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Ethical Leadership: Building Trust Through Principled Actions

In today's corporate environment, business leaders face immense pressure to deliver results and boost profits. However, the ethical misconduct of leaders is an increasingly prevalent concern. Recent corporate scandals such as Enron and Theranos demonstrate how an obsessive focus on success can lead executives down an unethical path. More than ever, leaders need to focus on building trust and leading with integrity. Leaders should exercise caution, take calculated risks, adhere to principles, avoid the "fun boss" mentality, maintain professional distance from employees, and practice self-awareness. By embracing ethical leadership strategies, executives can earn the trust of their teams and the public.

Leading with Caution and Calculated Risks

Showing caution and taking calculated risks helps leaders gain trust. In a competitive business climate, leaders may feel pressure to take excessive risks to get ahead. However, leaders need to thoughtfully assess risks and potential ethical implications before moving forward. As Amy Edmondson, Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard Business School, advises, leaders should create a psychologically safe environment where employees feel comfortable voicing concerns about potential risks. By encouraging transparent conversations about risks, leaders can make more informed decisions. Calculated risks that thoughtfully weigh benefits and potential downsides are preferable to impulsive gambles. Adhering to processes for ethical decision-making can provide helpful guardrails. With cautious and deliberative risk-taking, leaders demonstrate good judgment and responsibility.

Upholding Principles and Organizational Values

In addition to cautious risk analysis, adherence to principles is a key element of ethical leadership. Leaders build trust when they consistently uphold ethical principles and organizational values. Actions speak louder than words. If leaders espouse integrity yet tacitly condone questionable practices, they breed cynicism among employees. Leaders need to embody the values they tout through their everyday decisions and conduct. They should hold themselves and employees accountable to living up to stated principles. This requires addressing ethical gray areas head on rather than avoiding difficult conversations. According to leadership experts, grounding decisions in core values provides a moral compass when dilemmas arise. Leaders who demonstrate commitment to doing the right thing signal that profits do not eclipse principles.

Avoiding the "Fun Boss" Mentality

Leaders should also avoid the temptation to try and be the "fun boss" to gain approval. The fun boss mentality prioritizes being liked over making sound leadership decisions. Leaders who try too hard to be friends with employees may have difficulty making objective personnel decisions. They may lack necessary professional boundaries with their teams. As Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer exemplified, leadership isn't a popularity contest. Leaders need to focus on driving results, developing employees, and making principled calls—not on being the cool boss. That said, leaders should avoid coming across as authoritarian. Respect and accessibility are important. Leaders can take a participative leadership approach where employees are actively engaged in decision-making. Ultimately, ethical leaders aim for a balance where they are appreciated and respected but maintain professional objectivity.

Keeping Professional Distance

Related to avoiding the "fun boss" pitfall, leaders need to maintain professional distance from employees. Getting too close or informal with employees can cloud objectivity and breed inappropriate fraternization. Leaders need to be friendly but not friends. Small talk in the hallway is fine, but happy hour drinks after work tend to cross the line. Work gatherings, like holiday parties, present pitfalls that require vigilance. Harassment issues can emerge when booze lowers inhibitions. Leaders should act professionally at all times, on and off the clock. If traveling for business, prudent leaders meet in public spaces versus alone in a hotel room with colleagues. In the #MeToo era, leaders ignore boundaries at their own peril. Lawsuits or scandal can ensue. While leaders should be accessible, keeping appropriate professional distance fosters trust and respect.

Practicing Greater Self-Awareness

Finally, self-awareness is essential to ethical leadership. Self-aware leaders recognize their own biases and tendencies to rationalize or behave unethically under pressure. They reflect on past missteps to strengthen moral muscles for the future. Many corporate scandals tie back to oblivious or self-aggrandizing leaders. Events like Enron underscore the dangers of hubristic, conflict-ridden leaders who lack self-control. To avoid such pitfalls, executives need to cultivate humility and introspection. They should solicit candid feedback from trusted advisors. Surrounding themselves with diverse viewpoints surfaces blind spots. Self-aware leaders also need work-life balance and confidants beyond the office to provide perspective. Practicing self-awareness and self-care enables leaders to stay centered amid turbulence.


Executives face growing demands to lead ethically and build trust in turbulent times. Leaders can earn confidence by exhibiting caution, adhering to principles, avoiding the "fun boss" trap, maintaining professionalism, and developing self-awareness. Leading by example and putting people over profits ultimately wins trust. Ethics and success do not have to be mutually exclusive. With mindful, values-based leadership, executives can steer their organizations in an ethical direction. The future needs leaders who look beyond the bottom line and aim higher on the moral compass.


Jonathan H. Westover, PhD is Chief Academic & Learning Officer (HCI Academy); Chair/Professor, Organizational Leadership (UVU); OD Consultant (Human Capital Innovations). Read Jonathan Westover's executive profile here.



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