What Ethical Leadership Looks Like

6 min
"It's easier to hold to your principles 100 percent of the time than it is to hold to them 98 percent of the time."

Clayton Christensen,
Harvard Business School and
author, The Innovator's Dilemma

An ethical leader has an increased obligation to behave ethically all the time.

So what does ethical leadership look like?

While leadership styles may vary, all ethical leaders:

1. Lead by example

An ethical leader understands that their actions and values set the ethical tone and culture of the organization. Saying a company is ethical is meaningless if the people who lead the company don’t behave that way.

Ethical leaders exemplify a company’s values.

2. Accept ultimate responsibility

Ethical leaders accept that they bear ultimate responsibility for their own behavior as well as that of their teams.

An ethical leader will not try to shift blame if something negative happens on their watch.

3. Make ethical decisions

Leaders are tasked with the responsibility to make decisions for their teams, customers, stockholders, etc. They must carefully weigh out the facts, and the impact their decisions have on others.

Ethical leaders make decisions that benefit the widest range of people, not just themselves.

4. Foster ethical culture

An ethical leader expects everyone to do the right thing all the time
beginning with themselves. They understand that one unethical lapse can lead to many more.

Ethical leaders notice and respond to misconduct right away and reward good behavior.

Let's practice:

PepsiCo’s company values and mission statement reads in part:

“By acting as good stewards of the resources entrusted to us, we strengthen that trust by walking the talk and following through on our commitment to succeed together.”

Roger Enrico, PepsiCo’s former CEO, donated his salary to a scholarship fund for employees’ children, spurring the company to make an annual contribution to the fund.

Quiz 1 of 1

How did Enrico demonstrate his ethical leadership?

Enrico gave the company good publicity.
Enrico exemplified the company’s values by his actions.
Enrico demonstrated good decision-making.
Enrico was honest about how much money he made.

The correct answer is B. 

Enrico’s actions put the company’s values into practice. 


Consider a time when you were tempted to do 98 percent instead of 100 percent. What did you do and what were the consequences?

Lesson complete

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