The Traits of the Ethical Leader

By: Joe Richardson, Esq

To many, the ideas surrounding the definition of a “leader” are often connected to a position (for instance, a President), as opposed to the traits of a person. Sometimes, selfish people with obvious conflicts that bear on their prospects for productive leadership are nonetheless heralded as great “leaders.” There needs to be a shift to the “straight line” of automatically connecting leadership with morals and ethics. Saying that a leader is ethical should not be “icing on the cake;” it should be a main ingredient in the cake. With the foregoing in mind, here are the things the ethical leader will do.

Leaders have to do more listening than talking. This allows them to initiate with a clear understanding of the needs of the people, groups, and interests they represent, which gives them a greater chance to be effective. All participants in a group or activity are potential leaders; simply, to take part in the activities that go on around you is what we should ask of our leaders in the first place. That clear understanding is fostered by doing a few important things:

  1. Have a positive self-image
    Once you see that you are an ethically centered person, you can visualize yourself in the role of a participant, and a leader. You will, as a result, think and conduct yourself as a leader, even before a position comes.
  2. Listen to ourselves and each other better
    You must believe that your feelings and opinions are valid, as based on your experience, observations, and reflections. However, a leader also realizes that the feelings of others are no less valid, as they are likewise based on the experience, observations, and reflections of others. The beginning of understanding occurs when we recognize that other points of view exist, and that we can use them to solidify our own point of view, or to even modify our thoughts in some cases.
  3. Seek dialogue with the rest of the world, literally and figuratively
    When you have a positive self-image, and you can listen to others objectively because different styles, viewpoints, or perspectives do not make you insecure, you will seek dialogue with those that you do not have dialogue with yet. That includes people in our same student, administration or faculty groups.

To be a good ethical leader, you cannot be afraid of hard work! Approaching that work with humility and honesty demonstrates ethical leadership. When you are side by side with your group, they can see themselves in you, and true leaders make people around them better. A couple of related thoughts:

  1. Finger-pointing Frustrates Ethically Sound Actions.
    Even while people earnestly work toward a goal, the related pressure can lead to finger pointing and blame. When something goes wrong, identifying whose fault it may be should not be the primary objective for an interconnected group. Honestly, if you live long enough, something will be “your fault” sometime or maybe even next time (if it wasn’t this time). Remember that finger pointing will often naturally offend the object of the blame, which has the effect of breaking down instead of building up. This makes everyone defensive, and makes it harder for everyone involved continue to participate selflessly. When it comes to ethical leadership, blame should never be the primary consideration. To lead ethically, you need to build up people that are part of your group, leaving their rights and dignity intact.
    Instead of blaming to minimize others, objectively identify a problem and a solution while recognizing the mutuality of the participants. This is wisdom and ethical leadership personified.
  2. Ethical Leaders Take Responsibility for Outcomes.
    While I served as Student Body President at my college, I remember my mother holding me accountable when my university editorial board slammed me for failing to fulfill my responsibility to send a representative to a regular faculty meeting. I tried explaining to her that the editorial board did not like me and that they would find something to criticize me for even if I had sent someone to the meeting. She reminded me that it was no one else’s fault that I failed to send someone, and that I had to stop worrying about what others were doing, and do what I needed to do.
    Regardless of how unfair a situation seems, if you did not achieve the desired result, you should first consider what you could have done to produce a better outcome. If you come up with an answer, then that’s what you should focus on. Working on improvement, regardless of other forces, gives you ownership of your destiny, primary responsibility for a better outcome, and personifies ethical leadership. If everyone in the group thinks this way, things will get done!!

Lead, Ethically.
If you were asked to name a “leader,” instantly particular people may come to mind. However, if you were asked to identify an “ethical leader,” how would your answer change, if at all? Consider that if your answer did not change, you are already looking for the right things in leaders; i.e. you are already connecting leadership and ethics. If not, don’t beat yourself up, but use this as an opportunity to start to shift gears in terms of what you are looking for in a leader. In short, ethical leadership is the goal.

The essence of leadership is having a special place, or role, in a group while realizing the most important role is as an active, ethically minded, and service-oriented member of the group itself. An ethical leader is concerned not only with what is done (worthy goals), but how it is done (ethically). By connecting leadership with ethics, the Ethical Leader uses each endeavor to not only accomplish goals, but to inspire participants to higher heights, and positions of future involvement. It is up to each of us to personify ethical leadership in ourselves, and embrace it in those around us.