The advantages of being an unethical leader tend to be few and short-lived.  A quick profit, a deceptive use of resources, an illusory promise may gain an easy advantage, but those deceived are not likely let it happen a second time, and the damage to a leader’s reputation and organization will be swift, deep and long lasting.

Ethical leaders most often chose a path of ethics and integrity because it represents their true character rather than for any business advantage gained.  But the benefits of ethical leadership are tangible and plentiful. An ethical leader’s influence transmits into a team resulting in improved morale, loyalty, emotional wellbeing, motivation and inspired action.  Organizations led by ethical leaders benefit from both improved brand image and reduced risk of scandals.   Given the multiple and significant benefits of ethical leadership, what are the principles, characteristics or hallmarks of the ethical leader?  The answer may, perhaps, be found in the results of a study comparing a) corporate codes of ethics, b) global codes of ethics, and c) professional codes of ethics (Schwartz, 2005). The study determined that there were  six ‘universal moral values’ underlying a code of ethics. These values represent traits common to the ethical leader.  They include:

  1. Trustworthiness. He/she exhibits honesty, integrity, transparency, reliability, and loyalty.
  2. Respect. She/he demonstrates respect for peers, clients, employees and basic human rights.
  3. Responsible. He/she holds themself accountable with highs standards of excellence, and self-restraint.
  4. Fair. They address matters using due process, impartiality, and equity.
  5. Care. She/he displays kindness, sensitivity, concern for others, and avoids unnecessary harm.
  6. Citizenship. He/she obeys laws, demonstrates civic responsibility, and protects the environment.

People may not agree with every decision or action made by a leader–no matter how ethical the leader.  But the more transparent and honest a leader and the more closely they adhere to their ethics, the more likely they will be understood, respected and followed. That’s the essence of an ethical leader.


Schwartz, M. S. (2005). Universal Moral Values for Corporate Codes of Ethics. Journal of Business Ethics59(1/2), 27–44.