Measuring Outcomes: The Impact of Ethical Leadership on Organizations

Perspectives from Social Science Research, Philosophy and the Ethics Institute at Kent Place School

By Ariel Sykes, Assistant Director of the Ethics Institute

Center for Innovation, home of the Ethics Institute at Kent Place School

This blog is part of our Exploring Ethical Leadership Blog Series

Question #3: What are the outcomes and impacts of ethical leadership?

Social Science Lense

The value of ethical leadership is often assumed: if leaders act ethically, then organizations and communities will benefit. There is also the belief that those who work with and for ethical leaders will thereby be influenced to act ethically (and become ethical leaders in their own spaces) (Brown and Trevino 606). Brown and Trevino’s research explores whether these claims are in fact true across various workplaces and industries.

Judge Paul Armstrong speaking with KPS students

With a focus on social learning theory, Brown and Trevino explore how learning to be ethical happens in the workplace through observation of credible role models and then the emulation of such behaviors (607). Additionally they claim that an ethical leader should see benefits in employee commitment to the organization, satisfaction with their job, increased positive social exchanges and decrease in negative or deviant behavior in the workplace (607-608).

KPS Middle School students leading an ethics
assembly at a local school

However, the research does suggest that the “distance between leader and followers, expressed in terms of physical distance, social distance, or frequency of task interaction, has an important impact on how leaders are perceived as well as the outcomes with with which they are associated” (Antonakis & Atwarer, 2020 quoted by Brown & Trevino 611). Whether this remains true for ethical leadership seems likely, but Brown and Trevino says this remains a question for further research. Furthermore, Brown and Trevino note that the impact of ethical leadership can be influenced by where in the organization this leader is located; the locus of influence and power is different, for example, between a supervisor and a company executive (611).

Philosophical Lense

The purpose and value of ethics is one of great importance and even greater dispute. Let us look at how political and moral philosopher Thomas Hobbes may answer the question: “Why is ethics important?” as a way of understanding why ethical leadership is valuable.

In the Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes develop the social contract theory (to learn more, watch this Crash Course Philosophy video) to explain how ethics is key to:

  • maintain order (and keep society from falling apart)
  • prevent human suffering and encourage human flourishing
  • creating structures that resolve conflicts fairly and assign praise or blame

If we use similar reasoning for the importance of ethical leadership, then we could say that ethical leaders help create ethics-centered structures that:

  • encourage and maintain ethical behavior within an organization
  • allow employees and the company to thrive
  • create a sense of fairness through consistent application of reward and punishment systems
  • support a culture of integrity

Reflections from the Ethics Institute

The Ethics Institute can provide some anecdotal accounts of the impact of ethical leadership on our Kent Place School community. Special thanks to Dr. Karen Rezach for sharing the anecdotes that are central to the ethical leadership analysis that follows.

Election 2016

Dr. Karen Rezach leading an ethics workshop

Dr. Rezach (the current Director of the Ethics Institute and former Middle School Director) shares an ethical dilemma she faced during the aftermath of the 2016 election as an example of ethical leadership in action. The morning after the election, Dr. Rezach walked into the faculty break room to find a teacher dressed in black, who looked clearly distraught. After asking if everything was okay, Dr. Rezach learned from the teacher that they were feeling very upset about the outcome of the election and were unsure if they could teach or be in the classroom with students that day. Dr. Rezach had to decide what to do, and remembers thinking:

“I need to consider the safety of the students while also balancing the obligation of the teacher to be as effective as they can be in their classroom and my responsibility as the Middle School Director to support everyone in my school community.” 

– Dr. Karen Rezach, Director of the Ethics Institute at Kent Place School

Even though there were no substitute teachers available, Dr. Rezach decided to excuse the teacher from teaching for the day and ask other teachers to help cover the classes. In reflecting on whether this was the right decision, Dr. Rezach remarks:

“I really believe that this moment, where emotions ran high and there was a lot at stake for the school community, required strong ethical leadership. I needed to arrive at a quick decision and then be able to communicate my reasoning to everyone involved. I was able to do this because I had a clear ethical decision making process: I thought about all the possible options, considered the impacts (both short and long term), and kept the school’s values and mission at the forefront of my mind. In the end, I believe that the right decision was made and I know that everyone involved understood why I made that decision.” 

– Dr. Karen Rezach, Director of the Ethics Institute at Kent Place School
Dr. Rezach leading an ethics workshop for KPS families

Dr. Rezach’s example illustrates how ethical leadership helped maintain community trust during a moment of great political polarization. She was effective, as Brown and Trevino explain, not only because she made an ethical judgment, but because she used a crucial moment to effectively communicate how she arrived at her decision (602). Through her actions in the moment, teachers were able to “see this moral reasoning put into action and learn from it” (605).  Additionally, Dr. Rezach remarks how the teacher expressed gratitude for allowing them to step away from teaching for the day. According to Brown and Trevino, Dr. Rezach’s leadership through her demonstration of care and concern likely had a positive impact on this teacher’s commitment to the school and overall job satisfaction (604).

The School Honor Code

Kent Place School is an honor code school, where all members of the school community are held to a high standard of honesty and integrity. Honor codes create an opportunity for a school to signal and uphold their ethical values.

“In order for an honor code to be meaningful, everyone must trust the system of accountability and those in leadership positions to uphold the tenets of the code fairly and justly.”

– Dr. Karen Rezach, Director of the Ethics Institute at Kent Place School
Student Ethics Discussion Circle at Kent Place School

In reflecting on her role as Middle School Director, Dr. Rezach emphasizes that “an essential part of maintaining the honor code is keeping communication open and transparent.”  Brown and Trevino continually emphasize the importance of frequent communication of ethics and decision making processes for ethical leadership (597). An honor code can raise numerous ethical dilemmas for both students who are expected to report violations and for administrators who are expected to investigate and then determine appropriate consequences. Dr. Rezach’s experience in navigating an incident where a student reports another student cheating on an exam can provide some insight on how an ethical leader thinks and acts.

“As an ethical leader, how you handle and communicate can signal to the school what you truly value. In this situation you must balance the values of accountability and honesty grounded in the honor code as well as the values of privacy, fairness, and integrity of those involved in the reporting and punishment processes.”

– Dr. Karen Rezach, Director of the Ethics Institute at Kent Place School

If trust in the system and respecting everyone in your school community is your main priority, you man have to ask yourself: 

Talking through an Ethical Dilemma
  • Do you give the same consequence to all students for the same violation? When should exceptions be made?
  • Do you tell the person who reported the violation what the outcome of the process was? If you do, what is the best way to do so?
  • Do you reveal the name of the reporter or the violator? Is keeping names anonymous practical or beneficial?
  • Do you communicate with the school community about honor code violations in order to show that the code is “alive and well”? If you do, what is the best way to do so?

This honor code example illustrates how ethics is alive and well within a school community. How a leader upholds ethical standards, like an honor code, can impact the health of an ethical school community.

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.

Brown, Michael & Treviño, Linda. (2006). Ethical Leadership: A Review and Future Directions. The Leadership Quarterly. 17. 595-616.

Crash Course (2016, November 28). Contractarianism: Crash Course Philosophy #37. YouTube.

Encyclopedia Britannica (2019). Social Learning. Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc.

Haines, William (1995). Consequentialism. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

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.