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7 ways to be an ethical leader


Leading in the not-for-profit sector can be tough. Most of us hold these leaders to higher ethical standards than those in the commercial sector.

We expect them to be principled. We need them to do the right thing and encourage trust. In short, we need these leaders to model the values that their organisations promote. Thankfully, the majority of people in these positions absolutely want to lead this way. Many that we have worked with have already committed to being ethical in their leadership practices.

However, whilst the principle is admirable, it is not always clear what leaders should actually be doing or saying that shows they are ethical role models. We asked participants on our Transformational Leadership course in 2020 what being ethical meant to them in practical terms. Here are their top tips:

1. Get your house in order

Ensure there are stated organisational values and ethics in a written policy, mandated to all stakeholders. But writing it down is just a first step. It shows intent. Be careful that this is not just another policy. Values, ethics and intents need to permeate all other policies: from recruitment to flexible working. It is therefore also important to bring such policies to life through exhibiting behaviours that match.

2. Bring the values to life

Apply the organisational values outside of work too – and be consistent in this. For example, if fairness and honesty are important to the organisation, embody those principles for life not just work. Do what you say you will do – and behave the way you want to see others behaving. This makes values authentic, lived and therefore believed by others. Ultimately this helps other people to bring values to life as well.

3. Ethical funding

This can be a tricky area. But being clear on who you would and wouldn’t take money from also supports the delivery of your mission. An environmental charity campaigning for clean air taking money from a diesel company is not sustainable. This can put off other supporters and creates a mixed message. The organisation’s mission should be the basis for all projects and programmes of work.

4. Honesty and mistakes

Mistakes happen. As an ethical leader, seek to learn from mistakes, be honest about how they came to be, and put learning into practice. Such leaders do not seek to blame or scapegoat others. They do not turn a blind eye to problems and issues. They ask questions, review what happened and are open about lessons learned. The challenges of 2020 will have created plenty of learning opportunities.

5. Call out issues

Challenging other people’s behaviour can be uncomfortable, but also absolutely necessary if values are going to be meaningful. Keep an eye out for behaviours that are inconsistent with values and call it out. This can range from giving adjusting (not blaming) feedback to individuals you work with, to ensuring people are heard in meetings and not talked over.

6. Include others

Spotting problematic behaviour also helps to ensure everyone is included – recognising the power and privilege that comes with being a leader. To be an inclusive leader, consider the needs of the people you work with, for and to. Apply the values consistently and don’t have different rules for different people. This means thinking about how to include people in meetings (considering practical things like scheduling, work patterns, technology, accessibility), how to share information (formatting, medium, who needs to know what) and the language used (aiming for neutral terminology, avoiding jargon). Be aware of the power of unconscious bias and strive to remove it and overcome it.

7. Recognise whole life

People are people, staff are not just workers. To truly demonstrate ethical leadership you must recognise that people have a life outside of work and model the work-life balance you want to see. This means logging off, taking time out, and not sending emails between midnight and 2am demanding a 9am response.

hands forming a heart

These ideas may be simple but that doesn’t make them easy to implement. Being ethical and role modelling behaviours can involve a level of bravery. However, these ideas are all in support of your organisation’s mission and so being aware of that can be a huge source of confidence.

A huge thanks to everyone who took part in the programme and their ideas. If you have any further ideas or practical tips for ethical leaders, we’d love to hear them. Contact us online to discuss how we can help with your management and leadership challenges or email

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Yvette Gyles

About Yvette Gyles

Yvette specialises in leadership, personal effectiveness, change and innovation. Before joining =mc, she worked in HR for several years in both the private and charity sector as an HR...