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How To Be An Ethical Leader

Ethical behavior used to be taken for granted in the professional world but not any more. Practically every week some new ethics scandal hits the headlines, further souring Americans on both profit-oriented and non-profit organizations. That’s just the way things are today, unfortunately.

Our nation’s newfound sensitivity toward ethical behavior will in time bring about many beneficial changes in the organizational arena. But in the meantime administrative professionals had better redouble their efforts to work in a responsible and ethical manner. But what exactly constitutes ethical behavior for leaders beyond obeying the law and following policy?


Let’s consider several dimensions of ethical supervision that are often overlooked.

The ethical, values-focused administrator:

  • Looks out for the interests of others, including clients, employees, and minority members of the community (ethnic minorities, older workers, and the physically handicapped).
  • Values coworkers as people in addition to producers. Respect is given to the whole person, including his or her family responsibilities, community involvement, and religious beliefs.
  • Doesn’t tell people what they want to hear. The whole truth comes out even when it hurts.
  • Doesn’t play psychological games with others, such as blame-shifting, practicing one-upmanship, or playing favorites.
  • Values people over pragmatism, recognizing that how things are achieved is just as important as what is achieved.
  • Focuses on the ultimate objective or mission (ends) more than rules and regulations (means). Is committed to ideals beyond self, such as honesty, fair play, and quality work.

To say the least, pursuing these ideals is no easy undertaking given the extraordinary pressures faced by administrators in today’s complex society. Revenues must be maintained; federal government mandates, such as affirmative action, must be satisfied; and people both above and below each manager must be kept happy.  What can someone in charge to do in the face of all these conflicting demands? How can ethical responsiveness be maintained that goes beyond merely obeying the law?


Let’s consider five principles of ethics that have great potential for guiding administrative behavior along positive, productive channels:

The mission principle. Stick to the basic mission of your organization (service, quality, competence, etc.) as a day-in, day-out guide to decision making.

The consistency principle. Demand the same fair, objective standards from every staff member or volunteer.

The constituency principle. Consider the needs and rights of as many people as possible in decision making.

The proactive principle. Go above and beyond the minimum expectation or rule in taking action. Strive to find ways to deliver as much as you can to others over time.

The holism principle. Keep the big picture in mind at all times: the personal side of people in addition to the professional; the service side of the organization along with the revenue side; the needs of the minority as well as the majority.

With these five principles in mind, the ethically minded leader can follow a simple acronym–WORTH–despite the hustle-bustle of the workday:

  • Work toward the needs of others.
  • Operate within the spirit of the law.
  • Respect the whole person.
  • Tell the whole truth.
  • Help the organization deliver maximum value to its constituents.

Do you have much WORTH as an administrator? If so, help to increase the WORTH of those you work with. Team organizations needs WORTHwhile administrators today more than ever. It’s all up to you.

Phil Van Auken

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