The Ethics of Leadership

September 8, 2020

Ethical leaders exist in all walks of life. They are the individuals who step forward when crises occur, come to the rescue of others and generally do what's right—no matter what. Anyone can talk the talk, but can they walk the walk? In today's high-visibility, social world, more people are taking note of leaders’ behavior and holding them accountable.

What is Ethics?

Ethics is defined as "moral principles that govern a person's behavior by which people conduct themselves personally, socially or professionally." Ethical leaders are not afraid to do what they believe is right, even if it is unpopular. As a leader, your reputation is critical and when you make unethical decisions, people will remember them for a long time. Whether in your future career or everyday life, ethics is what creates a fair, safe and trustworthy environment for everyone.

Ethics is essential for all organizations to be successful—from a major corporation to your local DECA chapter. We all face ethical challenges, and effective ethical leaders will stand up for what they believe is right. As a DECA member, you will need to make many choices and it is crucial to think about the ethical principles that aid in making wise choices and ethical decisions (i.e., integrity, trust, accountability, transparency, fairness, respect, rule of law and viability). Companies, schools and DECA chapters will often have a code of conduct to set-up clear expectations and what that organization's ethics are and any requirements that are expected of the employee, student or chapter member.

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Ethical Decision-Making

Ethical decision-making is the process of evaluating and choosing among alternatives in a manner consistent with an individual's ethical principles. In making ethical decisions, it is necessary to perceive and eliminate unethical options and select the best ethical alternative.

Three main philosophies teach what ethical decision-making should consider. Utilitarianism states that decisions should be based on what benefits the greatest majority. Deontology implies that all ethical decisions should be the same. If the right choice is X, then it should also be X in a similar situation. This eliminates any subjectivity in the decision-making process. Virtue Theory is the approach most people tend to use. It implies that all ethical decisions are made based on the character of the individual.

When you encounter so many diverse viewpoints daily, your “wrong” may be “right” to someone else, and vice versa. Therefore, it is helpful to have a basic understanding of the steps in ethical decision-making. Following the steps can help provide an honest, supportive and fair culture, but may also save an organization from getting into legal trouble in the future.

Ethical Leadership

Ethical leaders are not just born with ethical leadership skills; instead, they learn them over time. These skills can certainly be "taught," but perhaps not in the traditional sense of the word. The key to becoming an ethical leader is seeking out opportunities to learn about, develop and apply ethical leadership knowledge and skills firsthand. An ethical leader develops appropriate and professional behavior for their team and for those they lead. Alternatively, a leader who lies, avoids responsibility or does not contribute to the workload is not demonstrating ethical behavior. Their team or employees will not respect them.

Leading ethically is not always easy. To grow as a leader, it is important to understand your own beliefs and the beliefs of others. There are many conflicting ideas about what is considered right and wrong. Ethics may vary across individuals, organizations, cultures and countries. However, in a cross-cultural study conducted in 2013, researchers found that there are many shared ideas of what is considered ethical.

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As you make a decision, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Is this the right thing to do?
  • Is it respectful to others?
  • Is it honest?
  • Is it responsible?
  • Does it make the community better?
  • Does it follow the "Golden Rule" to treat others as you would like them to treat you?
  • Does it follow the “Rule of Universality” - Would it be OK if everyone did it?"

As an emerging leader, you will play an essential role in leading organizations in the future. Whether this is in your DECA chapter, school, community, association or the world, remember to consider the ethics and how your decisions impact others.

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Discussion Questions

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Classroom Connection

Career CLuster:

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Performance Indicators:

Model ethical behavior
Explain the nature of ethical leadership