The unique contribution of ethical leadership


Leaders may apply different approaches in leadership, including servant, authentic, and ethical leadership. Authentic leaders are more likely to promote genuine relationships between them and their employees. Conversely, the servant leadership approach involves the full commitment of leaders to serve their followers while considering their growth and development. Ethical leaders focus on promoting organizational performance and success as they mentor good behavior among employees and management. Moral leadership is a crucial process that not only leads to productivity and prosperity but also enhances the reputation of an organization. It involves setting high ethical standards in an organization and ensuring that employees do not violate them. Even though various leadership styles and approaches contribute differently to effective leadership, ethical leadership promotes ethical decision-making that, in turn, leads to the achievement of favorable organizational outcomes. The paper intends to explain the unique contribution of ethical leadership to the understanding of leadership as well as reviewing evidence for this leadership approach and conducting a critical evaluation of research on it.


Leaders play a fundamental part in various groups or teams, including organizations and institutions. A leader is one who offers guidance to a group of people, thus enabling them to achieve a common goal. Other than leading or guiding followers, a leader executes different roles, such as directing, controlling, staffing, organizing, and motivating. Depending on the qualities that a leader portrays, he or she may demonstrate different leadership styles. For instance, when a leader shows concern or compassion to workers, he or she demonstrates ethical leadership. On the other hand, perfectionist, self-centered, and controlling leaders may display autocratic leadership. For the successful accomplishment of duties and fulfilment of goals, businesses require highly skilled leaders with qualities such as transparency, resilience, humility, confidence, persistence, ambition, integrity, creativity, among others. Moreover, a leader should be in a position to engage in effective decision-making and implement changes that will contribute to the overall success of a business. Leaders should also promote leadership styles that motivate employees. In other words, the leadership style in place should contribute uniquely to effective leadership in a business or company.

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Some of the common leadership approaches that leaders may embrace in organizations or businesses include servant leadership, authentic leadership, and ethical leadership. The paper intends to conduct a critical evaluation of ethical leadership by discussing its unique contribution to leadership as well as its effect on organizational outcomes. Ethical leadership is whereby leaders prevent their employees from doing the wrong thing or displaying improper behavior. Many times, ethical leaders refer to the principles of conduct to ensure that their followers emulate an appropriate behavior to meet the set goals. Some of the basic values that employees and management share to achieve ethical goals are respect, integrity, loyalty, solidarity, and professional commitment. For one to become a successful ethical leader, he or she needs to be adherent to universal standards of moral behavior. By carrying out various practices in the organization, including decision-making, staffing, and remuneration in accordance with the code of ethics, the leader contributes significantly to effective leadership.

The Definition of Ethical Leadership

Ethics involves the description or prescription of moral behaviors and requirements, implying that there are ways of behavior, both acceptable and unacceptable, that act as functions of philosophical principles (Saeed et al., 2014). Ethical behavior is simply a morally accepted behavior that determines whether something is right and good or bad and wrong. Similarly, ethics refer to moral principles and code of values that guide a group or individual behavior based on what is good or bad. Generally, ethical behavior is acceptable in large communities with shared goals (Shapiro and Stefkovich, 2016). Ethical dilemmas, however, involve uncertain situations whereby different beliefs, interests, and values clush among multiple stakeholders. Ethics, in an organizational context, consists of the application of moral values and principles in business and among stakeholders. In organizations or enterprises, ethical behavior refers to the ability of senior leaders to emulate ethical standards. Therefore, ethical leadership involves directing followers’ behaviors and persuading them to work per the ethical standards (Sethuraman & Suresh, 2014). In ethical leadership, as leaders focus on promoting organizational performance and success, they are more likely to mentor good behavior among employees and management.

Ethical leadership is a crucial process that not only leads to productivity and success but also enhances the reputation of an organization. In other words, ethical leaders lead their followers as they refer to the code of ethics that includes considering people’s interests (Du et al., 2013). The ability of an organization to maintain high ethical standards depends on how top leaders run it. In other words, where leaders only focus on their self-interests without showing concern to employees, they are more likely to make biased decisions. On the other hand, leaders who look after the needs of employees during decision-making are likely to meet the required ethical standards (Yahaya & Ebrahim, 2016). Ethical leadership is an ambiguous construct that includes several diverse elements. As studies suggest that this kind of leadership only prevents people from emulating lousy behavior, others argue that it also enables them to follow proper behavior.

The Unique Contribution of Ethical Leadership to the Understanding of Leadership

While other leadership approaches like authentic and servant leadership display qualities such as consistency, self-awareness, focus, persuasion, and conceptualization, the ethical leadership approach portrays humility, justice, honesty, humanity, and respect. Ethical leadership not only focuses on directing employees to achieve organizational goals but also mentors their behaviors to nurture morally upright individuals. Instead of making only goal-oriented decisions, an ethical leader makes ethical goal-oriented decisions that address all needs in the organization (Giltinane, 2013). Moreover, alongside guiding employees to emulate moral behaviors, ethical leaders act as role models by allowing their followers to imitate their behaviors towards the achievement of goals. Even though other leadership approaches, including authentic and servant leadership, display effective leadership skills, they do not emphasize on leadership ethics. On the other hand, ethical leadership contributes uniquely to leadership by making all leadership styles ethical. Therefore, ethical leadership complements the work of leaders by not only allowing them to lead their followers but also conduct their work ethically (Clarke, 2013).

Justice, respect, and humanity are essential qualities of ethical leaders that distinguish them from other leaders, thus displaying their unique aspects in leadership (Nanjundeswaraswamy & Swamy, 2014). Studies have revealed that other leadership approaches cannot portray all these qualities unless they become ethical. Through justice, leaders emulate fair and just practices, thus treating everyone equally. Similarly, just and fair leaders do not encourage discrimination either based on gender, nationality, ethnicity, or any other factor. For this reason, remuneration and recruitment practices are likely to proceed smoothly and without bias in organizations under ethical leadership. Another essential trait of ethical leadership that contributes significantly to effective leadership is respect (Chughtai, Byrne, & Flood, 2015). A moral leader does not take advantage of his or her superior position to look down upon employees at lower ranks. Similarly, he or she does not show little attention or value to employees’ contributions. On the contrary, ethical leaders treat their followers with respect by appreciating and valuing their efforts regardless of their positions.

On the other hand, humane leaders show concern to people and their needs as well as looking forward to meeting these needs at all costs. Effective leaders have a major role in influencing ethical conduct in businesses or organizations (Shin et al., 2015). Similarly, they are responsible for directing the code of conduct and norms that guide behavior among employees. An employee code of conduct refers to a legal document that defines a set of moral behaviors for employees to emulate during daily activities that contribute to the overall achievement of goals (Yukl et al., 2013). Equally, the code of conduct consists of regulations, requirements, and standard social norms that each employee should follow to bind the legal agreement between them and their leaders. Therefore, leadership becomes more effective when a leader complies with the organization’s code of conduct and gives no tolerance to ethical violations (Yidong & Xinxin, 2013). Various leadership approaches provide different understandings of leadership. For instance, an authentic leadership approach focuses on genuine or legitimate employee relationships as servant leadership gives more priority to followers’ growth and development. However, ethical leadership summarizes the two approaches by ensuring that authentic and servant leaders consider ethics during their leadership practices.

An Evidence Review for Ethical Leadership Approach

The study sample conducted by Brown and Treviño (2014) displays that role models are fundamental antecedents of ethical leadership. Based on this study, social learning and social exchange theoretical frameworks are effective towards understanding the relationship between ethical leadership and role modelling. The study uses twenty participants, including three leaders and forty-seven employees with an intention to examine the effect of leaders’ behaviors on that of the employees. While various leadership approaches lay down the significance of ethics in leadership, none of them bothers to explain the impact of a leader’s ethical or unethical actions on the behavior of followers. For a further understanding of this study, Clarke (2013) tests the hypothesized model by conducting systematic research. The study data, in this case, focus on producing meta-analytic correlations that enhance the validity of the used measurement.

Social learning theory concentrates on the consequences and antecedents of ethical leadership as well as suggesting the learning of norms in two ways, including individual experience and observation of others (Bedi, Alpaslan, & Green, 2016). Generally, individuals consider emulating and paying attention to attractive and credible role models to learn norms of good conduct. Ethical managers become reliable and attractive role models after showing integrity as well as setting high ethical standards for others and themselves. An employee is more likely to emulate or imitate the behavior of his or her role models. According to Bedi, Alpaslan, and Green (2016), role models serve as good leaders, thus acting as major antecedents of ethical leadership.

Yahaya and Ebrahim (2016) identify that organizations where leaders have qualities such as honesty, justice, and respect, are likely to mentor employees who follow the same track. Role modelling plays a fundamental part in influencing ethical behavior through informational and motivational means. Ethical leaders may motivate ethical behavior, thus serving as better role models by demonstrating the actions and behaviors that they want their followers to internalize. Social exchange theory, on the other hand, states that followers will tend to give back to the company depending on what the leader gives (Ko, 2018). In other words, if an employee believes that his or her leader is respectful, caring, or humane, they will be influenced to reciprocate these qualities. For example, employers who offer favorable benefits and rewards to their employees after their excellent work may nurture highly motivated employees who look forward to producing high results at work (Brown & Treviño, 2006).

All in all, leaders who act as role models and display motivational traits are likely to promote mechanisms of ethical leadership in organizations. Consequently, effective antecedents and mechanisms of ethical leadership contribute tremendously to exclusive outcomes such as raising organizational productivity and success. Ethical failures can not only result in lousy leadership but also the collapse of an entire organization. For example, Enron Corporation in the U.S. encountered high losses that led to its fall following the dominance of unethical practices among leaders. All in all, the ability of leaders and employees to strictly operate in accordance with the set ethical standards determines business outcomes in the end.

A Research Critique on Ethical Leadership Style

Several leadership styles, including transformational, spiritual, servant, and authentic leadership, contribute differently to the effective leadership of organizations (Brown & Treviño, 2014). For example, transformational leaders inspire, encourage, and motivate employees to be innovative and creative towards implementing change. Such leaders focus on growth and development as well as looking forward to achieving exclusive goals (Demirtas & Akdogan, 2015). Similarly, authentic and servant leaders aim at achieving goals by applying distinct recommendable tactics. However, these leadership styles do not emphasize the importance of ethics in leadership. For this reason, leaders may target their goals without paying attention to other aspects like humanity, making them to disregard people’s interests. In other words, the leader may give more priority to the achievement of goals than employees’ interests and needs.

The research by Brown and Treviño (2014) supports the claim that role models are essential contributors to ethical practices in an organization. Based on this research, the personality that a leader portrays reflects on the employees. If a leader is respectful, humane, just, honest, and humble, his or her followers are more likely to imitate him or her. Similarly, if a leader obeys basic organizational rules, employees will as well follow the rules. Many studies have highlighted the role of ethical leaders in the elimination of bad behavior among their followers. However, they have not put more emphasis on ways of enabling followers to do right. Clarke (2013) points out that ethical leadership should not focus on eliminating wrong behavior from employees without providing strategic ways of emulating good behavior. Even though Chughtai, Byrne, and Flood (2015) argue that employees should avoid engaging in unethical behavior by working in accordance with the set standards at all times, they do not reveal to them how to embrace good behavior. Equally, Brown and Treviño (2014) disclose that good role models matter in the establishment of ethical leadership as followers will try to imitate them. However, they do not point out how the behavior of wrong role models may affect the behavior of employees. Despite the large pool of essential information on ethical leadership, there is a need to look into the existing research gaps to provide future directions to effective ethical leadership.


For an organization to engage in effective leadership, leaders need to follow the set norms or ethical standards and direct their employees’ behaviors for the achievement of goals. Ethical leadership has encountered a constant evolution, with leaders reevaluating the existing paradigms as a result of ethical dilemmas. Ethical leaders should act as great role models to their followers by allowing them to imitate their behaviors. In other words, the leaders should not only focus on preventing wrong behaviors among employees but also make attempts in guiding them on how to emulate good behavior. Many organizations, such as Enron Corporation in the U.S., have undergone massive losses as a result of unethical leadership (Schoemaker, Krupp, & Howland, 2013). The inability to set high ethical standards and emulate them in an organization can result in ineffective leadership where leaders cannot motivate or inspire their employees to achieve favorable outcomes. In turn, this may lead to poor organizational productivity and success.


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