Exploring Ethical Leadership

A four part blog series that delves into what Social Science and Philosophy can tell us about Ethical Leadership and how the Ethics Institute puts these ideas into practice

By Ariel Sykes, Assistant Director of the Ethics Institute

Although the question of ethical leadership is centuries old, the unprecedented challenges we face as a society and as a world creates new urgency around the need to develop ethical leaders. While the examination of ethical leadership from a philosophical lens is centuries old, the study of ethical leadership from a social science perspective is relatively new. According to research by Professors Michael E. Brown and Linda K. Trevino from Penn State, the study of ethical leadership emerged in the early 1990’s. Current social science literature can offer important insights on the definition, origins, and outcomes of ethical leadership which can complement the ideas developed by Philosophy. Brown and Trevino broadly define ethical leadership as “normatively appropriate” actions and relationships of a leader who also promotes such “normatively appropriate” behavior in others through open communication, modeling, as well as creative and enforcing standards (595-596). 

But what exactly are we to do with this definition? Who decides what behaviors are “normatively appropriate” and therefore ethically acceptable?

Brown and Trevino’s literature review of current social science research on ethical leadership can offer some possible answers to these questions. Philosophy offers a wealth of perspectives on this topic. And we at The Ethics Institute at Kent Place School can provide some additional insights from our work with school leaders, teachers, students, and families.

Key Questions

The topic of ethical leadership raises several questions, each of which will be the focus of a new blog in the coming days:

  1. What makes someone an ethical leader?
  2. How does and should an ethical leader behave?
  3. What are the outcomes and impacts of ethical leadership?
  4. How does someone become an ethical leader?

Special thanks to Dr. Karen Rezach, Director of the Ethics Institute. Without her leadership, the Ethics Institute at Kent Place School would not exist. Dr. Rezach’s twenty years at Kent Place School provides the backbone for this article, and most notably the examples from The Ethics Institute for Section #3: What are the outcomes and impacts of ethical leadership? 

Works Cited (for the entire four part blog series)

Arendt, H. (1970). On Violence. San Diego: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich.

Arendt, H. (1958). The Human Condition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Aristotle, ., Ross, W. D., & Brown, L. (2009). The Nicomachean Ethics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Big Thinkers and Explainers (2016, February 18). Ethics Explainer: Deontology. The Ethics Centre. https://ethics.org.au/ethics-explainer-deontology/

Brown, Michael & Treviño, Linda. (2006). Ethical Leadership: A Review and Future Directions. The Leadership Quarterly. 17. 595-616. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S104898430600110X

Crash Course (2016, November 28). Contractarianism: Crash Course Philosophy #37. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2Co6pNvd9mc&feature=youtu.be

Encyclopedia Britannica (2019). Social Learning. Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc. https://www.britannica.com/science/social-learning

Haines, William (1995). Consequentialism. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. https://www.iep.utm.edu/conseque/

Hobbes, T. (1969). Leviathan, 1651. Menston: Scolar P.

Marcus, A., & Hays, G. (2002). Meditations. New York: Modern Library.

Plato, Anastaplo, G., & Berns, L. (2004). Plato’s Meno. Newburyport, MA: Focus Pub./R. Pullins Co.