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Getting your Ethics in shape to lead

3 min read

I am struck by how little we generally think about ethics. In a world that has arguably lost its moral compass, I hope this will change. When we see the Trumps, Clintons and Hanson’s of our time effectively rewarded, despite advocating offensive positions and engaging in questionable, even illegal activities in their pursuit of power, one senses that it is time for a stronger stand to be made.

Unpacking ethics

Ethics refers to the set of moral values and principles that guide our actions and enable us to distinguish between right and wrong. The act of reflecting and developing congruence across our values, emotions, thoughts and actions is critical if we are to lead effectively.

In our post-truth, low-trust world of Royal Commissions and ‘fake news’, I believe the rise of ethical leaders will become a significant factor in what will make organisations succeed (or not!). Younger workers in particular are motivated to seek out businesses that reflect their values.

As my friend, anthropologist Michael Hendersen writes, this generation is looking for “Leaders worth following, Work worth doing and Cultures worth belonging to”. This may be the dynamic that forces us all to pay more attention and ‘walk’ the ethics ‘talk’.

It’s useful to dig deeper into this area. Ethics is one of the four pillars of the Performance Competency in the i4 Neuroleader model, developed by Silvia Damiano of the About My Brain Institute.

Ethics consists of three elements:






Values seem straight forward. But it’s telling how we can find our core beliefs challenged and distorted as leaders. This is most obvious on the public stage, where we see politicians contort and reverse their positions to please their audience.

Similarly, there are notorious failures such as Enron, where values such as honesty and integrity were jettisoned in the pursuit of profit. Neuroscience studies suggest that the effect of greed on the brain is similar to that of drugs like cocaine. This may explain why already wealthy and successful people drive for increasingly obscene rewards at any cost.

Whilst it is easy to point at others, it’s also instructive to ask of ourselves, “Am I living my values?” Incongruence with our values will, sooner or later, derail all of us. As Mahatma Gandi observed,

“Your beliefs become your thoughts, 

Your thoughts become your words, 

Your words become your actions, 

Your actions become your habits, 

Your habits become your values, 

Your values become your destiny.”


Judgment is the ability to perceive, understand, evaluate and make considered decisions. Poor judgment is associated with suboptimal functioning of the Pre-Frontal Cortex (PFC). This is the part of our brain associated with higher order thinking and processing. Good judgment is naturally fundamental to good leadership.

In addition to potential problems with our PFC, it’s likely our judgment is affected by stress and fatigue. As leaders, we’re tasked with making decision after decision. It’s exhausting. In our rush to just get through the volume of ‘stuff’ it’s easy for our judgment to err – often without us realising.

One solution is to check in with ourselves – to ask ourselves honestly, “Am I making good decisions here, or just quick ones?” It’s also useful to give permission to our peers and reports (why not?) to positively challenge us. Done well, this helps to share the load, remind us to refresh and refuel (why hard decisions often seem so much easier the next morning) and ultimately to make more right calls, more often. As American author Will Rogers wryly observed,

“Good judgment comes from experience, and a lot of that comes from bad judgment”.



Much of our understanding comes not from what we hear, but what we see, feel and sense. For this reason, it’s vital that we are congruent. Congruency implies that we say what we really mean, live what we believe and demonstrate consistency in our body language, tone of voice, facial expressions, attitudes and actions.

That’s a long list. Both as leaders and as individuals it is easy for us to be incongruent – a little, or a lot. Unsurprisingly, mastering this is one of the keys to great leadership.

When leaders genuinely model, demonstrate and embrace the values and behaviours they espouse, they are likely to positively impact and inspire those around them to achieve extraordinary things.

Ethics then are both essential and – for many leaders, difficult to navigate. That noted, perhaps, we are guilty of over-thinking the complexities. As Mark Twain neatly put it:

“When in doubt, tell the truth”.


This article originally appeared on the author’s LinkedIn page.