Five Ways To Be An Ethical Leader


1. Lead by example.

The phrase “lead by example” might be overused at times, but it still rings true. If you want to be an ethical leader, start with self-reflection. What are behaviors and attributes of others that keep you up at night? Are you prone to the same behaviors? How do you make decisions: Do you focus primarily on the common good, or what will serve you personally?

Your conduct is a clear message to your organization. Employees will emulate what you do, not what you say.

2. Cultivate external awareness.

External awareness is the ability to think beyond our own personal universe — to think about what we do and how it impacts other people and society as a whole. The Statement on the Purpose of a Corporation, published by the Business Roundtable in August 2019, delineated five commitments to all of their stakeholders: delivering value to our customers, investing in our employees, dealing fairly and ethically with our suppliers, supporting the communities in which we work, and generating long-term value for shareholders. Such a focus lays a powerful ethical foundation for any leader.

3. Put others first.

Ethical leadership puts others first. An excellent book on this subject is Simon Sinek’s Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don’t. His main message is that the buck stops at the leader’s desk. I love this quote: “You can easily judge the character of any man by how he treats those who can do nothing for him.” Think about your own relationships and why you choose to cultivate them. Is it because of what they can do for you, or who they are? Or better, what kind of person do they inspire you to be?

It has been shown time and time again that employees respect bosses who can admit their failings and not gloss over them. They appreciate leaders who are transparent and not afraid to acknowledge their shortcomings.

4. Hold yourself accountable.

Ethical leaders draw a line in the sand regarding their own behavior and the behavior of others. They do not finger-point. They do not blame others for their own errors and are willing to admit when they are wrong. You can’t expect accountability from others if you’re not willing to impose it on yourself.

5. Let your values be your guide.

Ethical leaders don’t hedge when it comes to company values or moral decisions. They are consistent and predictable when it comes to such decisions. They do not take the easy way out and bend their ethical standards for convenience or expediency. And they reflect on these values when they are faced with the tough calls. Sure, plenty of things in this complex world are gray, but honoring others, respecting others and demonstrating integrity are not. You do it or you don’t.

If you want to build an ethical business, my advice is simple: Model the way. Speak often of your values, and bring them to the forefront when making decisions. Share your thinking. Above all, hire like-minded leaders. Don’t make excuses for someone who is unethical but brings in the numbers. The numbers will be forgotten. How they were earned will never be.

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