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The Importance of Being an Ethical Leader

Faculty Insights Industry Advice Leadership

Les Stein, assistant teaching professor in the Master of Science in Leadership program at Northeastern University’s College of Professional Studies, shares his insights on the importance of ethics in leadership.   


Ethics Are the Foundation of Great Leadership

One of the many advantages that come from studying leadership as a formal discipline is that it offers structure to a subject that many people erroneously believe comes naturally to them. The study of leadership offers us several theories and models to choose from. One model, for instance, might align with a leadership style that works best for entrepreneurs, another might be better suited for the pastor of a church, while others would be a better fit for those who want to lead non-profit, for-profit, or even political organizations. The bottom line is that one size does not fit all—each profession is different and requires one or more properly tailored leadership styles.

We can debate the best and most effective leadership styles ad nauseum, but one aspect of leadership that should never be up for negotiation is that every leader must behave ethically. In fact, ethics should be the foundation for any discussion about leadership and it should serve as its centerpiece.

Ethics should be the foundation for any discussion about leadership and it should serve as its centerpiece. Click To Tweet

After all, it does little good for us to identify ourselves as transformational, authentic, or servant leaders if we are not grounded by an ethical mindset. On the surface, this seems like a simple concept. In practice, however, as we have seen from the beginning of time, ethical behavior does not come naturally. Today’s competitive and technologically driven global environment muddies the waters even further and causes organizational leaders to face ethical challenges regularly. The Master of Science in Leadership program at Northeastern University offers its students the opportunity to understand the fundamental and critical role that ethical behavior plays in every leadership position.


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Example of an Ethical Dilemma 

As a school principal, I often faced ethical dilemmas. An ethical dilemma occurs when two values are in conflict. For example, I once had a third-grade student who arrived at school with bruises on his face and upper back. When his teacher brought this to my attention, I quietly removed the student from the classroom and asked the school counselor to talk with him. The student was hesitant to discuss the cause of his injuries and it took the counselor some time to calm him down and make him realize that she would help him. After a couple of hours, he told the counselor that his mother’s boyfriend hit him several times the night before. When I contacted the mother, she begged me not to call the police or the city’s child protective services department because, without the boyfriend, she and her son would be homeless. This left me with a difficult choice—one that could certainly be handled in different ways.

Ethical Decision-Making

When the students in the Master of Science in Leadership program discuss a situation like the one above, their natural inclination is to become upset and argue their position from an emotional perspective. Our instructors, however, teach them that each situation needs to be evaluated objectively and that their emotions need to be kept under control.

In my classroom, we utilize a framework as the basis for decision-making:

  1. I first ask the students to examine the consequences of each possible course of action. In the case above, for instance, what might happen if the school principal grants the mother’s request and takes no action? On the other hand, what are the possible consequences associated with contacting the department of social services?
  2. Next, MSL students are asked to evaluate their duties and responsibilities to the young student, his mother, and society in general. In other words, do we have a greater duty and/or responsibility to the student, his mother, or the rules of law?
  3. Then, we ask the students to consider and evaluate their integrity by asking a simple question: What would a virtuous person do in this situation?
  4. Lastly, we provide our students with research-based decision-making steps that help them organize their thoughts and make objective decisions.

Significance of Ethical Conduct for Leaders

What if an ethical decision were to negatively impact your employment—both present and future? People today, and especially those in positions of authority, must often deal with situations that challenge their ethical mindsets. Again, many of them make the wrong decisions because they rely on emotion rather than an objective framework that could help them consider their options. Among the many real-world problems that we address in the MSL classroom is how to deal with an organization whose leaders are behaving either unethically or illegally.

It comes as a surprise to many of my students when I tell them that most employees are loath to confront the inappropriate conduct or behavior of their supervisors or senior leaders. People who made headlines by blowing the whistle on their respective organizations, like Daniel Ellsberg (Pentagon Papers), Karen Silkwood (Kerr-McGee Nuclear Power Plant), or Sherron Watkins (Enron), are the exception rather than the rule. Certainly, such individuals risk everything when they take action that brings to light illegal or unethical practices—but what are the potential consequences of inaction? What are our duties and responsibilities to ourselves, our co-workers, and society in general? Do we claim to be virtuous?

Becoming a More Ethical Leader in your Organization

Students in the Master of Science in Leadership program are offered multiple opportunities to organize and structure their thinking about ethical leadership. They quickly recognize that ethics and leadership cannot be separated—they must function synergistically. Understanding their roles and responsibilities as ethical leaders effectively prepares MSL graduates for senior leadership positions and for serving as shining examples within their organizations.

To learn more about honing the leadership skills needed to succeed in today’s world, download our free ebook below or explore Northeastern’s Master of Science in Leadership program.


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