Making decisions can be tough when you are aiming to do the right thing and make ethical choices in the face of complicated issues. Even though it’s challenging, being an ethical leader is crucial to having a fair and functional business. In this beginner’s guide to ethical leadership, we’ll discuss the primary theories and why it matters. We’ll also provide traits that an ethical leader should have and give examples of being ethical at work that you can use in your day-to-day life. 

What is ethical leadership?

In the world of business, ethics are becoming more prevalent. This is why it is very important for leaders to develop their skills and knowledge in this area. Knowing how to behave in the workplace can help you become a great leader.

Ethical leadership is about a) being a leader who prioritizes ethics in decision-making and b) putting people in positions of authority and responsibility who will promote and demonstrate ethical conduct. 

There are many benefits to ethical leadership. Ethical leaders can help create a positive environment for employees and the organization. Positive working atmospheres help employees feel valued and included in the workplace.

Ethical leadership can also involve the management of team members' conduct and collaboration. This can be done informally and formally using a written code of conduct. When employees get along well with one another, it can help build a stronger team.

And in general, a positive attitude at work can help improve the overall health of an organization. It can even create a healthy work environment where people can develop their individual and collective goals. 

All of this comes from the actions of one or more individuals who lead with strong moral codes

Why does ethical leadership matter at work?

Ethical leadership is very important for company-wide success in many different ways. It can help create a positive culture within a company. Leaders can help investors feel good about their organization. They can also help customers feel loyal.

As a side effect, good press is likely to come from ethical leaders in an organization, especially if this is demonstrated through business continuity. Even partners and vendors can trust and work with an organization that has ethical leadership. 

In other words, everyone benefits. 

There is an immediate difference for companies that prioritize ethical leadership. Leaders can also help boost employee morale by encouraging them to be ethical. This helps them feel more motivated and inspired at work.

Leaders who are ethical can prevent ethical issues from happening in the long term, which is crucial for business longevity. Doing so can help organizations develop loyal and satisfied employees. 

Examples of great ethical leadership include resolving disputes,  providing a space of non-judgment where workers can honestly discuss issues, and making a conscious effort to provide equitable treatment to everyone involved.

Understanding ethical leadership theory

Ethical leadership there is often referred to as the ‘4 V’ model. The four V's are:

  • Values
    Core values based on morality that drive decision-making. 
  • Vision
    A big picture idea of what will benefit everyone involved. 
  • Voice
    Having your own unique sense of self while leaving room for others to do the same. 
  • Virtue
    Behaving in a way that aligns with all of the above. 

In order to learn how to put the 4 V model into practice, its creators advised students to “develop a value system [that] includes ego development, self awareness training, moral development, social perspective taking, and service learning.”

The most challenging part of ethical leadership theory is that it's difficult to measure. That's why it's so important to build self-reflection into your ethical leadership practice. Radical honesty with yourself and others is the only way to improve over time.

Ethical leadership theory also depends on a certain level of selflessness from the person or people practicing it. They must always strive to see things from other people's perspectives and often put the needs of others above their own. When faced with moral dilemmas, ethical leaders must forget about company objectives and remember that we're all human. 

Their decisions may even negatively impact the bottom line at some point. However, ethical leaders understand that revenue may ebb and flow but their actions have a lasting impact on the lives of the people they interact with. 

What traits do ethical leaders have?

There are a number of basic elements that ethical leaders follow in their work. Developing these traits can help you become an ethical leader: 

Leading by example

Leaders should have the same goals and expectations for their employees as they do for themselves. Having the same expectations can help both individuals and businesses thrive while keeping everyone on the same page and ensuring fair treatment all around. Ethical leaders help employees to do their daily tasks by showing them how to be ethical and moral.

Being adaptable

Good leaders are able to adapt to the changes that are bound to happen in the future. This is the trait that will allow them to excel in today's fast-paced world. Good leaders are also to motivate and retain their employees by creating a positive environment when faced with adversity. 

Treating everyone equally 

Not showing respect to others can create a hostile work environment. It can also lead to resentment and make people think they are being treated differently. By working to uncover unconscious bias and understanding the valuable role each individual plays, leaders can ensure they’re always treating their colleagues with fairness. 

Being a good listener

Having good communication skills is very important for leaders to make sure that their organization is a place where people can trust and be honest. Without communication, issues can easily go undetected.

Prioritizing self-care

Leaders and operations management face stress every day. But no matter what, it is not acceptable to take it out on your workers. Taking advantage of a power dynamic can create tension and frustration in your employees. Leaders who are ethical can manage their stress in a positive and productive way through healthy coping mechanisms. They also encourage others to do the same while making changes that help everyone reduce stress as much as reasonably possible. 

Managing conflict

A moral leader is someone who is capable of solving problems in a way that's fair to everyone. They also take care to ensure that everyone is focused on positive interactions after disputes are resolved.

How to become a moral leader

By simply making a choice to become a moral leader, you are one. From here on out, the goal is to improve your leadership abilities whenever you are faced with ethical dilemmas.  

Becoming a moral leader is all about finding your personal ‘why’ statement. Why is morality important to you? Why is being a leader important to you? How does being a moral leader benefit those around you?

This is also a great way to tie in your life's greater purpose to your work. If you're serving something higher than yourself, you'll be able to take things less personally and resolve issues in a way that takes your core values into account.

Being immoral also means being curious about other people's perspectives. This means remembering that your core values might not be the core values of your employees. That is why developing emotional intelligence is key. 

Besides practicing the above traits and doing some introspective work, there are no barriers to you becoming a moral leader. You can start demonstrating behavior you'd like to see in the workplace through your daily actions. 

You can also be open about your journey, especially the struggles. This will inspire others to learn from their mistakes and become more forgiving. Long term, employees will become more likely to take creative risks and reach stretch goals since they’ll be unencumbered by limiting beliefs. 

Set aside some time for self-reflection daily and weekly. As you journal, don't shy away from challenging situations. Instead, embrace them with openness and see every challenge as an opportunity to improve the lives of others. 

A great way to become an ethical leader is to start rolling your sleeves up. If your employees need help, an ethical leader is never above lending a hand. Ethical leadership relies on the understanding that all efforts are a team effort and no one is better than anyone else. 

And finally, don't forget to accept feedback. Ethical leadership thrives on input from others. If someone offers constructive criticism, make sure you take it and apply it to the next situation you find yourself in. 


Ethical leadership is working with others in a way that demonstrates a strong moral code.  It has a large impact on the world around you. The ethical leadership theory has four distinct components that are difficult to measure but can be developed over time. Above all else, modeling the right behavior is the key to becoming an ethical leader.