The Role of Ethics in Successful Leadership, Essay Example

Ethics is a very important subject today when the reputation of an official person or of a company can be destroyed in a matter of hours by the media. Moreover, ethics becomes more and more a matter of concern, when reputation is so important in establishing successful business and successful management.  Ethics, however, is a rather ambiguous term, and understanding what ethical behavior supposes is paramount in maintaining it for a long time.

Ethics is a concept that refers to the moral character that every person must have, regardless of his domain of activity. Ethics, according to Kathie Pelletier and Michelle Bligh, is “the rules or principles that define right or wrong conduct” (2006, p.360).  These principles, the authors further show, are derived from a person’s set of values and principles, that allow him to make a decision in a situation that is morally ambiguous.

This capacity is even more important when the function of the individual concerns the public well-being. The ICMA Code of Ethics establishes the set of principles that should guide the decision making process of any elected official. These rules establish as unethical any type of behavior that may affect the decision-making process of elected public managers, and allow them to act in the detriment of the public. Thus, in the conception of ICMA (International City/County Management Association 2008), ethics is the set of principles that should characterize all public managers and should always guide them to take the decisions that are in the public interest. Also, ethics should forbid officials to act in any way that could hinder their public image, knowing that, by doing so, they would also hinder the reputation of the entire institution they represent. This is also mentioned by Pelletier and Bligh (2006), who give the example of a company which strived to clear their image after some of its leaders were involved in corruption scandals.

Though the article refers to the ethical behavior of employees from private organizations, whereas the ICMA ethics code is addressed to public servants, there are nevertheless important similarities between them.  Both the article and the code show that reputation is extremely important in executive leadership, and that, by following a formal set of principles, the leader will be able to maintain that reputation. Both the article and the code establish ethics and an ethical code as most important factor that should guide the decision making process in morally ambiguous situations.  Also, both the code and the article show that ethical behavior is not only guided by the set of principles itself, but also by the person’s own set of moral values.

From the beginning, the ICMA code of ethics shows in one of the guideline that “members should conduct their official and personal affairs in such a manner as to give the clear impression that they cannot be improperly influenced in the performance of their official duties” (International City/County Management Association, 2008, n.p.).  This clearly shows that officials must always behave ethically in order to preserve an incorruptible image.

The same matter was also discussed in the article; Pelletier and Bligh showed that, due to the concern for their reputations, many organizations try to implement ethics programs that might help employees to behave ethically in all circumstances. However, the authors argue, “leadership may play a crucial role in fostering and effective ethics program (Pelletier and Bligh, 2006, p. 362).  This means that, apart from the formal ethics code that is established within the organizations, the example established by the leader is crucial for the ethical behavior of the employees. This is even more so in the case of public servants, who serve as role models not only for their subordinates, but for entire communities.

Finally, as stated above, both the article and the code suggest, more or less explicitly, that apart from the formal ethical code, the set of moral values and principles that each individual carries is also very important in the decision making process. This is true for both leaders and subordinates. According to Pelletier and Bligh (2006), studies conducted by various researchers found that the formal ethical code did not stop employees from behaving unethically in a given situation. They thus suggested that in what the decision-making process is concerned, “informal norms encourage deliberation about ethical issues” (p.363).  Also, the authors suggested that employees may choose not to respect the formal code, when it is in conflict with their own informal set of norms.

The ICMA code of ethics, though it is a formal set of principles that should be respected by all government officials , also makes reference to the officials’ own set of norms, mentioning that, “fairness and impartiality [must] govern a member’s decisions” (International City/County Management Association 2008, n.p.). This precept is rather ambiguous because each person has his own standards concerning fairness and impartiality, and therefore the code recognizes that each individual has his own set of values according to which he or she can judge each situation. Thus, whereas the formal code of ethics is important in establishing the general principles of behavior that could help an employee, or a leader, maintain a good reputation, it is his own inner set of values and principles that actually assist him in making the right decision when time comes.

The article and the code are therefore very useful in determining the way in which ethics can assist the decision-making process in executive leadership.  They show how ethics must always be in the mind of a leader in order for him to be able to make the decisions that would allow him to maintain his reputation intact, and act as a role model for his subordinates. Both the article and the code also show that the decision-making process itself must also be guided by each individual’s own set of moral values and principles.


Pelletier, K. and Bligh, M. (2006). Rebounding from corruption: perceptions of ethics program effectiveness in a public sector organization. Journal of Business Ethics, 67, 359-374.

International City/County Management Association (2008). ICMA code of ethics with guidelines. Retrieved from: