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Ethics of a leader

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  • Published
    23rd Nov, 2021


Recently, India’s Prime Minister urged the people to take part in e-auction of the gifts received by him, so that, money received after auction is used for welfare schemes/girl education etc. At the same time, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan was recently accused of selling gifts he received including a watch worth $1 million.

This brings us to the topic- “ethics in leadership”. 


Who is a leader?

  • A leader is a person who spearheads an organization/task to lead it towards the intended direction.
  • However, he/she is someone who does more than just lead people.
  • He/she have to be driven by the right motivation and make a positive impact on not just the organization but also the people around them.

“A leader is one who knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way.”- John C Maxwell

Why ethics is an important element for a leader?

An ethical leader plays a transformational and charismatic role in an organization.

  • Loyalty from the followers- When leaders are fair and just, followers develop an inherent trust in the leader, establishing a culture of loyalty and respect.
    • For example- Bhagat Singh through his ethical leadership develop a band of trusted revolutionaries willing to lay their lives for their nation as well as their leader.
  • Higher motivation- When people know that the government is operating ethically and for the benefit of the greater good, they will want to do their part to further the cause of the entire nation.
    • For example- Role of Nelson Mandela in bringing about reconciliation among the blacks and whites despite the decades of animosity.
  • Higher morale- Ethical leadership raises the morale of the people when the chips are down. People know the cause they are behind and can trust the leader. Ethical leadership is like a deep-rooted tree. When the roots are solid, the stress and tensions of daily business are like the wind on a stable tree. People usually feel the roots and know if they can rely on them and feel confident, or if they will have to keep their guard up.
    • For example- Gandhiji through his satyagraha prepared people for the hardship that they had to endure at the hands of the British.
  • Earning respect from society and communities- Nations that are led by ethical leaders set a good example for others, and are respected and valued as a result. This became evident when the third world looked up to India for leadership during the cold war era. India under the leadership of Jawaharlal Nehru duly obliged through a Non-aligned movement.
  • Increased sense of belonging- When the values of a leader and individual values are aligned and ethical principles are adopted, everyone’s general well-being increases. This leads to a positive atmosphere, which reinforces and fosters ethical behaviors, creating a virtuous loop where everyone will feel at home and in the right condition to give their best.

What are the qualities of an ethical leader?

Ethical leadership is not just having an understanding of the right values, or having a strong character that leads by example. An ethical leader not only has high values and the determination to succeed but also understands the importance of building a strong framework that allows others to follow the examples set so that everyone benefits. Ethical leadership is about striving for the same goal and embodying the same purpose, values, and vision.

An effective and ethical leader has the following traits/characteristics:

  • Justice- He/she must be fair and just. An ethical leader must treat everyone equally. He should be free from personal bias. Differential treatment must be fair, clear, and built on morality only.
  • Integrity- It is the characteristic of being honest and having strong moral and ethical principles. A leader of integrity abides by the values of the organization, commands respect amongst his team as well as prevents deviance from the values even in trying circumstances.  
  • Dignity and respectfulness: He/she respect others. An ethical leader does not use one’s followers as a medium to achieve his personal goals. He respects their feelings, decision, and values. Respecting the followers implies listening effectively to them, being compassionate to them, as well as being liberal in hearing opposing viewpoints. In short, he/she treats the followers in a manner that authenticates their values and beliefs.
  • Alignment of organization’s values and personal values- Organisational values and the personal values of the leader are usually aligned to avoid conflict of interest in the working of the organization. This exchange between leader and organization is dynamic and allows for the improvement of both.
  • Commitment to goals and values- A leader is committed to his/her goal in letter and spirit. For him/her, it is not just the goal that matters but staying true to the values to reach that goal matters just as much. In this way, they not only earn the respect of the people but also instill that same hardworking energy among everyone.
  • Community building- An ethical leader develops community. He/she considers the goal of the organization as well as that of his teammates, aligning to help them both. In this way, he/she creates a community with unifying values and goals. He/she works harder for achieving the goals of this entire community.

Learning from Chanakya’s on ethics in leadership

  • While Chanakya is often misunderstood as a proponent of getting things done by hook or crook, he greatly emphasizes on the leader to be ethical.
  • In his treatise “Arthashastra”, he has underlined the importance of ethics for a leader.
  • According to him, an ideal leader is not just a king but a combination of a king and a saint. This is very similar to the concept of “philosopher-king” as stated by
  • According to Chanakya, a leader,
    • like a king, is active, dynamic, taking decisions related to governance affecting a large population
    • like a rishi, he is a philosopher, wise, knowledgeable, and can connect to the masses and take right decisions
  • According to Chanakya, the king must control his passions like lust (Kaama), Anger (Krodha), Greed (Lohha), and Attachment (Moha). He must fight ceaselessly Shatru-Shadvarga, the six enemies of the king: sex, anger, greed, vanity, haughtiness, and overjoyed.
  • According to Chanakya, a king of unrighteous character and vicious habits fails, through these weaknesses or otherwise, to protect people’s welfare and he would fall prey either to the fury of his subjects or that of his enemies.


It is often said, Character of an institution is reflected in its leader. But the vice versa hold just as ‘true’. A leader’s character is just as well reflected in the direction that organization he/she takes.

The sharp contrast witnessed above in the ethics of two leaders- PM Modi and PM Imran Khan, reflects in the difference in fortunes of the two countries. For the values to run through the organization, they must begin right from the very top. Thus ethics must begin at the top of every organization and in this regard, it is the leader of the organization who must lead by his ethics.


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