create an ethical framework for the company. ...
  2. Encourage open communication. ...
  3. Promote full transparency. ...
  4. Inspire trust. ...
  5. Reward good behavior. ...
  6. Remember: Not all that is legal is ethical.
6 Jun 2016

Why is ethics and values important in the workplace? ›

An organization that is perceived to act ethically by employees can realize positive benefits and improved business outcomes. The perception of ethical behavior can increase employee performance, job satisfaction, organizational commitment, trust and organizational citizenship behaviors.

What values and qualities make a good leader? ›

Good leaders possess self-awareness, garner credibility, focus on relationship-building, have a bias for action, exhibit humility, empower others, stay authentic, present themselves as constant and consistent, become role models and are fully present.

Which values does an effective leader focus on? ›

Explanation: An effective leader focuses on the values of trust and respect of individuals, openness, teamwork, integrity and commitment to quality.

What is the relationship between values and leadership? ›

Findings indicate that high-task leaders give greater importance to the value of achievement than low-task leaders, and high-relations leaders give greater importance to the values of benevolence and security as compared to low- relations leaders. Values are the most deeply ingrained part of personality in a person.

What is values based leadership give an example? ›

Values-based leadership is the idea that leaders should draw upon their own and others' values—including those established for your organization— for direction and motivation. At its core, values-based leadership philosophy asserts that people are mostly motivated by values and live according to these beliefs.

What are the 7 values of leadership? ›

Seven leadership principles to follow
  • Belief in the purpose.
  • Taking full responsibility.
  • The ability to move on and forgive.
  • Humility.
  • Optimistic and realistic.
  • Value others' opinions, confidence in your own.
  • Self-acceptance.
10 Jun 2019

What are the 6 different ethical values? ›

The principles are beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, justice; truth-telling and promise-keeping.

What are the 4 kinds of values in ethics? ›

Values tend to influence attitudes and behavior and these types include ethical/moral values, doctrinal/ideological (religious, political) values, social values, and aesthetic values.

What are the 3 key ethical principles? ›

Three basic principles, among those generally accepted in our cultural tradition, are particularly relevant to the ethics of research involving human subjects: the principles of respect of persons, beneficence and justice.

What are good ethics and values? ›

Ethical values are a set of moral guiding principles that determine how a company conducts business. These principles seek to serve and protect others above the organization's self-interest. Beyond fulfilling legal obligations, ethical values in business show strong moral character from leaders and employees.

How do you develop ethical values? ›

  1. Be open about what your values, vision and mission are. ...
  2. Create a shared sense of values, vision and mission for your organization. ...
  3. Create a sense of accountability for ethics violations. ...
  4. Model the behavior you would like to see. ...
  5. Reward good behavior. ...
  6. Hire for character as well.
14 Nov 2017

What is one of the 5 basic ethical values? ›

Moral Principles

The five principles, autonomy, justice, beneficence, nonmaleficence, and fidelity are each absolute truths in and of themselves. By exploring the dilemma in regards to these principles one may come to a better understanding of the conflicting issues.

What is the most important characteristic of ethical communication? ›

Truthfulness & honesty is the most core principle of ethical communication.

How do you show that you are an effective and ethical communicator? ›

6 expert tips for being an effective communicator
  1. Be succinct. ...
  2. Be specific. ...
  3. Be pleasant and approachable. ...
  4. Listen actively. ...
  5. Observe others who are good at communication - then copy them. ...
  6. Always enter a conversation with two things clear in your mind.

Why leadership and communication is important in the workplace? ›

With clear communication, leaders can navigate their organization through all types of changes, big or small. Leadership communication also builds trust within the organization, both between leaders and employees and between employees and the organization itself.

What is effective communication? ›

Effective communication is the process of exchanging ideas, thoughts, opinions, knowledge, and data so that the message is received and understood with clarity and purpose. When we communicate effectively, both the sender and receiver feel satisfied.

What is the meaning of ethical communication? ›

What Is Ethical Communication? Simply put, ethical communication refers to communicating in a manner that is clear, concise, truthful, and responsible. But in a profession that does not have an explicit set of guidelines, it can be challenging to discern right from wrong.

What is ethical communication and example? ›

Ten Basics of Ethical Communication

Listen when others speak. Speak non-judgmentally. Speak from your own experience and perspective, expressing your own thoughts, needs, and feelings. Seek to understand others (rather than to be “right” or “more ethical than thou”).

What are the five ethical communication? ›

The 'one to five method' supports guidance of ethical communication in five steps: telling the story about the situation; reflections and dialogue concerning the emotions involved; formulation of the problem/dilemma; analysis of the situation and the dilemma; and searching for a choice of action or approach.

What is ethical communication in the workplace? ›

Ethical communication in the workplace is the exchange of information between a variety of stakeholders (employee, supervisor, clients, and the community) that is truthful and accurate. Telling a lie or omitting facts are examples of unethical communication.

Why is it important ethical in communicating? ›

Honest communication not only builds trust, it also helps you and others identify and work on any fissures that may arise in the intersection between authority, power, and teamwork. Without honesty, communication fails at its core purpose.

What is the importance of ethical communication? ›

Ethical communication is essential for upholding a strong culture of compliance in the workplace. When done correctly, ethical communications can bolster your company's character and decrease overall risk. However, when ethics are cast aside, businesses can face severe financial, legal, and reputational costs.

What are the 3 types of ethics in communication? ›

Any communication should follow these three ethical standards: Honesty. Refrain from doing harm. Fairness to all stakeholders (internal and external)

How do you ensure ethical communication in an organization? ›

Communication should always reflect clearly what you want to communicate. Hiding behind the garb or ambiguity will do your organization no good. Don't Burn Bridges – Take care while drafting any communication to not offend the reader, this goes both for internal and external communication.

How is ethical behavior communicated to employees? ›

Ways to communicate ethics include:

Lead by example. Make the topic a standing item at team or company wide meetings. Include information about ethics in your internal newsletters.


1. "Ethical Leadership in Organisations"
(Leadership for Business & Professional Women)
2. Business Ethics - Advanced: Ethical Leadership
(Markie Williams Online Certification Courses)
3. Leadership Ethics (Chap 13) Leadership by Northouse, 8th ed.
(David Dunaetz)
(Vhine Vlogs)
5. Characteristics of an ethical leader
(Olly@Edu Learning)
6. Ethical Leadership
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