Career Guide

Preventing ethical leadership failures

Understanding what causes its failures

Ethical leadership failures can be caused by different types of problems that may worsen. Some of these problems are caused by individuals and others may be embedded in the organisational culture.

In 7 Lenses, I described the kind of proactive ethical leadership that builds ethical cultures. The book is a roadmap on how to lead ethically in a complex world. While 7 Lenses is written from a positive perspective to help leaders avoid ethical problems and create ethical cultures, I often get asked, “What causes ethical failures?”

In this article, I will explore that question from two perspectives – that of what individual leaders do (or don’t do) and common organisational problems.

Here is a list of some of the factors that can lead to ethical failures. The list includes things that individual leaders do (or don’t do), and things that organisations do (or don’t do) to set a positive example and support ethical thinking and behaviour.

These factors are connected, and it is often difficult to isolate just one of them when something goes wrong. See if you recognise any of these happening in your organisation.

1 Individual causes

• Ignoring boundaries (Ignoring ethics codes and organisational values that forbid an action).

• Failing to use self-control (“I will do this even though it’s not allowed.”)

• Entitlement view (“I definitely deserve this even though it’s not allowed.”)

• Warped personal values (“I think this is really fine to do even though it’s not allowed.”)

• Crowd-following (“Everybody else is doing it, so it must be fine.”)

• Lack of a moral compass (“Nobody specifically said that I can’t do it, so it must be fine if I do it.”)

2 Organisational causes

• Lack of clarity (“What does ethical mean around here?”)

• No ethical leadership and behaviour standards (“There are no rules about this.”)

• Oversimplified rules (“Just do the right thing.”)

• Lack of positive role models (“Who is doing it the right way?”)

• No training or coaching (“How will I learn it?”)

• No accountability; no enforcement (“Even though it’s not allowed, nothing bad will happen if I do it.”)

• No performance integration (“We say we want ethics, but we reward and promote based on output.”)

• When problems happen, scapegoating of employees is quickly done instead of learning from mistakes and fixing the culture.

Compounding factors

Keep in mind that ethical failures may or may not be due to just one of these factors, but a combination to create a ripple effect.

Here are a few examples where the problem is worsened due to a myriad of factors.

• There are no ethical leadership standards and no positive role models (No way to be sure what to do).

• The leader has an entitlement view and there is a lack of clarity about what ethical leadership means in the organisation (It is easier to justify entitlement when ethical expectations are unclear).

• The leader lacks a moral compass and the organisation lacks ethical leadership standards (The leader may act based on per-sonal ethics, which may be slanted toward self-gain).

• The leader has trouble with ethical boundaries and there is no accountability for ethical behaviour in the organisation (It increases the chances of ethical problems when both the leader and the organisation lack clear ethical boundaries).

Problems within the ethical culture clearly make it harder for individual leaders to stay on an ethical path.

Preventing these problems

Now imagine what can happen when you have three or more of these factors (and perhaps others not named here) happening at the same time. Each additional factor can develop more problems.

Our goal as leaders is to prevent the problems that lead to failure of ethical leadership. To do that, we need to start talking about the dynamics that cause ethical problems and how to keep them from happening in our organisations.


How do we start the conversation? Talk candidly with leaders at all levels about issues named earlier that may have become a problem in your organisation.

Linda Fisher Thornton is the author of 7 Lenses and is on a global mission to help leaders and organisations unleash the positive power of ethical leadership. To connect with her, e-mail us at If you are interested in character-wise leadership training module for your organisation, write to