Why Leading By Example Isn’t Always Enough

It takes more than just being a good person to inspire ethical conduct in employees.

Why Leading By Example Isn’t Always Enough
[U.S. Navy Photo by Mass Communications Specialist Seaman Brandon C. Wilson (RELEASED) via Wikimedia Commons]

What traits do ethical leaders share? Ask most people that question and they’ll start listing terms like “integrity,” “honesty,” “fairness,” “trustworthiness,” “compassion,” and so on. Not long after I pose this question to the business leaders I work with, the tone in the room changes. A sense of awe, pride, and positive spirit comes over the space–a nearly palpable sense that being an ethical leader matters deeply to everyone present.


But while responding to the idea of ethical leadership is pretty easy, doing so in practice is another story altogether. Many leaders assume that as long as they’re a good person, their employees will follow suit. It’s true that being a moral person is critical to good leadership, but it’s also important to be a moral manager. Leading by example, and example alone, is almost never enough.

Leading Ethically Versus Being Ethical

The researchers Michael Brown, Laura Hartman, and Linda Treviño have shown how important this distinction is when it comes to leading ethically.

Being a moral person involves having the traits many of us expect–like honesty, integrity, and so forth. But that isn’t the same as being a moral manager–someone who intentionally makes their ethical actions visible to employees, uses the right incentives to drive ethical behavior, and talks openly about values in decision making. It’s only those who combine both components—the moral person and moral manager—who are effective ethical leaders.

Many of us might consider this a little overly idealistic in the first place. We tend to celebrate leaders focused on innovation and effectiveness, and less on interpersonal dignity and ethical principles. But the research is remarkably consistent: Leaders who combine upstanding personal characters with proactive ethical management tend to see the strongest outcomes. Here are the leading results of ethical leadership that one quantitative summary of over 100 studies covering nearly 30,000 employees recently uncovered:

  • More favorable employee evaluations of leaders, including higher levels of trust and satisfaction as well as perceived effectiveness
  • Improved employee attitudes toward job satisfaction, commitment, identification with the organization, and desire to remain in it
  • Increased employee motivation and performance
  • Decreased unethical behavior and higher levels of helpful behavior that benefit the organization

The verdict is in, and it’s very clear—doing good is inextricably linked to doing well. We can all think of an unethical or narcissistic leader who’s succeeded nonetheless, but in the long run and on average, those sorts of people tend to be worse at inspiring the right types of attitudes and behaviors from their employees.

In fact, this is true across multiple levels in organizations—from upper management to first-line supervisors. (As some have even argued, Steve Jobs may have been successful not because of how he reputedly treated his employees, but in spite of it.)

How To Be A Moral Manager

Given the positive effects of being both a moral person and moral manager, research demonstrates several concrete actions leaders can and should take.

Be fair. Fairness refers to not only making sure the outcomes of decisions are equitable, but also that the procedures used to make them are just. Employees should be given a chance to voice their views before decisions are made, and should be treated sensitively and as people.


Be ethical at work and at home. Many employees like the feeling of working for a boss who’s a model citizen across every domain of their lives—including their personal lives. It’s often important for employees to see that you walk the walk in and out of the office.

Bring values into the workplace. Although many leaders fear that values are best kept for family or religion, talking about personal and organizational values when making decisions is crucial for ethical leadership. It’s also important that your behaviors back up your words. It’s one thing to get your team into the habit of talking about the purpose and impact of their work, and another to have something to show for it.

Hire for ethics. Bring the people into your organization who share your concern for ethical conduct, and build a culture that reflects it. Consider values when you make decisions about promotions, and make sure the incentives you offer employees square with the ethical conduct you want to see from them.

It would be great if all you had to do as a leader was to be a good person yourself. This would be the easy road; after all, most people already think they’re highly ethical. That’s an important prerequisite, but taking concrete steps as a manager to inspire ethical behavior in others is just as critical. Of course, good things don’t always happen to good people, but leading ethically may be one of those sweet spots where doing well and doing good actually go together.


About the author

David Mayer is associate professor of management and organizations at the University of Michigan's Stephen M. Ross School of Business