Qualities of an Ethical Leader

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

By Ariel Sykes, Assistant Director of the Ethics Institute

This blog is part of our Exploring Ethical Leadership Blog Series

Question #1: What makes someone an ethical leader?

Social Science Lense

According to Brown and Trevino, ethical leaders are both: (a) moral people and (b) moral managers (597). Based on interviews from employees across several industries:

A “moral person” in this context is someone who:

  • (1) is fair 
  • (2) has integrity (is honest and trustworthy) 
  • (3) cares for others,
  • (4) is self aware, and 
  • (5) is a principled decision maker who recognizes ethical dilemmas when they arise.

A “moral manager” is someone who integrates ethics into their leadership style by: 

  • (1) making their decision process explicit,
  • (2) modeling ethical behavior for others,
  • (3) communicating with others about ethical commitments, and 
  • (4) creating, maintaining and enforcing standards of ethical behavior in the workplace.

Philosophical Lense

Philosophers have explored this question for centuries. We can briefly look at Marcus Aurelius and Hannah Arendt for some possible answers.

Marcus Aurelius, a stoic philosopher and emperor of Rome, spent significant time self-reflecting in his journals in order to become a more ethical person and leader (read his journal “Meditations”). Part of this process for Marcus Aurelius included looking at ethical people in his life in order to identify the essential character traits of a good leader.

In his reflections, March Aurelius emphasizes a leader having qualities such as:

  • pleasant “sweet natured” disposition
  • thoughtful decision- making process
  • commitment to justice
  • indifference to flattery and pride
  • openness to criticism
  • gifted at speaking

Hannah Arendt, a German-born Jew who fled to France when Hitler rose to power, provides a different perspective on leadership; she pushes back on the traditional emphasis of an individual leader by asking us to consider leadership in the collective and shared sense. This shifts the idea of leadership from the power of one person to rule over others, to the power of a group of people coming together around a dedicated cause or purpose.

“Power corresponds to the human ability not just to act but to act in concert. Power is never the property of an individual; it belongs to a group and remains in existence only so long as the group keeps together. When we say of somebody that he is ‘in power’ we actually refer to his being empowered by a certain number of people to act in their name. The moment a group, from which the power originated to begin with…dis­appears, ‘his power’ also vanishes.”

Hannah Arendt, On Violence, p.143

Throughout her written work (most notably The Human Condition), Hannah Arendt’s emphasis on the relational aspects of our lived experiences can be used in combination with her views on collaborative leadership to develop a definition of ethical leadership that involves a community of people who:

  • have multiple perspectives and experiences
  • care for others
  • are committed to working together around a shared and justified purpose

At the Ethics Institute, we agree with the “moral person” and “moral manager” criteria put forth by Brown and Trevino. We also incorporate some of the character qualities proposed by Marcus Aurelis and the value of multiple perspectives brought forth by Hannah Arendt, into what we do with students, teachers, and families. More specifically, The Ethics Institute focuses on developing “ethical dispositions” essential to effective leadership, which includes “self-knowledge,” “ethical knowledge”, and “ethical skills.”

Reflections from the Ethics Institute

At the Ethics Institute at Kent Place School we believe that an ethical leader is someone who knows:

  • who they are
  • what they value
  • why something is an ethical dilemma or not
  • how to think through an ethical dilemma in order to arrive at a decision / action

We also believe that an ethical leader is someone who has the ability to:

  • consider multiple perspectives and possibilities
  • keep an open-mind
  • carefully examine ideas and evidence
  • communicate ideas and reasons clearly and respectfully
  • engage and facilitate productive dialogue with others
  • make ethical decisions when facing any type of ethical dilemma

Works Cited

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

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

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

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