6 Key Traits of an Ethical Leader

In our fast paced, always-on world, the blaring assault of emails, social media and the inescapable fear of missing out connects, reveals and exposes us like never before. But the world is not just faster; it’s been reshaped. It has become interdependent, because so few can now so easily and so profoundly affect so many so far away.

However, interdependence comes with its own unique implications for leaders—the need for values and behavior. With this critical context, the most important trait of ethical leadership is the ability to stop and think. A pause provides a fortress of composure amid the chaos of our constant activity, allowing us to make sense of all the stimuli, differentiating and determining an appropriate response.

“Ethical leaders understand that the first step to engendering trust is to extend it, not to inspect for it.”

Pausing sharpens our awareness—as well as our consciousness. Active pausing is at the heart of ethical decision making because it defends against knee-jerk, reactive behavior. In pausing, we reflect on our values, work and lives and how our behaviors affect other people.

However, stopping and thinking is only one piece of the puzzle. Here are five other key traits of an ethical leader.

1. Extend trust. Aristotle taught us that the virtue of trust lies in giving it away. Ethical leaders understand that the first step to engendering trust is to extend it, not to inspect for it. Inspecting with suspicion only breeds more suspicion. Trust, on the other hand, begets trust. Extending trust fosters a positive, collaborative relationship where that trust is returned, allowing us to rely on each other, form teams and divide labor.  

When the late Nelson Mandela became the President of South Africa, he trusted his people with the truth—a new, integrated nation was something that needed to be worked toward and wouldn’t happen overnight. Mandela’s faith in his people created a space of hope that inspired others to make that vision a reality. Offering others the truth, rather than sugar-coated niceties, demonstrates respect for and confidence in the other party. It allows them to rise to the occasion.

2. Have two-way conversations. The famous “It’s my way or the highway” mantra is no longer applicable. Ethical leaders have respectful, two-way conversations, where they engage directly with colleagues, customers and other stakeholders.

Taking actions without getting input just doesn’t work anymore, something Netflix learned the hard way in 2012 when it split its subscription services and increased membership fees. The move drove away 800,000 subscribers, who felt betrayed because they hadn’t been consulted. As a result, Netflix and its CEO Reed Hastings had a true “stop and think” moment, apologized for the mistake and embarked on a genuine journey of sincere change.

Dov Seidman is the chief executive of LRN, a company that helps corporations develop values-based cultures and leadership, strengthen their ethics and compliance efforts, and inspire principled performance in their operations. He is also the author of “HOW: Why HOW We Do Anything Means Everything.” Twitter: @DovSeidman