Leading For Ethical Performance

By Linda Fisher Thornton

Discouraging Unethical Leadership 

One of the most important responsibilities of the senior leadership team is to discourage unethical behavior and build an ethical culture. Senior leaders need to work together as a team to create an organization where ethical leadership is rewarded and unethical leadership is quickly corrected.

Modeling Ethical Behavior 

To build an ethical company, every senior leader needs to model the ethical leadership behavior that is expected, and promote ongoing conversations about how to lead ethically.

Leading Organizational Ethics

Beyond modeling expected ethical behavior, each senior leader also leads the ethical aspects of their role for the organization as a whole. For example, the Chief Human Resource Officer also oversees the ethical performance management system, and the The Chief Learning Officer works to build the organization’s ethical understanding and ethical competence.

To build an ethical organization over time, Chief Learning Officers can work with leaders throughout the organization to build ethical competence in areas that support effective communication and leadership. Building ethical competence and having an ongoing dialogue about ethical leadership will make it easier to identify and correct unethical behavior (think about the headlines and lessons learned as you review this list that can get you started):

• Employees who ask tough questions of leaders are praised, not punished or ignored.

• Leaders are evaluated on how they communicate and lead, not just on their bottom line results.

• Employees are screened for ethical behavior before they are hired.

• Performance problems are corrected quickly, so that they are not given time to be considered acceptable  by others.

• Recognition is given to leaders who achieve financial goals ethically, while engaging employees and using responsible leadership (not to leaders who achieve results at the expense of employees, customers, or organizational values).

Linda Fisher Thornton, Ethical Leadership Training: Why is it So Hard to get it Right?, Training and Development Journal, Best of Leadership Development 2009

Individual Effort, Collaborative Effort

Leading for ethical performance requires a concerted effort from each member of the senior leadership team and a collaborative, integrated approach at the team level.

Leading for ethical performance requires:

  • aligning performance management around clear ethical expectations for behavior
  • hiring for ethical performance
  • modeling ethical leadership expectations at all leadership levels
  • requiring that those expectations are met every time, and
  • developing ethical leaders using ongoing dialogue and training

Building an Ethical Culture

By leading for ethical performance, senior leaders are also creating a work culture where people work well together as a team.

“Our work indicates that not only do leaders have to be moral individuals, but also have to go one step further and actively model ethical behaviors and use reward and punishment systems to influence followers’ behaviors. Thus, companies that can hire and/or train ethical leaders are more likely to create ethical and interpersonally harmonious work environments.”

Mayer, Acuino, Greenbaum & Kuenzi, Who Displays Ethical Leadership and Why Does it Matter? , Academy of Management Journal 2012, online at bus.umich.edu.

Related Article:

Ethical Leadership Culture: The Case of The Dissenting Senior Leader, Linda Fisher Thornton, Leading in Context Blog, January 26, 2011


For more, see new book 7 Lenses and the 21 Question Assessment: How Current is My Message About Ethics?

7 Lenses is a Bronze Axiom Business Book Award Winner in Business Ethics41cEVx-Tu4L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_
2014  Bronze Axiom Business Book Award Winner 
About 7 Lenses
Info@LeadinginContext.com  @leadingincontxt  @7Lenses

© 2012 Leading in Context LLC 


  1. Just one point …behaviour patterns that are not ethical should not be called Leadership in the first place …


  2. Great post Linda,

    I especially like that you address ethics from a governance perspective – hiring, goal setting, performance agreements, bonuses, etc. – these are important signals in an organization that set the norms and behaviours.

    I have found that part of the challenge is that people misunderstand ethics. They think it’s signing the Code once per year and being nice or fair. I’m not sure if you’ve seen the journal article by Hosmer (1995) where he outlines 10 ethical principles of analysis, but I found it very helpful in understanding the daily practice of ethics and how it applies. There’s an excerpt of those principles in one of my past blog posts http://wp.me/p1JB1m-9d. It may make for an excellent jumping off point for executive or management meetings.


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