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Ethics In Leadership

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The year has gone by in a flash and here it is November of 2011 already. Writing these articles reminds all of us of the passing months and that we should take a moment to write our thoughts and share with others. This month strikes the traditional beginning of the holiday season and so I chose a topic that I felt might be timely. Last month, after a long summer of personal loss and family renewal, I returned to you with thoughts of workplace environments. The topic I chose for October was about Group Think and, based on the amount of readers, it was something many were interested in.

This month I wanted to talk a little about Ethics and Leadership. Seems kind of random? Not as much as you might think. The topic came up as we were conducting our Direct Managers Series and the audience surprised me by saying how moved they were after discussing the topic during the day and completing an exercise around ethics. This discussion ignited my thinking in regard to all the ethics violations I have witnessed in my business life and, as I think about it, those violators in their own way have contributed to my work, if only to illustrate what we should not do.

Example: In the early 90s I worked with a guy who embezzled from his employer and, after a close brush with incarceration, did it a second time with a new employer who had sponsored him in lieu of prison time. I sadly concluded that this seemingly bright guy had no control over his 'right and wrong' decision making ability. I have witnessed top leaders who single handedly and through neglect have disabled their organizations, borrowed money they couldn't repay knowing they couldn't repay it, and others who have used their influence to curry sexual favors in the workforce. I have also seen hubris on a scale so large that leaders actually think they can do whatever it is that they want with no personal ownership for the impact on others, their community or even their family. Strangely, part of the approach for many of these ethics violators is to become spokespersons for ethics. They talk about values and integrity like they wrote the book and all the time they are magically working with a different set of rules.

For a balanced story I have also witnessed leaders who were so thoughtful, caring and ethical that they would rather personally perish than do the wrong thing. During the recession of 2008, I traveled with a leader who worked so hard at doing the ethical thing for his diminishing workforce that I thought it would eventually cost him his health. During this time, we spoke frequently about what was right and what was wrong and, without fail, he always made the ethical decision. Always...

Ethics and Leadership
According to, "Ethics" is defined as:
Plural noun

  • (used with a singular or plural verb a system of moral principles: the ethics of a culture.
  • the rules of conduct recognized in respect to a particular class of human actions or a particular group, culture, etc.: medical ethics; Christian ethics.
  • moral principles, as of an individual: His ethics forbade betrayal of a confidence.
  • (usually used with a singular verb that branch of philosophy dealing with values relating to human conduct, with respect to the rightness and wrongness of certain actions and to the goodness and badness of the motives and ends of such actions.

Here is what David Campbell of the Center for Creative Leadership has to add to the Ethics discussion:

David P. Campbell, Ph.D.From the Direct Managers Series - David Campbell, a senior fellow at the Center for Creative Leadership, is one of the most prolific researchers in the world in the field of leadership. Among other things, he has authored numerous widely used surveys to access various facets of leadership. The following story relates his efforts to develop an ethics scale for the Campbell Leadership Index (CLI).

In preliminary work on the CLI, it seemed obvious that "ethics" was central to the practice of good leadership and, therefore, should be on the scales on the instrument (the CLI now includes 17 scales, including ambitious, enterprising, considerate, entertaining, organized, and productive). Consequently, in the early versions of the survey Campbell included adjectives such as ethical, honest, trustworthy, and candid, and negative adjectives such as deceptive and scheming. As with other CLI scales, this one was normed so that the average person would receive a score of 50 on the ethics scale; obviously some would get higher scores and some lower scores.

During the CLI testing period, however, a major problem emerged because almost no one wanted to believe that he or she was merely "average" in ethical behavior, let alone "below average." To soften the impact of such feedback, Campbell changed the name of the scale to "trustworthy" in the hope that this would retain the meaning but lessen the adverse reaction. But that change helped little. Eventually Campbell changed the name of the scale to "credible," which is more acceptable and also better captures the reasons why some executive may get low ratings on the scale despite self-perceptions of scrupulous honesty.

Crazy things are happening out there in the world of business. I witnessed a discussion recently about the use of text messaging in the workplace. One person was concerned that their subordinates were texting and weren't getting their work done. They weren't really sure but, it felt like "keeping up" with friends was more important than the task at hand. Next came a suggestion from the most vocal person in the room that personal phones should be banned on all company computers and then something curious happened. One by one each person began to agree. When asked if the texting was important to the work they did, all agreed that it was not. At this point, the manager in the room called a break. At the break the manager confided in me that he felt uncomfortable with the direction they were taking but didn't want to squash the participative process.

The exercise in the Direct Managers Series was to work together and come up with definitions and ground rules of ethical behavior. The group came up with many and some that even surprised them. We talked about transparency, integrity, making decision not driven by popular demand but by personal ethics and we talked about the power of personality. As I mentioned, it was a powerful discussion and one I didn't want to simply let slip away before bringing the topic to a larger audience.

Some ideas to consider:

Simple is better - at West Point (US Army's Military Academy) every cadet learns of the code; Duty, Honor, Country as a way to live and work successfully. Violate one of these codes (ethics) and you will fail.

Keep ethics memorable - limit the number of ethics you value and make them more expansive but keep the number memorable so people can use it in everyday language.

Publish ethics and lead with them while making them visibly available - place them on banners, on letter head, use them in staff meetings, and break each ethic down by small group to see how they could be applied in the everyday business life. Insist that your vendors align with your ethics and share theirs with you.

Do some annual score keeping - keep them fresh by having a formal way to review your ethical scorecard annually at least. By doing this each and every leader is reminded of the importance of the ethics they are responsible for.

Final Thoughts
Ethics is such a broad topic that there is no way to give it the time it deserves. I just watched a movie that is out named, "Margin Call", in which even the most ethical of leaders are tested and eventually succumb to the 2008 crash. It happens. The purpose of this article is to raise awareness of a very important topic and to make each of you think a bit about how you and your organizations compete in this post-recession marketplace. Am I ethical? I would love to tell you that every decision I have ever made has been the right one ethically. Better that I tell you the truth in that I have tried to be true to the ethics I think are so important , such as never taking anything you have not earned and always decide what is best for people, show courage and grace in times of great stress and care more about others than sometimes they do. Have I gotten it all right? Not even close, but I keep trying and I still have tomorrow and the next day.

Have a happy Thanksgiving and I will talk to you in December.

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Ralph Twombly
Priority Learning

In the 20 years since starting Priority Learning, Ralph has facilitated countless learning experiences and has conducted training for thousands of managers and leaders. With over 30 years of leadership development and organizational development background and work, Ralph continues to build relationships with client companies all over the U.S.



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