Traits of Ethical Leaders

Good advice is a gift worth repeating. Last year, Chief Executive magazine offered the gift of advice on the six key traits of ethical leaders (Seidman, 2015).

Would you have thought that the most important trait is the ability to stop and think? That trait (as the most important) would not necessarily have occurred to us either, on first consideration, but Seidman elaborates: “A pause provides a fortress of composure amid the chaos of our constant activity, allowing us to make sense of all the stimuli, differentiating and determining an appropriate response.”

It makes sense—to make ethical decisions requires time to reflect on the various options available and to choose the one or ones that reflect ethical values and behaviors.

Here are the remaining five traits of ethical leaders, as explained in the Chief Executive article.

  • Extend trust: “Ethical leaders understand that the first step to engendering trust is to extend it, not to inspect for it. … extending trust fosters a positive, collaborative relationship where that trust is returned, allowing us to rely on each other, form teams, and divide labor.”
  • Have two-way conversations: “Ethical leaders have respectful, two-way conversations, where they engage directly with colleagues, customers, and other stakeholders.”
  • Demonstrate moral authority: “Ethical leaders know power isn’t over people, but, through To cultivate lasting loyalty and the reach that comes with it, you must unite and enlist others with shared values and a common mission.”
  • Stand for something and shape context around it: “Ethical leadership requires reconnecting with one’s deepest values and principles” [and] “getting systematic about behavior, reminding others what you stand for, and shaping context for them through your behavior.”
  • Lead with purpose: “Operating with purpose connects your actions to significance, and ethical leadership means doing ‘the next right thing,’ not the ‘next thing right.’”

Mid-way through the list of traits, the article mentions the importance of shared values and a common mission. To build and sustain a common mission certainly requires trust and two-way conversations. It also requires listening. For more on that you may also want to read Chief Executive’s article “6 Reasons Why You Need to Stop Talking and Start Listening,” (Bogosian, 2015). As Bogosian tells us, “if you aren’t hearing any ideas or complaints from your employees, you may be operating in a culture of silence and missing critical knowledge in the process.”

The article focuses on such active behaviors as getting out on the floor to be visible and accessible, and consciously seeking out encouraging opinions from people who are not in your inner circle. But it also encourages leaders to strengthen upward communication using formal voice mechanisms such as a confidential hotline, an electronic idea box, or regularly scheduled focus groups.

The first of these, a confidential hotline, is also an important tool of ethical leaders and their organizations. And all the listening behaviors that encourage a speak up culture also contribute to building and sustaining an ethical culture.

Ethical Advocate provides comprehensive ethics and compliance solutions, including ethics and compliance training and confidential and anonymous hotlines, to public and private companies and to educational and government institutions.


Bogosian, Rob. “6 Reasons Why You Need to Stop Talking and Start Listening.” Chief Executive, May 8, 2015.

Seidman, Dov. “6 Key Traits of an Ethical Leader.” Chief Executive, April 16, 2015.