Defining Characteristics of Unethical Leadership

By Linda Fisher Thornton

This week I’m sharing posts that clearly describe what unethical leadership looks like, and caution readers about the risks of allowing it to continue. While I have always blogged about proactive ethical leadership, my posts on unethical leadership continue to be some of the most popular, so I know you’re looking for answers.

Defining Characteristics of Unethical Leadership

What does unethical leadership look like? How can we talk about it better so we can deal with it better? Unethical leadership is not hard to identify. Just look for any of these defining characteristics:

Selective Respect

Unethical Thinking

Lack of Moral Awareness

Beliefs of Convenience



Acting Above the Law

Not Respecting Other Cultures

Needing To Be Right

Failing To Honor Boundaries

Over-Solving Problems

Toxic Interpersonal Behavior

Treating Insiders Better

Deflecting Responsibility

Refusing to Change

Lacking Empathy and Care For Others

Failing to Honor Human Rights

Dividing People

Ignoring Ethical Principles

Perpetuating False Narratives

Don’t fall into the trap of overlooking ethics because you like a leader’s outcomes. Ethical leaders and organizations know that how those outcomes are reached is just as important as the outcomes themselves.

Being unwilling or unable to think beyond our own personal interests and our own personal gain can lead to unethical leadership, but remember that not all unethical leadership is intentional. That’s why staying ethically competent is such a critical component of leadership.

How many of these characteristics do you have to see to recognize unethical leadership? Just one is all it takes. Although if there’s one, watch out for more.

A list of the characteristics of unethical leadership could go on for miles. What else would you add?

Unleash the Positive Power of Ethical Leadership  

© 2009-2023 Leading in Context LLC

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