Back To All Stories
Ethical leadership

7 Characteristics of Ethical Leadership and Why They Matter

A checklist for ethical and mindful leadership

The perception of ‘leadership’ as a concept, a weighty responsibility and even a verb has changed significantly over time. As society evolves, so too do business practices, management styles and even the entire industries in which they operate. What was once primarily an autocratic process; defined as much by hierarchy as by a healthy pay cheque, now encompasses a broad range of techniques, ideas and behaviours.

As we approach 2020 it’s clear there’s no longer a typical way to lead, due in part to the rise of start-ups, tech-focused organisations and changes to the way we relate to work. But overall, a large part of our focus has now shifted to employee empowerment, emotional intelligence and the pursuit of meaningful work

A key part of this focus centres around ethical leadership, something that is difficult to define but runs through all elements of a healthy business. And because ethical leaders attract, develop and create unstoppable teams, the success of an organisation depends on them. 

How many of the essential characteristics of ethical leadership are part of your leadership practices? 

Your Checklist for Ethical Leadership:

  • Build trust into your company’s culture

  • Lead by example

  • Be a leader who eats last

  • Know your values and let them guide you through work, leadership and life

  • Be aware and mindful of biases and base decisions on facts

  • Loudly acknowledge and learn from your mistakes

  • Hire based on your values, and put people above profit 

    See also What Makes a Good Leader in 2020 - The Definitive Guide

Perhaps you’re doing one or two, but there’s probably room for improvement. Let’s address what’s involved in each point, by exploring the key components of ethical leadership, through easily actionable steps and changes. 



1. Create a Culture of Trust

Corporate speak around trust usually goes hand in hand with mindless nodding and lip service, whereby everyone acknowledges its importance but nobody really commits to it, or properly understands what it means in the context of leadership and work. 

Trust doesn’t just mean being honest. Though this is a key component, it actually runs much deeper. Trust is built into the culture of an organisation, through the way daily operations are managed, relationships are formed, employees are treated and decisions are made. It’s part of organisational D.N.A.

There are many ways you can commit to building trust with your people, including through:

  • Being transparent and providing regular updates and honest feedback

  • Providing a safe space for staff to be wrong, fail and be accountable for mistakes

  • Being fair and equitable to not only employees, but also clients and stakeholders

  • Following Jack Daly’s advice by always: Doing what you say you’re going to do, when you say you’re going to do it, whether you like it or not

  • Being thoughtful and promising only what you can reasonably expect to deliver 

Building trust takes time, particularly if it’s not part of your current company culture. It’s long-term benefits, however, are substantial.

2. Practice What You Preach

Doing what you say you’re going to do is important, but saying it in the first place is crucial. Nothing kills productivity quite like a leader with high expectations of employees while simultaneously holding themselves to a different standard. 

The leaders getting this right have worked to develop emotional intelligence, which includes being self-aware, empathetic, authentic and respectful. Lead by example, be open to hearing feedback on your performance and don’t expect your people to do something you’d never consider doing yourself.

Brene Brown, champion for vulnerability in the workplace, puts it simply: 

“If you are not in the arena getting your ass [sic] kicked on occasion because you were being brave, I am not interested in or open to your feedback about my work. Period.” 


3. Be a Leader Who Eats Last

“Leaders are the ones who are willing to give up something of their own for us. Their time, their energy, their money, maybe even the food off their plate. When it matters, leaders choose to eat last.”

All aspects of ethical leadership are linked, making up key parts of a healthy ecosystem that guides an organisation. Eating last, a concept popularised by Simon Sinek, rejects the long-established expectations of those in leadership positions and the liberties they felt compelled to take: getting to skip the line, taking the biggest plate and filling it with the most decadent food. 

For Sinek, effective leadership means several things. Eating last, putting the needs of those in your charge before your own, a willingness to take the first steps towards danger, and recognising the responsibility - the privilege, even - of leading a team. Corporate hierarchy should have no correlation to the way you treat those in your charge:

“...the true price of leadership is the willingness to place the needs of others above your own. Great leaders truly care about those they are privileged to lead and understand that the true cost of the leadership privilege comes at the expense of self-interest.”

4. Know Your Values

Money has traditionally been considered the great motivator, the seductive, elusive breeze that is always drawing us in, pulling us towards the career opportunities that provide the most of it. The results of a recent career survey, however, showed that 67% of respondents cared more about an organisation’s mission than how much it could afford to pay them. Given everything we know about the meaning we ascribe to work, it’s unsurprising. 

Paying employees well will ensure the job gets done, but when a team of people truly believe in a company’s mission and feel passionate about its cause, your entire business will thrive. For a cause in which they believe, the right people will turn down more prestigious and well-paid positions without thinking twice. 

You may already have a vague mission statement at work, but your personal value system and your Why should be consistent in all aspects of your work, life and relationships. Clearly articulate your values to your team, and give them a reason to believe in what they do.

5. Check Your Biases

Biases in the workplace may be fairly innocuous and inconsequential, but they can also have a significant negative impact on your business, employees and your overarching goals. Although often conscious and difficult to notice, these blind spots can lead to employee discrimination, mistreatment and exploitation. Common workplace biases include: 

  • Cognitive bias: including confirmation bias or the infamous Halo Effect
  • Unconscious bias: which may lead to favouring or punishing specific employees due to irrelevant factors 
  • The Dunning-Kruger Effect: which often gives a louder voice to those with a skewed perspective of their own knowledge
  • Fundamental attribution error: such as attributing your own behaviour to external factors, while attributing the very same behaviour in others to personality, gender etc. 
  • Affinity bias: giving those with similar characteristics such as education, upbringing and demographics favourable treatment

There are countless ways these biases can impact an organisation, and it’s impossible to overcome or even be aware of them all. Ethical leadership means being cognizant of their presence, regularly interrogating your decisions and responses, and using objective measures, where possible, to guide your leadership. As a result, instead of sabotaging your success, you’ll be more open to new ideas, new people and a range of perspectives. It’s part of a mindful approach to leading.  

6. Acknowledge Your Mistakes

Ethical leadership means many things, but this article has noted a recurring theme: leaders must delegate but also do. This means showing up, being accountable, and owning up to mistakes.

The worst leaders not only fail to take responsibility for their team or defend their decisions, they sacrifice, blame and abandon them in order to save their own skin. Another way this behaviour manifests is through the compulsion to always be right and a need to save face. 

By owning up to mistakes you’re acknowledging your fallibility, a willingness to learn and a reminder that you too, are human. These simple, though perhaps not always easy, actions will encourage those around you to do the same. And if you don’t? Expect a group of scared people incentivised to blame each other and look out purely for themselves.

7. Evaluate Performance with Ethics in Mind

Like your values being a part of everything you do, the expectations you have on your employees should be determined by the mission of your business. 

Preaching ethical values but demanding employees meet aggressive targets are incompatible actions. If you focus solely on arbitrary financial targets, any focus on the treatment of customers, the dynamics of staff relationships and the safety and happiness of your staff will suffer. Instead, work against these instincts and put people over profits

Fighting the urge to fixate on exponential growth may seem like a sacrifice, but will lead to stronger results in the long-term. Your employees will work better together, show up, work harder and fight passionately for your cause. When evaluating performance, focus on your vision and the type of organisation you want to run, rather than only measuring success by numbers.

The Case for Ethical Leadership

Whether your style is purely utilitarian, libertarian or your own unique approach, ethical and mindful leadership is the way forward. It’s equitable, creates better teams and ultimately drives bigger and better results. Most importantly, your customers will respond to it, and you’ll have a team of people waking up inspired and excited to come to work. I’ll leave the final word to marketing guru, passionate leader and This is Marketing author Seth Godin, fulfilled and energised by a career that inspires him every day: 

“Instead of wondering when your next vacation is, maybe you should set up a life you don't need to escape from.”


Master of ethical leadership Simon Sinek is coming to Australia and New Zealand in 2020. Tickets are already sold out to his New Zealand seminar, but there are limited spots available for Sydney and Melbourne. Book your tickets and get a head start by ordering his newest book, The Infinite Game today.