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Ethics Matter: A Leadership Imperative

“For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Matthew 6:21 ESV

When it comes to the demands of leadership the challenges are insurmountable. Whether internal or external threats leaders are faced with incredible responsibilities. Deadlines, budget adjustments, downsizing, mergers, acquisitions, hiring, firing, the whole VUCA life of a leader is so very real. Yet, the expectation is this, the leader is supposed to be able to handle it. Top CEOs of major multi-national corporations are making millions of dollars annually enlarging their net worth because the expectation is for them to “handle this” and the response being “it’s handled”.

Change happens so rapidly that by the time you close your eyes at night the morning informs you that the information you just received before going to bed is antiquated, faulty, and no longer relevant, so what do you do? Maybe just this once, you ignore the data you received because you have so many pressing obligations and you only want to keep things moving and not have to rework, review, and or redo what the budget determined you cannot do if you want to stay on course. After all, the company, not to mention you and other executives stand to gain billions of dollars should you continue to proceed. By refusing to deviate from the current plan of action, you will obliterate that one nemesis that's only a fraction ahead of you. Now, the team has learned of this data and they are sending up flares, flashing lights, and have signaled all warning signs and yet you are focused on your mission choosing to ignore what you know needs attention. How far are you willing to go and how much are you willing to compromise before you have gone too far? How many times is it OK to wink, blink, and turn a blind eye to the glaring issues. How many times can you ignore the churn in your gut and the pull in your spirit, before you have placed the entire organization at risk? Are you willing to ruin your reputation and the reputation of your company? How much are you willing to compromise and is it worth it?

Ethical failure is yet still the number one leadership crisis worldwide. We can barely get through a day without learning how another leader was forced to step down or learn how another has fallen from grace. Papa Johns, Monsanto, Wells Fargo, Boeing, and the list goes on of leaders who made horrific decisions, not because they didn’t know better, but because they choose profit over people and lost sight of their original purpose.

There isn’t enough that can be said about the importance of ethical behavior. Being ethical reflects one’s character and defines who they are as a human being. “Where your treasures, (your values and beliefs) are there will your heart be also…” is a Scripture reference that accurately reveals the true character of a person especially under various pressure points. Let’s take a look at Muilenberg, now former CEO of Boeing. Early in his role as CEO, he stated: “…having character and how you lead is so important...” He also said …”In media, there’s such bad character but there’s no room for that.. having character as you lead is really important" (Dennis A. Muilenburg On Principles of Leadership, 2013). It is expected for a leader to have moral excellence and behave accordingly. Whether under pressure or not the moral compass of a leader should supersede temptations to bend the rules, cut corners, or turn a blind eye for the sake of satisfying stockholders and padding pockets over paying attention to the stakeholders i.e. customers, employees, community and the environment.

Ethical leaders stress the priority of behaving honorably through demonstration. When employees work with leaders who display good moral behavior, they tend to commit to their jobs and perform well. Because the leader sets the tone in the workplace, when an employee works with others of deviant behavior, they view that behavior as morally unacceptable. However, when organizational behavior reflects the morals of the leader, the employees view the organization as morally unbiased (Resick, Hargis, Shao, & Dust, 2013) even if the leader lacks discretion and behaves immorally. The employees can be blinded by the underlying assumptions embedded in the culture of the organization which ignores inappropriate unethical behavior. This might be partially true with Boeing’s corporate culture where great emphasis is placed on being a lean and efficient operation. The corporate climate and culture can be perceived as being a morally acceptable organization when the iterative message is focused on leanness and efficiency. Muilenberg commented “we don’t ‘sell’ safety; that’s not our business model” at a recent congressional hearing where he was providing testimony because of two recent deadly airplane crashes, Boeing's 737 Max jets, which killed a total of 346 people. Muilenberg's statement about the business model allowed the world to see what he treasured most.

Ethical failure is gradual. Here are 5 warning signs that your organization could be moving towards ethical failure:

  1. No Accountability among the leadership - leaders feel exempt from being transparent

  2. The “Silo Effect” - no or low interdepartmental interaction; little interaction between leadership and employees

  3. Change in Leadership Style or Attitude - leader becomes more aggressive or less engaging & more withdrawn

  4. Limited Communication Channels - leader(s) are less accessible; ignores addressing concerns or limit information. Sometimes shared information between departments is discouraged. Board members are often left in the dark.

  5. Increased Error in Judgment - often due to hasty decision-making, insufficient research, therefore, making faulty decisions and being focused on increasing productivity cheaply

Recommended Solutions

  1. Rewards and Punishment Process - common among transactional leaders but proven to be effective

  2. Create and Enforce Consequential Policies - there should be enforceable policies in place that clearly define the expected and acceptable work ethic as well as the consequences when these policies are violated

  3. Encourage & Support Whistleblowing - reiterate through clear policies the value of ethical behavior and that there will be no retaliation against anyone who dares to call out inappropriate behavior in the workplace

Leaders are expected to have integrity and exhibit ethicality. Followers deserve it and are demanding it. Your reputation depends on it.


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Dr. E. Michelle Mickens, DSL, is CEO of Live 4 Change, LLC, a Christian-based, global strategic leadership development consultancy that brings transformational change in the lives of leaders and their organization. Live 4 Change, LLC equip C-suite executives, managers, emerging and experienced leaders with the right tools through the leadership development system, Be 4 R.E.A.L. Leadership Series™ . We offer consultations, coaching, workshops, training programs, digital products and more. Live 4 Change, LLC programs, products, and services are designed to:

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