The 5 Principles of Ethical Leadership

I work in two environments – a faith-based graduate institution and in the marketplace. So I help leaders grapple with personal and cultural ethics on a weekly basis. I do this by focusing on 5 core areas that promote ethical leadership.

Quote - A leadership strategy without ethical clarity produces moral and economic bankruptcy. – Bill Donahue

As you face challenges in areas like decision-making, strategic planning, cultural transformation and leadership development, your ethical framework will reveal itself, particularly under pressure.

I confess that I do not like what I see in the mirror sometimes when I am frustrated, tired and weary of battling the challenges I face in work, life and personal growth. So it is important that I keep exposing myself to resources and people that deepen my ethical foundation and promote character growth. What I read, who I meet with, and how I go about my work all shape my approach to ethical situations.

Whether navigating a consultation, teaching students, or marketing my leadership development services to groups, teams and organizations, how I do this and the motives behind my actions sends signals about what I believe.

Since the time of Aristotle, says Peter Northouse, these discussions have focused on 5 core areas that have been the focus of many ethical systems. These are also described, bolstered or expanded personal beliefs, faith systems, and one’s philosophical or religious worldview.

Here they are: [i]

 Mindmap of The 5 Principles of Ethical Leadership - Respects Others - Serves Other - Shows Justice - Manifests Honesty -  Builds Community -


Respects Others: We might think we have this mastered, but we disrespect others when we interrupt them, show up late to meetings, only seek advice from our kind of people, or ignore the input of people lower in status or rank.


Serves Others: This is the goal of leadership, but many of us subtly exploit others. Some years ago a leader came to the organization I was a part of. He really did not care about the people – he saw us as a platform for his expanding his network, selling his resources, and gaining notoriety. It did not take long for everyone to see it and in a couple years he was gone.


Shows Justice: Justice is about “making things right” and leaders must act justly whenever they notice injustice in the team, community, church or organization.  An employee gets overlooked for a raise or promotion because their evaluation was not turned in on time by a supervisor. Make it right. You notice a minority person or woman gets shut down repeatedly in meetings because someone has a cultural bias (perhaps without even being aware of it). Make it right. You see a clear violation of HR practices or basic laws (like a banker I knew who was cleverly skimming fee income into his own personal account). Do the right thing and bring it to light.


Manifests Honesty: This is always a tricky one, particularly in the business world where corners are cut, backroom under-the-table deals are cut, and “bribes” for new business (let’s call it what it is) are routine, tolerated as “just the way things are around here.” Dishonest leaders create a dishonest culture. And a dishonest culture at work or anywhere else is an emotional drain to our people, a black eye on the organization and leaves scars on our families and communities.


Builds Community: This is an area I have devoted much of my life and leadership. Community is the result of shaping an honest, caring, truthful, engaging, fun and authentic culture. We move from narcissism and consumerism to being others-centered and creativity-focused.

Ethics matter. And you and I set the tone and shape the culture.


[i] Diagram can be found in Peter Northouse’s Leadership: Theory & Practice, page 431.


Where do you see ethical breakdown, and how can you be a force for change?


We would like to encourage your feedback as it helps us to identify the issues that are important to you. It also helps others who are searching to develop new creative ways of leading. Thank you in advance for your comments.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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