Moral Leadership vis-à-vis Ethics, Values and Trust

This article focuses on moral leadership and the importance that ethics, values and trust play in a leader’s role in the formation and maintenance of an effective organization. I will discuss the relationship between ethics, values, and trust and the critical balance one must maintain in these three areas to be a moral leader. It is my opinion that never in the history of leadership have leaders had to “stand up and be counted” because of the unethical behavior and decision-making. These poor choices have created skeptical opinions in society by their actions. I could talk endlessly about the numerous Enrons of the world and the continuous unethical and immoral behavior and actions of certain leaders that you read or hear about on an almost weekly basis. Never before has leadership been under such scrutiny and the ethical practice of moral leadership been so important.

Jesse Jackson said, “Leadership cannot just go along to get along…leadership must meet the moral challenge of the day.” I would like to add to that by saying leaders must meet the moral challenges of the day through their focus, attention and practice of ethics, ensuring a values-based culture and never allowing trust to be compromised.

Ethics is an individual’s personal belief about whether a behavior, action or decision is right or wrong. I believe that ethics starts and ends with the leader in an organization. Leaders face ethical dilemmas that require great moral courage and a clear understanding of their values, the organization’s values and a set of ethics. Effective leaders must set a moral example that becomes the model for an entire group or organization. They should internalize a strong set of ethics, principles of right conduct or a system of moral values. These make their decisions easier as they are based upon a strong sense of trust between themselves and the organization. Moral leadership is based upon enhancing self-awareness, increasing transparency and creating a culture that is more inclusive as well as being more explicit in linking to personal values.

The choices leaders make and how they respond in particular circumstances are informed and directed by their ethics. Moral leadership distinguishes right from wrong and doing right -- seeking the just, honest and good in the practice of leadership. Moral leadership has to do with respecting others. It is treating others as ends in themselves and never as a means to an end. Treat other people’s values and decisions with respect. Approach others with a sense of unconditional worth, and value individual differences. Moral leadership is about serving others.

As I discussed in a previous article on servant leadership, it is the altruistic principle of placing followers foremost in the leader’s plans. Leaders have the ethical responsibility to make decisions that are beneficial to their followers’ needs. Moral leaders are the stewards of the organization’s mission, vision and values and they nurture and integrate those three principles through their ethical behavior. Moral leadership is about manifesting honesty by telling the truth with a balance of openness and candor, while monitoring what is appropriate in a particular situation. Moral leaders do not promise what they cannot deliver, they do not suppress obligations, they do not evade accountability and they do not accept “survival of the fittest pressures.” Moral leaders are concerned with issues of fairness and they place them at the center of their decision-making.

Acting like a moral leader involves:

  1. …developing, articulating and upholding high moral standards.
  2. …setting examples for others to follow.
  3. …being honest with themselves and others consistently.
  4. …driving out fear and eliminating “undiscussables.”
  5. …establishing and communicating ethics policies.
  6. …showing zero tolerance for ethical violations.
  7. …rewarding ethical conduct.
  8. …treating everyone with fairness, dignity, and respect -- from the lowest to the highest level of the organization.
  9. …doing the right thing, in both private and professional life, even when no one is looking.

The single most important factor in ethical decision-making is whether leaders show a commitment to ethics in their talk and especially their behavior.

There are many definitions of values, but the one I find most fitting is that values are constructs representing generalized behaviors or states of affairs that individuals consider important. They are the ideas, beliefs, and modes of action that people find worthwhile or desirable. The enduring beliefs that have worth, merit, and extreme importance in one’s life play a fairly central role in one’s psychological make-up. They can affect behavior in a variety of situations, they permeate the organization, they drive every decision and one should never sacrifice them. You can only make inferences about people’s values based upon their behavior -- what they say and what they do. Values are learned through the socialization process and they become internalized. For most people, values represent integral components and emotional investments in oneself.

There are numerous values such as:

Accountability Caring Character Commitment
Compassion Competency Dependability Determination
Dignity Fairness Honesty Honor
Integrity Open-Mindedness Respect Trust


The table above represents just a few values. Ideally, leaders should identify with between four and seven that they feel are important and never compromised.

Moral leadership has to do with a leader’s ethical beliefs and behaviors and the values the leader possesses and models in each day of their lives. An ethical leader, I believe, possesses humility, maintains concern for the greater good, is honest and straightforward, fulfills commitments, always strives for fairness, readily accepts and takes responsibility, shows respect for each individual, encourages and develops others, serves others, and shows the courage to stand up for what is right. Leaders must constantly be in touch with their core values and ask themselves key ethical questions such as:

  • Who will be harmed or helped by the decisions I make?
  • How will my own core values or beliefs be affected or changed by my decision?
  • How will I be changed by my decision?
  • Whose values, beliefs, and interests may be at risk in this decision?
  • How would this decision look and feel if I stood on the other side of the fence?

I believe that moral leadership and the ethical and sound practice of values create an environment of trust, which is essential to the successful practice of leadership. Trust cannot be compromised and if lost, I do not believe it will be regained.

Leaders were not born ethical; they learned ethics through their life experiences. I believe they must listen to their conscience but sometimes do not always trust it as it could be misleading. They must talk with others but choose their “others” carefully. Leaders must be prepared to be punished for honesty. They must permit mistakes so they do not promote cover-ups. Leaders must learn to live with shades of gray and most importantly, bear the blame for their behavior.