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Lead Your Team Leadership

How to Be an Ethical Leader

How to Be an Ethical Leader
Credit: Patpitchaya/Shutterstock

You don't have to look much further than the news to find stories of corrupt leaders engaged in all sorts of ethical breaches. As the adage goes, "power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely." An abuse of power can get people into trouble, destroy careers and even bring down entire industries.

So how do entrepreneurs and business owners rise above the fray and establish themselves as ethical leaders? The consensus of many experts in this area is that it must be done intentionally, by modeling ethical conduct and weaving it organically into every level of their organizations.

"For leaders to be viewed as ethical, they must ensure that everyone – leaders, team members, customers, everyone – is treated with trust, respect and dignity in every interaction," said S. Chris Edmonds, executive consultant and founder of The Purposeful Culture Group. "To accomplish that, leaders must create a culture where values – how people treat each other – are as important as results, every day."

To create this sort of ethics-focused company culture, start at the top, says leadership consultant and author Linda Fisher Thornton in her book "7 Lenses: Learning the Principles and Practices of Ethical Leadership" (2013).

"Ethical leaders have a tremendous impact on how people in their organizations behave and what they achieve," Thornton said. "Effective leaders focus on what's right and exemplify to their people that they are there to help, and not to exploit the vulnerabilities of others."

Once a company's leaders are on board, the next step is to instill this commitment to ethics throughout the organization. This may seem a bit daunting at first, but it is necessary in creating a business environment where ethical lapses are the anomaly and not the norm.

"Employees behave ethically when the required ethical behavior is described to them in unambiguous terms and then modeled consistently at every level of the organization and recognized and rewarded," said Paul Glover, who provides ethics training and coaching to organizational leaders.

"Ethical leadership means constantly acting in a manner that earns trust from your team, empowers employees to do their best work, and builds an office community that values fairness, encouragement and support as much as it does winning for our clients," added Christie Marchese, CEO of Picture Motion, a marketing and advocacy firm for issue-driven films.

This consistent commitment to ethics may not be easy, but there are some practical ways leaders can integrate ethical conduct into their organizations and management styles. Thornton outlined several steps to ethical leadership:

Be a leader who adheres to high ethical standards in your own professional life, consistently treating others with respect and authenticity. But be willing to talk honestly about difficult ethical choices. Openly discuss the ethical gray areas and acknowledge the complexity of work life.

Have an open-door policy and regular one-on-one meetings so employees know their suggestions and insights are welcome and valued. This will allow you to build trust and cultivate a respectful environment in which people can speak up about ethics and share the responsibility for living it.

This should be a living, breathing, foundational document that helps center your staff and guide them as they navigate ethical gray areas. The values communicated in this document must be modeled from the highest level of the organization on down, understood by employees at all levels, reinforced through regular training and other company events, and revisited and revised as the company grows or changes.

Allow no excuses. Make sure that no one is exempt from meeting the adopted ethical standards. Maintain the status of ethics as a total, absolute must in the organization. Hold everyone, particularly senior leaders and high-profile managers, accountable.

Be a proactive ethical leader, championing high ethical conduct and emphasizing prevention. Managers should talk about what positive ethics looks like in practice as often as they talk about what to avoid. Take time to celebrate positive ethical choices, and consider the radical step of rewarding employees who are brave enough to admit and learn from their mistakes.

Integrate ethics into every action of the organization – everything people do, touch or influence. Talk about ethics as an ongoing learning journey, not something you have or don't have. Recognize that the world changes constantly, and that ethical conduct requires that everyone remain vigilant.

Additional reporting by Chad Brooks. Some source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.

Paula Fernandes

Paula is a New Jersey-based writer with a Bachelor's degree in English and a Master's degree in Education. She spent nearly a decade working in education, primarily as the director of a college's service-learning and community outreach center. Her prior experience includes stints in corporate communications, publishing, and public relations for non-profits. Reach her by email.