Ethical Leadership Is Mostly About Leadership Integrity

Custom Student Mr. Teacher ENG 1001-04 2 November 2016

Ethical Leadership Is Mostly About Leadership Integrity

A recent study conducted in 2010 among UK and some European companies, revealed that the most prominent ethical issues to organisations includes harassment, bribery, corruption and facilitation payments, and whistle blowing (Wesley et al. 2011). Thus, it is important that ethics must indeed embark from the top. Leaders cannot escape from their responsibility to establish a moral example for their followers. The ethical actions and behaviour of top management have to be consistent with their teaching, otherwise formal ethical training and codes are bound to have a slim chance of success. The outcome of organisational goals is dependent on the leader’s capabilities to set the direction for employee behaviour, which includes promotion, strategies and appraisal (Brown & Mitchell 2010). This essay will examine how leadership integrity plays a part in building an ethical leadership, and also consider the other factors involved in building ethical leadership.

Ethical leadership is mostly about leadership integrity

Ethical leadership involve leaders to lead in a way that respects the dignity and rights of followers. It is especially important in the society today, when the public trust has been eroded by the actions of many, in both the profit and non-profit organisations. For instance, top executives of corporate organisations contributed to the recent credit crisis by reporting higher profits than actual, in order to enjoy greater compensation themselves (Berenbeim 2009). Ethical behaviour includes key principles such as integrity, honesty, and fairness. This is a situation where by leaders engage in behaviour that benefits others and refrains from behaviour that cause harm to others (Toor & Ofori 2009). Ethical leaders embody the purpose, vision and values of the management. They link up the organisational goals to that of the employees and stakeholders, giving a sense of direction to their employees’ work and ensure that organizational decisions are based upon sound moral values (Piccolo et al. 2010).

Thus, an ethical leader who demonstrates leadership integrity is one with ‘right values’ and ‘strong character’, who set examples for others by constantly making efforts to incorporate moral principles in their beliefs, values and behaviour (Freeman & Stewart 2006). Hence, leadership integrity is one of the top attribute of an effective and good leader. Leadership integrity represents an honest, reliable and trustworthy person. It symbolizes a true commitment to perform the right action, regardless of the situation. One study has shown that the integrity of profit making by managers and business owners is a key point which makes a Fortune 500 organisation stands out from other competitors (Blanchard et al. 1997). Social learning theory (Bandura 1977, 1986) also aims to explain why followers’ perceptions of ethical leadership behaviour are influenced by the individual characteristics of the leader.

Social learning theory suggests that individuals learn and follow the actions, attitudes, behaviour and values of credible role models (Bandura 1977, 1986). Ethical leaders are perceived to be role models with high ethical values and traits, such as leadership integrity, and thus, this encourage followers to establish their own framework of moral ideals and principles, which ultimately leads to moral action (Avolio 2005). Followers are also able develop a higher level of moral perspective and interpersonal ability through the provision of positive and constructive moral feedback given by the ethical leaders (Eisenberg 2000; Hoffman 1988). In a study developed by psychologist Dr. Robert Turknett, it was revealed that integrity is the foundation of his leadership character model, and hence, suggested that no leader can be successful without integrity (Turknett et al. 2005). He also notes that individuals with integrity are willing to stand up and defend for what is right, careful to keep promises, will not twist facts, and can be trusted to speak the truth.

Furthermore, James Quigley, the global CEO of Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu, emphasized the importance of integrity and trust in the professional success of an individual (Quigley 2007). He highlighted that individuals who lacks integrity are not considered trustworthy, and will severely weaken an individual’s value to the organisation. Hence, the importance of integrity and character is highly valued in the workplace. Individuals who lack integrity, are not trustworthy, and will not be given responsibilities or opportunities, and thus, will be frowned upon by other employees in the organisation (Quigley 2007). Corporations with integrity leaders are often leaders in their own industries, and likely to do better than other competitor firms, achieving in their long-term financial goals.

Other fundamental elements that make up ethical leadership

In contrast, other studies have suggested that ethical leadership is not just about leadership integrity, but at the same time, it consists of a multi dimensional concept, with many other fundamental elements (Trevino & Brown 2004). Ethical leaders have to be seen as both a “moral person” and a “moral manager” (Trevino et al. 2000). The moral person aspect of ethical leadership can be seen as the personal characteristics and traits of the leader, such as personal integrity, honesty and trustworthiness, including the moral nature of the leader’s behaviour, such as expressing a genuine concern for others and treating people right, demonstrating personal morality, and being open and communicative. In the process of decision making, ethical leaders consider the ethical impact of their decisions, and based them upon ethical values and decision rules (Trevino & Brown 2004). It is therefore important that leaders themselves are indeed moral persons and explicitly demonstrate ethical behaviours to their followers.

Their followers learn what to do and what not to do by observing their leaders behaviour, and are likely to imitate their leaders (Kaptein 2002). However, being perceived as a moral person is insufficient. A moral person only portrays the actions of the leader. It does not advice the followers what is expected of them. A moral manager creates ethical standards and expectation throughout the organisation by portraying ethical behaviour, traits and decision making. A moral manager posses three distinct characteristics. Firstly, a moral manager actively demonstrates ethical behaviours and lead through good examples. Secondly, rewarding morally appropriate conduct and punish unethical behaviours, strengthen the organisations’ ethical stance. Thirdly, a moral manager communicates ethical values and issues throughout the organisation openly (Brown et al. 2005). There are four types of leadership styles. They include the ethical leader, the hypocritical leader, the ethically neutral leader, and the unethical leader. An ethical leader is an individual who is both a moral person and a moral manager.

This leader also has a strong influence in the organisation, with regards to the ethical culture, enforcing the goals of the organisation, and influencing the ethical values, norms and standards (Kalshoven et al. 2011). Next, a hypocritical leader is one who is not a strong ethical person but who attempts to place strong emphasis on ethics and values. These leaders often talk about ethics, but do not follow up with the action itself (Trevino et al. 2000). In such cases, the followers often perceive these acts only as a false front. Without any actions to match what the leader communicates about ethics and values, it points out issues that has yet to surface, and thus, is worse than not doing anything at all, which tarnish the reputation of the leader (Trevino et al. 2000). This result in the followers not trusting the leader, and becoming cynical in everything the leader says. Thirdly, the ethically neutral leader is seen as neither a strong ethical or unethical leader.

An ethically neutral leader may be an ethical person, but do not take up an active leadership role is the important areas of ethics, and followers are uncertain of the leader’s stand on the issue of ethics. Hence, the ethically neutral leader is one who focuses on end results without setting any ethical goals. Lastly, a weak moral person and moral manager is an unethical leader. Furthermore, other studies have suggested that in addition to the first key attribute of leadership integrity, there are five other attributes that characterise ethical leaders, which includes, ethical awareness, managing ethical accountability, people oriented, motivating and encouraging and empowering (Resick et al. 2006). Firstly, ethical awareness is the ability and willingness to identify moral and ethical situations and problems. Hence, without being first able to identify the ethical issue present, even a leader with leadership integrity will not be able to act ethically, which will lead to a damaging effect on perceived ethical leadership (Resick et al. 2006). Secondly, ethical leaders have to learn to manage ethical accountability, through establishing and instilling a reward and punishment system.

This ensures proper ethical standards and conduct are performed throughout the organisation (Resick et al. 2006). Thirdly, in order to be aware of how their actions will impact others, ethical leaders have to be people oriented, which highlights the selfless, external focus and responsibilities required of an ethical leader (Resick et al. 2006). Next, ethical leaders are also required to be motivating. Thus, even if ethical leaders possess leadership integrity, they have to be able to motivate, exert influence, and guide followers towards the organisational goals, ethical standards and norms (Resick et al. 2006). Lastly, ethical leaders must be encouraging and empowering, and thus delegate responsibilities and tasks to employees, and ensure that they are ethically responsible.

This allows the employees to be independent and responsible, and hence convey ethical standards throughout the organisation (Resick et al. 2006). Emotional intelligence is another strong attribute and influence of ethical leadership, beside leadership integrity. Leaders with high emotional intelligence are able to stimulate an ethical organisation by openly communicating about ethical issues, gaining motivation, and increase ethical awareness. Ethical leaders who have high emotional intelligence are also very trusting, understanding, engaging and have the ability to inspire others (Gregory 2010). Such leaders develop a strong set of empathy and interpersonal skills, as well as people oriented skills.

They are then able to understand the influence, and impact their behaviours and decisions on the stakeholders and employees in the organisation (Gregory 2011). One study highlighted that 89% of the respondents identified emotional intelligence as highly important and essential to meeting the organisations’ top challenges (Freeman 2007). Two other studies were also conducted with business students, and nurses in the US hospitals. The results of both studies revealed that emotional intelligence has a direct relationship with ethical awareness, and thus, higher emotional intelligence scores predict higher performance in ethics (Joseph et al. 2009; Deshpande 2009).

Insights and analysis

In reflection, leadership integrity is an important and essential attribute in building an ethical leadership. As discussed earlier, leadership integrity is highly valued in organisations, and the absence of it will likely result in followers losing trust and respect for the ethical leader. Hence, this means that followers will especially look up to ethical leaders with strong leadership integrity as these leaders are associated with having strong positive traits and characteristics, whom will likely do the right thing, given any circumstances, and supports the statement that ethical leadership is mostly about leadership integrity.

In addition, Bandura’s social learning theory suggests that individuals learn and follow the actions, attitudes, behaviour and values of credible ethical leaders. Hence, this means that followers’ moral self-development is likely to be heavily influenced by the leader’s effort to model moral behaviours. Thus, this also supports the statement that ethical leadership is mostly about leadership integrity, because the qualities of the leader, such as leadership integrity, will influence the followers to model such behaviours and values.

On the other hand, only the moral person aspect of ethical leadership place emphasis on the leader’s behaviour, traits and personal decision making towards ethical conduct. The behaviours and actions of a moral manager have an external focus of how the leader is seen by employees and stakeholders, as they aim to increase the ethical awareness and standard in the organisation. Thus, under Trevino’s definition of an ethical leader, leadership integrity belongs to the category of a moral person. However, the leader needs to be both a moral person and a moral manager, in order to be considered an ethical leader. Thus, this denies the statement that ethical leadership is mostly about leadership integrity, and supports the idea that leadership integrity is only one dimension of being an ethical leader.

Secondly, Resick’s definition of the six key characteristics of an ethical leader belongs to the category of either a moral person or a moral manager, where leadership integrity, ethical awareness and people orientation falls into the category of moral person, while managing accountability, encouraging and empowering, and motivating belongs to the category of moral manager. Hence, this refute the statement that leadership integrity is mostly about leadership integrity, as it can be clearly seen that leadership integrity is only one aspect of the characteristics required of ethical leadership, as there are other important elements that effect ethical leadership as well. Thirdly, studies have also revealed that other than leadership integrity, the emotional intelligence of the leader is also another key factor in building an ethical leadership.

Thus, this further supports the claim that that ethical leadership is not mostly about leadership integrity, but is also heavily influenced by the personal characteristics of leaders’ emotional intelligence. My personal stand is that though the behaviour, values, traits and personal characteristics such as leadership integrity, of an ethical leader is important, but, the ability to influence and affect followers to model such moral behaviours places an even greater emphasis in building a reputation of ethical leadership. As discussed earlier, the traits and behaviours of the moral manager addresses this aspect, and thus support my stand that ethical leadership is a multi dimension concept, which consists of many other fundamental elements other than just leadership integrity.


Ethical leaders bring about highly desired benefits to organisations. The personal characteristic of an ethical leader, such as leadership integrity is one key factor in building ethical leadership. However, there are also other elements involved which have a strong impact in building ethical leadership. Hence, in order to be effective ethical leaders, individuals with leadership integrity have to demonstrate that they are capable of motivating employees by creating and stimulating an ethical organisation, developing standards of ethical conduct and behaviour, and communicating openly on ethical issues, instilling a rewards and punishment systems, demonstrating ethical behaviour, and thereby increasing the ethical awareness in the organisation.


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  • University/College: University of Chicago

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