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Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority,

Lord Acton (1837)

Is ethical leadership possible? If No, why not? Are there certain things that prevent a leader from being ethical or moral? Or on the other hand, are there certain characteristics of ethics that restrict leaders from being ethical? This and many more are some of the questions that come to mind at the mention of the term ethical leadership. This work examines the debate on ethical leadership with a view to create more understanding of the concept.

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In the view of Viv Oates and TIm Dalmau (2013) ethical leadership implies the art of guiding, helping and influencing people towards achieving a common goal in a manner that is morally acceptable. Although ethical leadership has been defined in a plethora of ways, (Yukl 2010) argues that the fundamental thing about these definitions is the presence of values, traits and behavior. The subject matter of ethical leadership (ethical issues) is therefore a complex phenomenon that needs to be addressed with a high level of sensitivity (Mullins 2010).

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Effects of Ethical and Unethical Issues in an Organaisation

Being an ethical leader within an organisation goes beyond enacting policies, principles and standards to living up them (Greenberg  2011). Over the years, the press has been littered with high profiled ethical failures (such as accounting fraud by top management officials in certain companies) and several concerns raised about the welfare of employees and suppliers alike (Rozycki 2011). Examples of such releases include Mark Hurd the former CEO of HP, Yahoo executive, Maria Zhang (accused of sexual harassment against her employee) and the case of Michel Landel CEO of Sodexo whose news was also in the media for employee discrimination in their organization. This portrays how difficult it is for leaders sometimes to determine what is right or wrong since there is just a thin line between both ends. A wrong decision by a leader could apparently end in law suit or even go as far as destroying the image of a company globally if not well managed. A typical example of this could be seen in the case of Bernard Lawrence “Bernie” Madoff who founded the Wall Street firm known as ‘Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities LLC’ in 1960. Bernard was arrested in 2008 for the largest financial fraud in the history of the United states of America ( Megan Richard and Aaron 2009).


On the other hand, we rarely hear of those numerous ethical leaders who are successfully managing their organisations ethically. While the ethical standards among leaders seem to be on the decline in other companies, these group of leaders are able to raise the standard and inspire their employees to follow suit by doing the right thing at the right time and for the right reasons. The strong focus of Charles Schwab’s (an American brokerage and banking company) on customer service, its philosophy of transparency, and its leadership under founder Charles R. Schwab for example, is said to have enabled the company to evolve “a distinctive value-driven management mindset, which encourages the company to put the interests of its customers and employees first. As a result of this, the company has been consistently rated as one of the top firms on Fortune 500’s annual list of America’s largest corporations; a distinction that is based on corporate revenues (The Saylor 2013). A very important question to ask at this juncture is “how they do this?”The four V-Model of ethical leadership as proposed by Dr. Bill Grace has been ascribed as a crucial way to achieve this (Katie Lee and Jihee Seo 2013). This model prescribes that in order to become a great ethical leader, people who aspire for such must brace an inner journey of integrity as well as an outer commitment to the common good (Schreiner 2014). Leaders must model themselves according to the Four V-ethical model of Value, Vsion, Voice and Virtue.

The Four V-Model of Ethical Leadership

ethical leadership image(Source: The Center for Ethical Leadership, 2014)

Firstly, the leader must firmly believe in his core ethics as well as show great commitment to these values by constantly practicing them everywhere. The vision stage helps leaders to widen their perspectives and frame their services (Schreiner 2014). This helps to integrate the capacity to predict how their activities can potentially influence their subordinates or employees. According to Dr. Grace (2005), it is pertinent that at this level the leader truly knows himself because without a thorough self reflection it will be difficult to have a vision for a greater unit (Center of ethical leadership  2014). The Voice is the instrument that expresses the vision of the leader and needs to be persuasive, convincing and credible. Leaders must confirm frequently between Vision and Values because there is a possibility for the voice to alter the original intent. Finally, virtue which is located at the center of the model is very fundamental to ethical leadership because it is the overarching glue that binds the aforementioned three Vs together. The virtuous character, also known as integrity, cannot be attained without transforming one’s values into actions or without an ultimate goal for the entire group (Center of ethical leadership 2014).

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In conclusion, because no human is perfect, it logically follows that leaders are also not perfect; hence, the possibility to err and make wrong ethical decisions. However the above discussion has also made it clear that leaders who wish to be ethical and make a difference can apply the four Vs by making a personal inner journey of integrity as well as an undiluted commitment to the common good. This will help in inculcating the same attitude and culture among employees; with an end result that will boost their individual performance and that of the organisation at large.moneny pic

Center of ethical leadership (2014), Ethical leadership, [Online] available from <ttp://>  [11 August 2014]

Katie Lee and Jihee Seo .(2013) Ethical leadership . [Online] available from // [11 August 2014]

Charles d. Kerns. (2003) Creating and Sustaining an Ethical Workplace Culture, [Online] available from[10 August 2014]

The Saylor Foundation .(2013) Ethics and Business Success. [Online] available from [9 August 2014]

Chuchmach, Megan; Esposito, Richard; Katersky, Aaron. (July 14, 2009) “Bernie Madoff ‘Hit the Inmate Lottery’ with Butner Prison, Consultant Says.[Online] available from [11 August 2014]

Grace, William; Ebbers, Larry; Kell, Dayle (1996), Values, Vision, Voice, Virtue: The 4 “V” Model for Ethical Leadership Development. [Online] available from [11 August 2014]

Edward G. Rozycki, D. (2011) leadership vs. morality: an unavoidable conflict? [Online] available from [9 August 2014]

Bida Tamang (2013)  what do you mean by Moral Leadership? [Online] available from [10 August 2014]

Yukl, G. (2010) 7th edn. Leadership in Organizations. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Education, Inc.

Mullins, L. (2010)‘Management & Organizational Behaviour’. UK: Pearson Education Ltd., 9th Edition.



  1. Salma Rahim says:

    Ironic but true, how “we rarely hear of those numerous ethical leaders who are successfully managing their organisations ethically”, as mentioned in your informative article.Your piece discusses ethical/unethical leadership and its effects in an in depth manner-not easily done in a 1page article.Conclusion is spot on.Catchy opening para :)waiting for more!


    • Thank you Sarah for those kind words of encouragement. Please do check out my other blog entries and feel free to join the discussion. It is true that this matter can indeed be ironic as the matter of ethics is one that is not highly transparent and often has many conflicting viewpoints.


  2. The Cook says:

    Good Write-up! Ethical leadership is a possibility if and only if leaders take of the courage to lead by example by doing the right thing at the right time, in the right circumstance, at the right place and with the right intention. I personally see no reason why any leader should want to be unethical. More often that not, what is responsible for unethical behaviours among leaders is the imperfect nature of man. No man is perfect. At the same time however, leaders are models and are expected to set the pace for their follows or subordinates who look up to them. Hence the very idea of leadership should necessary come with adherence to ethical standards.


    • Thank you Cook for that wonderful comment,

      You are indeed correct that there is no reason for a manager or leader to indulge in unethical behaviour as the risks will always outweigh the potential advantages. I also agree with the fact that this is a result of the fact that man is not perfect however we should also think about how it can sometimes be too hard to resist temptations.

      Please do let me know what you think, and what you like about my blog specifically or if there are any improvements i can make.


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