Collaborative Leadership Blog

The Ethical Leadership Meltdown

We appear to be in the midst of an epic ethical leadership meltdown. Before our very eyes, there are almost daily revelations of ethical breaches. Whether it is sexual harassment, bribes, offshore tax-evading bank accounts (Paradise Papers), faulty products that kill or injure people, fake credit card accounts set up to accelerate profits, or exorbitant price increases for life-saving drugs, this meltdown affects not only millions upon millions of people, but has exposed the culture of greed, arrogance, and neglect that seems to drive these companies—Uber, Wells Fargo, BP, VW, Tyco, Retrophan, Mylan, and the list goes on. Not to mention the burgeoning list of individual leaders like Bill O’Reilly, Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, Kevin Spacey, and many many others who have been charged with engaging in sexual harassment or worse. This epidemic also reaches into our civil discourse, with leaders like Cabinet Secretaries, advisors, and others using their offices to promote their own wealth at the expense of  the law and the public trust.

This meltdown is a crisis that screams for a new kind of ethical leadership. Here are 7 guidelines for what that might look like:

  • Starts at the Top & Is Inside-Out: As Chief Cultural Officers of their companies, senior leaders determine the ethical tone and conduct of their companies. As individuals, ethical conduct is an inside-out journey which involves self-awareness, a clear set of principles, self-governance, and self-accountability
  • Moral Compass: Every business leader needs to cultivate and evolve their own personal and professional moral compass, their code of conduct based on a set of principles and values that reflect what it means to “do the right thing”
  • Walking-The-Talk: Integrity, in part, means behaving in a manner consistent with what you say your values are
  • Hire Values: it is time to move beyond competency or skill-based hiring; companies need to hire for character, for values, if they expect the workforce to honor the moral compass
  • Cultures of Trust, Not Fear: People need to feel psychologically “safe” at work so that they can call out people who are behaving unethically without fear of retribution. Ethical cultures don’t blame the victim—they embrace them and make things right
  • One Strike Accountability: Companies need to employ a “one strike rule”—that if you sexually harass another worker, you’re out; if you discriminate against anyone, you’re out; if you cheat a customer, you’re out; if your actions lead to death or injury, you’re out. There should be zero tolerance for unethical conduct, all the way to the top
  • Reward Ethical Conduct: Leaders can be clear about what they’re against; they also need to be clear about what they are for, their expectations for ethical behavior, and then reward it

If we’ve learned anything from this ethical meltdown, it is that it’s a very long climb back to integrity, trust, and positive reputation. Ethical leadership is not a program. a slogan or a gimmick. It’s a way of life—a way we work. Ethical conduct needs to become who we are, and only then can we begin to reverse this spiral into moral relativism.

*Dr. Edward Marshall is an Adjunct Professor in Management at the Fuqua School of Business, Duke University; he is an ICF certified executive coach, Top 15 Trust Thought Leader, and author of Building Trust at the Speed of Change. You can contact him at:,, or  (919)265-9616