A leader is one that others follow and is in many cases expected to direct those followers towards a well-defined and possibly shared goal. An ethical leader is one that takes into account the needs of those that follow them and in turn attempts to fulfill those needs as much as possible in the pursuit of a common goal. For many centuries ethics has been a very important part of the leadership role, but has been shown to be assumed rather than strictly adhered to.  The ethical qualities of a leader determine how their followers will react to their guidance.

Ethics are defined as moral principles that govern how an individual presents themselves to others and how they wish to be seen in the public eye. The morality of an individual is often how society judges that person and their worth. Unfortunately throughout much of history it has not always been seen that those chosen to lead are possessed of a well-defined set of morals. Often the idea that “might makes right” has been the rule through which leadership has been attained.

While this ideal is quite easy to understand and even accept by those that do not seek to challenge such leaders, it is also the mark of a rather tyrannical influence that does not rule with the best intentions. As a leader it is quite important to recognize and understand that those who follow are those that must be given the greatest amount of attention.  This is largely due to the fact that if a follower cannot find a reason to respect the person they revere they will look elsewhere for a leader that will respond to their needs. Power and influence are respectable and even necessary traits of a leader at times, but the moral code that keeps a leader from becoming an uncaring tyrant is equally important (Brown, Trevino & Harrison, 2005).

A very large sticking point however is the perspective from which a leader is seen to be

ethical. Many situations and individuals are viewed by the public in completely different ways.

For instance, the difference between an effective leader and an ethical leader is the that former gets things done, they take charge, and they do whatever it takes to get the job completed and make a few people happy. The ethical leader is not quite as efficient as they are attempting to keep the majority of the people happy, but they are by and large driven by a strong moral character that does not bend or conform to the need for efficiency.

Examples of ethical leadership vs. efficient leadership can be seen in many venues, though one that is quite common and viewed quite often would be in popular film. The roles of antagonists and protagonists are often interchangeable when it comes to who is the leader, and often the question of morality within any given role is what helps to drive the film. Efficient leaders are often seen as hardened men and women that have something to prove or are seeking to hold on to a power base through any means possible. Ethical leaders are quite often those that are known as ‘bleeding hearts’ and have many lines that they will not cross in order to get what they want.

The continual clash between these two different styles of leadership have managed to reach a compromise many times in favor of conflict resolution that is able to satisfy both sides, but often such a resolution is not favorable to one or the other. In other words, it will often be the efficient leaders that corrupt the more ethical leaders. While the ethical leaders are often resilient and not easily swayed by the promises of the easy, more efficient route, they do tend to become overwhelmed as the ruthless efficiency of those that oppose them find ways to get their way.  Being an ethical leader is an important role largely because it demands integrity, basic human decency, and a willingness to put others above oneself.

In film these roles are played out as part of the overall formula that is used to make a

good number of movies. The ethical leader will appear as either weak, idealistic, or in some way

unimpeachable and be resolute in their stance towards whatever injustice they stand against. On the opposite end the efficient leader will be the one to cut corners and use whatever methods are available to get the job done. In other terms it might help to think of the ethical leader as the honorable knight-type and the efficient leader as the unconventional street fighter. This analogy is rather close to the truth in many ways.

One film that is well-known for its efficient but ruthless leadership is “The Godfather”.  Vito Corleone is a man that attempts to be a peaceful, quiet character, but deep down is a man that will do whatever it takes to keep his family safe and his business interests protected. Lauded as an important figure in his community and a pillar of the city’s underworld organization, Corleone is well known for his legitimate and illegitimate dealings.  He is also known to be quite violent when things do not go his way, as it is described by his son Michael that the top enforcer for the Corleone family, Luca Brasi, once threatened a band manager that was standing in the way of something Corleone wanted (The Godfather, 1972). This is a prime example of how a leader can be efficient but utterly ruthless, and without the type of morality that an ethical leader might display.

There are moments of redemption within the film during which Corleone seems to be a rather ethical man, but they are few and far between.  His youngest son, Michael, has a chance to be an ethical man, and a moral leader, but is eventually swept down the same path as his father when matters begin to get out of hand. He shoots two men in a restaurant and then flees the country (The Godfather, 1972) thereby erasing any moral ground he might have once stood upon.  When morality is centered upon one’s own personal ambitions and desires it does little if any real good for the community to which they belong, and thus becomes a leadership built upon lies and deceit.

Ethical leadership is unfortunately a very easy target for many that do not believe in the positive nature of humanity. All too often those with an unshakable sense of morality will be driven beneath the onrushing machine of skepticism and opportunistic greed that has consumed so many people throughout the years. Ethical leaders are often strong enough in their convictions to stand firm, and as a result are often ground down by the iniquities of others that seek to make them topple. Sadly, too often this tactic works.

A prime example of this is the film “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” (1939). When a U.S. senator passes away unexpectedly, a replacement must be found. Those politicians involved, all of whom are identifiably corrupt, want to appoint another senator that they can control in order to keep the government running the way they want. What they get is a very naïve individual that upon being framed for a crime he did not commit attempts to launch a filibuster in order to plead his innocence. Despite his resolute manner and determination the senate continuously hounds him at every turn, seeking to tarnish his reputation and never allow the American public the knowledge of how he is standing his ground.

This is a rather dramatic but overall accurate showing of how an ethical leader will act. They will not typically tolerate actions that go against their morals, and they will certainly not back down to intimidation and threats. The only downfall of an ethical leader is that they must often make a decision as to whether they will allow their cause to fail because of pressure from their opponents, or if they will push on and trust that some good will emerge from the hardships they face. The ethical leader must realize that in a world of brutal efficiency that their moral center will not always be as valued as they believe.

It has been seen more than once that the ethical leader will at times make compromises as

they must in order to insure that the greater good be done. This is the act of a moral person who

will insure that to preserve their sense of right and wrong that they will find the best option for the many without sacrificing their moral high ground. Such a method is usually hit and miss at best, but when it is successful is quite often beneficial for all involved. The ethical leader will come to realize that the world is not to be seen in terms of black and white, but in a wide variety of color that must be taken into consideration to make the best judgments.

An ethical leader will show respect to others and always follow their own internal guide when it comes to treating others as they wish to be treated. This does not mean that they will willfully be a doormat to anyone with a differing opinion however. A truly ethical leader will respect the opinions of their opposition and will consider any other viewpoints that might differ from their own. In making decisions or deciding upon policy though an ethical leader will seek to lead by example and consider the best value of each decision.

From a definitional and historical standpoint ethical leaders will not tolerate injustice or violations of their moral principles. In the common day however it has become necessary at times to recognize the need for compromise and to bend one’s principles but not break them. An ethical leader will learn the ins and outs their particular operating system and will remain aware of what causes are worth championing and which require an extra amount of caution. The ethical leader will often reserve the belief that all causes are worthy of being resolved, but at the same time must take into account the result of continuing each conflict.

Ethical leaders are those that will do what is right versus what is popular. An efficient

leader will get things done, but will always wonder if those around them are truly loyal. Between

the two, the ethical leader will walk the harder road, while the efficient leader takes short cuts in

their attempt to become successful. It is easier to be efficient in the short-term, but being a

person of ethical principle is much more rewarding in the long-term.


Brown, M.E., Trevino, L.K., & Harrison, D.A. (2005). Ethical leadership: A social learning

perspective for construct development and testing. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 97(2), 117-134.

Capra, F. (Producer & Director). (1939). Mr. Smith Goes to Washington [Motion Picture].

United States: Columbia Pictures.

Ruddy, A.S. (Producer), & Coppola, F.F. (Director). (1972). The Godfather [Motion Picture].

United States: Paramount Pictures.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.