Ethics is

the heart of leadership, which is the title of one of my favorite books on both leadership and ethics.[i] The author, Joanne Ciulla, unites ethics and leadership in one topic because each is a part of the other. First, Ciulla defines leadership as a moral human relationship:

“Leadership is not a person or a position. It is a complex moral relationship between people, based on trust, obligation, commitment, emotion, and a shared vision of the good.”

She then explains that since ethics is at the heart of all human relationships, it therefore must also be at the heart of leadership.

“Ethics is about how we distinguish between right and wrong, or good and evil in relation to the actions, volitions, and character of human beings. Ethics lie at the heart of all human relationships and hence at the heart of the relationship between leaders and followers.”

Becoming Value-Centered

It’s not good enough to want to be ethical or want to be a good leader. Achieving both in conjunction requires experiences that test and develop one’s core values and one’s core understanding of the intertwining moral relationship between leader and follower. Gaining experience with ethical leadership is a process that occurs over the life-time of one’s leadership influence.

Intertwined Leader-Follower Relationship

Leaders and followers alike share an ontogenetic[ii] duty of growing an ethical interrelationship. Human relationships become low-trust when core values are not foundational in both leader and follower. Leader and follower must both learn how to successfully resolve moral human conflicts by pivoting on principles that have shaped their values.

Slow Ascent – Rapid Descent

A leader’s journey is not an ethical cake-walk. A lifetime of holding increasingly complex leadership assignments results in personal conflicts that escalate in intensity as leadership responsibilities expand. However, against a tension-filled yellow-brick road to the top, ethical leaders must strive to facilitate a journey for others that is safe with trust, unleashes people’s productive spirit, and encourages individual as well as company growth.

No leader arbitrarily wakes up one morning deciding to become unethical, or to use his or her leadership position to harm others in order to get personal gain. Many ethical lapses in leadership result from a slow unwinding of one’s personal value-core. Ethical situations can surface out of nowhere and assault a leader when they least expect it.

Ethical Crux

Isaac Prilleltensky[iii] wrote an article entitled “Value-Based Leadership in Organizations,” where he described a condition that illustrates the polar-ethic choices a leader may face – the paradox of “self-value” vs. “others-value.” Simply put: Leaders face situations where they can make a decision that either benefits themselves at the harm of others, or benefit others to the detriment of self. For example, a leader may make a business decision that increases profit resulting in a short-term executive reward at the long-term company expense. On the other hand, the leader may choose to improve the long-term company position, but this may come at a cost to his/her own personal financial position. These types of conditions create an ethical dilemma. The ethical crux is how you deal with the dilemma and what your values tell you about self vs. others.

Leaders hold positions of power that come with special trust and confidence. Decisions they make have significant, sometimes life-changing impact not only for themselves and their followers, but for an entire community of stakeholders. Therefore, leaders who value their role as one who must do what is best for the long-term health of the community will have an ethical crux that pivots on others before self.

What are those pivoting values that help a leader see their duty to others above their duty to self? The O.C. TANNER leadership competencies embed five relationship values that are central to a leader’s ability to influence people. As leaders pay close attention to raising their competence in people influence skills, they work on:

  • Building trust with their team, their peers, and their leaders.
  • Creating transparent business and personal relationships.
  • Being humble and recognizing the leader doesn’t know everything.
  • Sharing leadership, allowing others to lead, and understanding the capabilities and interests of those on their team.
  • Building a high level of emotional intelligence for themselves and within their part of the organization.

Concluding Thoughts

Ethical leadership is a life-time experience where values exercised create blocks of wisdom that then build on top of previously experienced blocks of wisdom. The net effect and end-result is that the leader’s ethics become completely intertwined with their entire persona, their entire concept of operating, and their entire philosophy of decision-making.

A leader’s behavior is never a secret. Stories of the leader’s character (shady or pristine) always make their way through the offices and cubicles sending a strong cultural message of what is considered to be an acceptable ethical standard. Ethical leaders prepare themselves for the surprise ethical dilemma by constantly developing, refining, and anchoring to core values, and making those core values an integral part of their personal leadership pattern.


Leaders247 – Crafting talent-development strategies that custom fit your culture, your business, and your people. Learn more at


[i] Ciulla, J. B. (Ed.). (2004b). Ethics, the heart of leadership (2nd ed.). Westport: Praeger Publishers. P. xv.

[ii] Ontogeny is “the process of an individual organism growing organically; a purely biological unfolding of events involved in an organism changing gradually from a simple to a more complex level.” Dictionary

[iii] Prilleltensky, Isaac. (2000). “Value-Based leadership in organizations.”