The essence of a strong ethical leader

This article is adapted from an article first published in the Association of Corporate Counsel Docket magazine by Jim Nortz.

As difficult as it may be for each of us to take a hard look in the mirror and honestly evaluate our strengths and weaknesses, it is an essential exercise for anyone who strives to be an ethical leader, let alone to build ethical leadership skills in others.

If you’re interested in undertaking this work, take a moment to turn your gaze away from others and look inward with the object of answering this question: “Who are you?” Specifically, to what degree is your identity connected with the five attributes of a strong ethical leader? These are: knowing, wanting, choosing, habituating and securing the “good.”

Knowing the “Good”

Do you really know the rules associated with your role in the business? Have you read the policies and procedures applicable to your job? Have you studied the standards of ethics associated with your industry or your practice? Have you developed the analytical skills and moral sensibilities to make wise and defensible choices — not just between right and wrong but also between right and right? Have you established for yourself moral chalk lines that you will not cross under any circumstances?

Wanting the “Good”

Do you possess a genuine passion for pursuing an ethical course? Is your desire to do right steadfast, or does it waver depending on the circumstances and the potential danger to your career?

Choosing the “Good”

Do you translate your desire to pursue the “good” into actions even when it is hard or unpopular? Do you stand up for others who have the courage to pursue an ethical course, or do you sit on the sidelines and let them take the heat for making hard choices? Do you speak truth to power, or tell everyone what they want to hear?

Habituating the “Good”

Do you exhibit the moral courage required to habitually pursue the “good?” Or, are your actions less consistent than they should be on this score?

Securing the “Good”

Do you possess the organizational savvy and social skills necessary to get the right thing done?


Few among us can honestly answer all of these questions in the affirmative. Instead, we find ourselves somewhere on the continuum between coward and hero. We also find such questions difficult to grapple with because, instead of focusing on whether we have mastered certain leadership techniques we read in a book, they center on examining who we are. But there is no getting around the fact that the best way to exhibit ethical leadership is to be an ethical leader.

Your success or failure as an ethical leader will not be determined by how many policies or procedures you write or how many training courses you conduct. Instead, it will be determined by the degree to which you become an ethical presence in the workplace.

This insight has significant implications for those of us interested in building and sustaining strong ethical cultures. It means there are no quick fixes. Catchy company slogans about values and similar superficial activities are unlikely to have a measurable effect. Instead, to really advance we need to begin by taking a big dose of our own medicine and measuring ourselves against the five attributes of strong ethical leadership with the objective of being an ethical leader. This is not an overnight process.

It is the work of a lifetime that never ends. But, like every important journey, it starts by taking the first step and knowing with certainty where you are going. It is only by choosing to find and follow this path for ourselves that we will know how to show others the way.

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Jim Nortz, Axiom Founder & President, is an attorney and a nationally recognized expert and thought leader in the field of business ethics and compliance. Jim has extensive experience in implementing world-class compliance and ethics programs.