BUSINESS ARTICLE: “Ethical Leadership and the Business Environment.” – By PELVEST Leadership Institute.


Ethical Leadership and the Business environment

In a world of materialism and wealth maximisation, topics such as ethical leadership good governance are relegated to the outskirts of organisational character and leaves room for profiteering at all costs. It is the most vulnerable in society that bear the cost of such. Herein, I examine the principles that underpin ethical leadership. Though not new, these principles form the basis upon which sustainable organisations are natured.

Ethical leaders Respect Others

It is our duty to treat others with respect. To do so means always to treat others as ends in themselves and never as means to ends. One writer said, “Persons must be treated as having their own autonomously established goals and must never be treated purely as the means to another’s personal goals.” These writers then suggested that treating others as ends rather than as means requires that we treat other people’s decisions and values with respect: failing to do so would signify that we were treating them as a means to our own ends. Leaders who respect others also allow them to be themselves, with creative wants and desires.

Respect for others is a complex ethic that is similar to but goes deeper than the kind of respect that parents teach little children. Respect means that a leader listens closely to opposing points of view. It means treating subordinates in ways that confirm their beliefs, attitudes, and values. When a leader exhibits respect to subordinates, subordinates can feel competent about their work. In short, leaders who show respect treat others as worthy human beings.

Ethical Leaders Serve Others

A number of ethical theories emphasize a concern for the interests of others (ethical altruism). The service principle clearly is an example of altruism. Leaders who serve are altruistic: they place their followers’ welfare foremost in their plans. In the workplace, altruistic service behaviour can be observed in activities such as mentoring, empowerment behaviours, team building, and citizenship behaviours.

The leader’s ethical responsibility to serve others is very similar to the ethical principle in health care of beneficence. Beneficence is derived from the Hippocratic tradition, which holds that health professionals ought to make choices that benefit patients. In a general way, beneficence asserts that providers have a duty to help others pursue their own legitimate interests and goals (Beauchamp & Childress, 1994). Like health professionals, ethical leaders have a responsibility to attend to others, be of service to them, and make decisions pertaining to them that are beneficial and not harmful to their welfare.

Ethical Leaders Are Just

Ethical leaders are concerned about issues of fairness and justice. They make it a top priority to treat all of their subordinates in an equal manner. Justice demands that leaders place issues of fairness at the centre of their decision making. As a rule, no one should receive special treatment or special consideration except when his or her particular situation demands it. When individuals are treated differently, the grounds for different treatment must be clear and reasonable, and must be based on moral values.

For example, many of us can remember being involved with some type of athletic team when we were growing up. The coaches we liked were those we thought were fair with us. No matter what, we did not want the coach to treat anyone differently from the rest. When someone came late to practice with a poor excuse, we wanted that person disciplined just as we would have been disciplined. If a player had a personal problem and needed a break, we wanted the coach to give it, just as we would have been given a break. Without question, the good coaches were those who never had favorites and who made a point of playing everyone on the team. In essence, what we wanted was that our coach be fair and just.

When resources and rewards or punishments are distributed to employees, the leader plays a major role. The rules that are used and how they are applied say a great deal about whether the leader is concerned about justice and how he or she approaches issues of fairness.

Ethical Leaders Are Honest

When we were children, grownups often told us we must “never tell a lie.” To be good meant we must be truthful. For leaders the lesson is the same: To be a good leader, one must be honest. The importance of being honest can be understood more clearly when we consider the opposite of honesty: dishonesty Dishonesty is a form of lying, a way of misrepresenting reality. Dishonesty may bring with it many objectionable outcomes; foremost among those outcomes is the distrust it creates. When leaders are not honest, others come to see them as undependable and unreliable. People lose faith in what leaders say and stand for, and their respect for leaders is diminished. As a result, the leader’s impact is compromised because others no longer trust and believe in the leader.

Dalla Costa (1998) made the point clearly in his book, The Ethical Imperative, that being honest means more than not deceiving. For leaders in organizations, being honest means, “Do not promise what you can’t deliver, do not misrepresent, do not hide behind spin-doctored evasions, do not suppress obligations, do not evade accountability, do not accept that the ‘survival of the fittest’ pressures of business release any of us from the responsibility to respect another’s dignity and humanity”

Ethical Leaders Build Community

Leadership is a process whereby a person influences a group of individuals to achieve a common goal. This definition has a clear ethical dimension because it refers to a common goal. A common goal requires that the leader and followers agree on the direction to be taken by the group. Leaders need to take into account their own and followers’ purposes while working toward goals that are suitable for both of them. Concern for the common good means that leaders cannot impose their will on others. They need to search for goals that are compatible with everyone.


Author: Nepia Zivanai –  Executive Director, Pelvest Leadership Institute

Pelvest Leadership Institute is an accredited professionally run Institute, based in Centurion, Pretoria -in Gauteng, South Africa’s economic hub, with a vision to be the epicenter for innovative business thought leadership in Africa. Pelvest Leadership Institute seeks to build leaders who are self-aware, have a high level of personal mastery, are able to engage meaningfully with a diversity of perspectives, and have the skills and the passion to develop innovative solutions to new challenges.