the foundation for a common core of beliefs that are expected
of leaders. Many public institutions, most notably schools, have
incorporated the pillars as core values in an effort to create an
ethical environment within the organization.
The Six Pillars of Character are as follows:
• Trustworthiness: honesty, integrity, reliability, loyalty, keeping
promises, not deceiving others.
• Respect: following the Golden Rule, courtesy, listening,
accepting individual differences.
• Fairness: playing by the rules, not taking advantage of others,
making informed judgments without favoritism or prejudice,
not blaming others.
• Caring: kindness, compassion and altruism, acting to minimize hardship, helping others when possible.
• Citizenship: working to make one’s community better, protecting the environment, making our democratic institutions
work, and operating within the law.
• Responsibility: accountability, pursuit of excellence, self-restraint, think before you act, and consider the consequences.
Ethical dilemmas arise when there is a conflict between values
(right vs. right) or when violating ethical values (right vs. wrong).
Often, the most difficult dilemmas facing leaders are when ethical
values are in conflict with each other and the leader must make a
values-based judgment centered on ethical priorities.
In Moral Courage, Rushworth Kidder identifies four ethical
paradigms of conflicting values. 2 The first is the conflict between
loyalty, honesty, or integrity vs. commitment, responsibility, or
promise keeping—for example, allowing a member to work while
hung over. In this example, loyalty to a member of the team is in
conflict with responsibility to the public.
The second conflict is between justice and mercy and balances
fairness, equity, and equal application of the rules against compassion and care. This conflict is often seen when disciplining a
high-performing member and a marginal member for the same
infraction. Should each member receive discipline based on their
performance, the action, or some other measure?
The third conflict is balancing
the individual and the community, or us vs. them. This
is often seen in how we treat
community members who
fall into differing economic, social, or racial classes.
Although not always intentional, it
is not uncommon for disadvantaged or
minority individuals to receive a different level
of service from those of higher economic standing.
Finally, there is the conflict between long- and short-term gains. This is most evidently seen in the debate
over residential fire sprinkler systems where short-term
gain, namely lower housing cost, is compared to the
long-term economic and life-safety gains from installing residential sprinkler systems.
Ethical dilemmas occur when values conflict with
each other and leaders may find themselves in a
situation that requires moral courage, where the application of
values results in individual hardship and risk, including retalia-
tion from superiors or the organization. In fact, whistleblowing
demonstrates moral courage in that the whistleblower is bring-
ing information into the public, making it part of the public
record, and allowing the issue to be discussed openly.
Ethical leaders have a strong influence on their organization,
its behavior, and what it is able to accomplish. Leaders who are
effective will focus on what is right, helping and demonstrating that they will not exploit the weaknesses of others. When
they do, their organizations will likely mirror their behavior and
reflect the desire to serve others, making a positive impact.
In 7 Lenses: Learning the Principles and Practices of Ethical Leadership, Linda Fisher Thornton identifies seven things that leaders
can do to bring ethical conduct into their organizations. 3 These
include the following:
1. Willingly face complexities involved in ethical decision
making. This includes discussing gray areas and conflicts,
acknowledging the complexity of the decision-making process, and involving others in the process. Leaders also take
responsibility for their decisions, including decisions that
may have been unethical.
2. Include ethics in day-to-day activities. Ensure that every
member of the organization understands the actions taken
and the ethical principles that support those decisions.
3. Ensure that negative interpersonal behaviors do not erode
trust. Trust should be continually built and supported;
communication should be free flowing and open without
attribution or punishment for the sharing of honest opinions. Embrace honest disagreements of opinion, and share
ownership of the organizational values.
4. Remember that ethics is not the same as simply following
the rules. Ethics is a commitment to doing the right thing,
even when it is uncomfortable or unpopular.
5. No one is exempt from meeting ethical expectations. This is
especially true of senior leadership. Everyone is responsible for
their behavior and is held to account
for any behavior or actions that do
not meet the ethical standard.
6. Celebrate positive ethical
who demonstrate moral
courage should be
rewarded and their
actions shared with others
as examples of expected
behavior and decision
making, even when their
actions are unpopular.
7. Remember that ethics is an ongoing journey that
should be discussed and challenged continually.
Ethical leadership is critical to developing strong
Ethical leadership can require great courage.
(Image by author.)