Are You an Ethical Leader?

05/22/2015 12:55 pm ET | Updated May 21, 2016

If you're really honest with yourself for a moment how ethical are your leadership behaviors? Are you trustworthy? Do you always show others respect? Are you willing to forgo potential profits if it means looking after the needs of your employees better?

Given British historian Lord Acton famously declared in the 19th-century that "power tends to corrupt" - an observation since supported by numerous studies - it appears that balancing the needs and interests of different stakeholders can challenge even the most ethical among us.

So when you're being pressured to continually deliver better results, can you afford to hold onto your morals?

"In the past decade over 100 studies with more than 30,000 employees have consistently found that employees who believe their leader is ethical are happier, more committed, perform better, are more likely to be helpful to others and less likely to behave unethically," explained Professor David Mayer from the University of Michigan when I interviewed him recently.

And while the business outcomes are impressive, perhaps more heartening is David's observation that many executives embrace the practices of ethical leadership because of the kind of leaders they hope to be and the legacies they want to leave.

"Ethical leaders are moral people and moral managers", explained David. "They don't just act ethically on their own, but try to create the right type of environment to influence others' behaviors by creating an ethical culture, talking about ethics and really following that up with policies and practices that encourage the employees in the organization to do the right thing."

But is ethical leadership something that can be taught?

While researchers agree that our biology and upbringing impacts the values we hold, David and his colleagues have found the workplace environment plays a significant role in helping people overcome biases that might distort the way their values emerge and creating an ethical culture to help positively influence their behavior.

So what can you start doing to be a more ethical leader?

In a chapter David recently contributed to "How To Be A Positive Leader: Small Actions, Big Impact" three approaches he recommends are:

  • Build Your Ethical Muscles - In other areas of our work, we think if we're not that good at something - like writing, public speaking or coaching - we could practice and get better. But traditionally we haven't thought about ethics in that way. Aristotle proposed that ethics were a skill and researchers are finding that ethics can be viewed as an area of expertise. So what goals can you set for your own development to actually grow and be better at being the type of leader you really want to be?

  • Create Ethical Support Tools - Given all the different elements competing for your attention each day at work, it helps to develop some simple tools to keep your ethical compass on track. For example developing an ethical mantra - like "What would my children/parents think if they saw me engage in this behavior?", "Would I be comfortable if this was on the front page of the Wall Street Journal?" or "Do only what you're prepared to tell" - can keep your values top of mind. Some studies have found arranging your workspace, with photos of family and friends can actually increase your ethical behavior as it reminds you of the types of your core values.

  • Walk The Talk - It's not enough to just talk about your values or your code of ethics. While most companies have these tools, it seems they're generally not a good predictor of ethical behavior unless there is some type of action that demonstrates you're living in line with the words you're espousing. This is why it's critical for you to raise awareness about how the decisions you're making fit with the organization's ethics and values. It's also important to remember that employees will have their antennas up for hypocrisy so if you're going to advocate for values like "respect", but then promote individuals who are disrespectful or dishonest high performers, it will damage people's levels of trust.

As a leader what can you do to build your ethical muscles?

For more tested, practical examples you can be more a moral manager who brings out the best in yourself and others grab a copy of "How To Be A Positive Leader: Small Actions, Big Impact."