Moral and Ethical Leadership

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An important leader responsibility may be that of engendering in others, as much by example as by words, internalized attitudes about what is right and wrong, ethical and unethical, moral and amoral. In today’s climate, leaders may be in precarious situations to enact their own espoused senses of moral absolutes while also recognizing their own behavioral moral relativism. Complicating the matter may be the expectation (rightly so) of leaders to not just legislate morality codes but rather listen and respond to individual and group approaches (e.g., gender, generational, racial, ethnic) to moral and ethical thinking and conduct. To illustrate generational effects, researchers noted that members of Generation Y tended to adopt both higher moral relativism AND idealism – a phenomenon not experienced in previous generations (VanMeter, Grisaffe, Chonko, & Roberts, 2013).

Moral relativism is a state in which right and wrong, good and bad, and other moral polarities are situational while idealism suggests a true, knowable, conscious state that should be represented in reality as what ought to be. For example, some may argue that taking the personal property of another is generally wrong or that there should be plentiful supplies of resources and that those resources are communally owned. Because this ideal is not a reality (i.e., people take the personal property of others, there are finite resources that are not equitably distributed across the community), moral relativism is adopted. An employee who does not earn enough to meet his/her basic needs may feel justified (by himself/herself or others) in using company resources beyond the scope of his/her role. The indigent who removes property from retail or other stores may excuse his/her behavior as being a product of his/her state and not as a reflection of his/her character.

One of my favorite authors observed:

You are king only to the degree to which you are just and true, and if you do not do what is right and honest, you are no king.

While leaders, for 99.9% of cases, are certainly not kings, this observation may also apply to them. A true leader will do what is just and true — right and honest — even when those actions may be deemed by others to be unjust, wrong, or dishonest. In determining what is just and true, a leader must balance multiple perspectives simultaneously and make decisions that are (a) beneficial to as many individuals and groups as possible, but also (b) look out for and protect the interests of vulnerable populations who are unable to fully advocate for themselves.

As you have observed formal or informal leadership (e.g., in business, at home, in the community):

  • How have you seen leaders engender in others moral and ethical compasses?

  • As they have done so, which approaches did they employ that worked well to instill justice and truth in the communities they lead? Conversely, which approaches provided to be detrimental to establishing justice and truth?

  • Although you may be a leader, you are also a follower. To those that you follow (e.g., a mentor, a colleague, a neighbor, a spiritual leader), what advice would you share with them to help them more effectively lead with moral and ethical leadership?


Nibley, H. (1989). Approaching Zion (p. 118). Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book Company

VanMeter, R., Grisaffe, D., Chonko, L., & Roberts, J. (2013). Generation Y’s Ethical Ideology and Its Potential Workplace Implications. Journal of Business Ethics, 117(1), 93–109.

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