6 questions to ask to find out if you’re an ethical leader

The director of Ethical Imperatives contends that ethical leaders possess six traits that command, not demand, loyalty.

6 questions to ask to find out if you’re an ethical leader
[Photo: Berezko/iStock]

Unlike the purely ceremonial royals of today, kings of old were absolute sovereigns. They answered to no one. Their word was law. And they held unchecked power over life and death in their hands.


If so, what distinguishes kings from despots? Only this: the way they appear in the eyes of their people.

A despot is merely a tyrant, whose decrees and edicts may be irrational and capricious, without regard for individual rights or the common good. Subjects serve a despot out of fear alone, secretly wishing and waiting for their demise.

In contrast, kings—despite the absolute power they hold—can be benevolent dictators, ruling with enlightened wisdom, guiding their kingdom with a balance of justice and compassion. Kings may not need their subjects’ approval, but a vote among the governed would nevertheless return such a ruler to power by near-unanimous consent.

In the workplace, bosses and managers may hold absolute power. But how they wield that power will determine the loyalty and, by natural consequence, the productivity of their employees.

If you want to be respected as a king and not reviled as a despot, you need to command, not demand, loyalty. And the way your employees see you will depend on whether you conduct yourself according to the principles of ethics.


In these complicated times, acting ethically is not as simple as it once was. Social norms change seemingly every day. Often, even the right choice produces collateral damage to real or perceived inequity.

What is a leader to do?

Loyalty is not acquired by merely making ethical decisions. More fundamentally, it comes from being recognized as an ethical person. The qualities that describe an ethical leader can be enumerated using a convenient acronym: E.T.H.I.C.S. An ethical leader asks the following questions to determine if they exhibit these qualities.

Empathy: What impact will my words and actions have on those around me?

The first step toward acting ethically is to see actions and situations through the eyes of others. As an ethical leader, you need to discern the individual circumstances and challenges of your people, feel their joy and pain, recognize their hopes and fears, be sensitive to their wants and dreams. Empathy requires knowing others. With that knowledge, you can anticipate how your decisions will affect them and ensuring that they feel understood, valued, and appreciated.

Trustworthiness: Do I trust others, and have I earned their trust?

Only by demonstrating integrity in every aspect of your personal conduct will you earn the trust of those around you. What’s more, you need to show trust by allowing your people to do their jobs without micromanaging them, to shoulder responsibility, and to occasionally make mistakes. Only with trust will relationships flourish. Only with trustworthy leadership will any community thrive.


Humility: Am I interested in what benefits my community or in what benefits my prestige and my ego?

Leadership is a gift and a privilege, one that carries with it a responsibility to your followers. The best leaders, recognizing that they are not infallible, encourage constructive disagreement. This produces deeper insight, greater clarity, and a culture of partnership. Admitting when you’re wrong, or when you don’t know, builds your credibility for the future when you assert that you are right.

Inquisitiveness: Do I want to know as much as I can, or do I want to look like I know it all?

Never indulge the illusion that you know enough, that you understand enough, that you are wise enough. Seeking knowledge and insight requires a mindset of curiosity and constant improvement. Promoting intellectual diversity is the key to understanding. Displaying intellectual arrogance is a certain formula for disaster.

Courage: Am I more afraid of looking wrong or of being wrong?

It’s hard to ask for help. It’s hard to admit when you’re wrong. It’s hard to do the right thing when there will be hell to pay for doing so. Courage is not the absence of fear; it’s doing battle with fear. When you calculate the potential cost of taking what appears to be the safer course, you will often find that doing what’s right is not just the better choice, it’s the only choice.

Self-discipline: What do I need to improve today so I can do my job better tomorrow?

How much time, effort, and energy do you put into your work? How much have you put into yourself? Building your character is foundational to building your business. Nothing worthwhile comes without a determined effort. Only by setting rigorous standards of personal conduct for yourself can you expect those around you to set the bar higher for themselves.

As an ethical leader, you see your choices through a different lens and recognize that the culture you create will determine your bottom line. Most of all, you naturally command the loyalty that inspires others to join you in your purpose, to share your passion, and to commit themselves to your vision. By promoting a culture of success all around you, the rewards of that success will inevitably follow.


Are you an ethical leader?

Yonason Goldson is director of Ethical Imperatives, LLC. His most recent book is, “Grappling with the Gray: An ethical handbook for personal success and business prosperity.”