Crises, especially as momentous as this one, have a habit of exposing leaders. At worst, they expose incompetence and self-interest. At best, they reveal courage, resilience and deep concern for others. It is the latter that is the hallmark of ethical leadership.

Make no mistake, these are challenging times. There are potentially some dark days ahead. Humanity has not faced a perilous situation of this magnitude in my lifetime.

Unfortunately, ethical leadership is not something that can be ‘switched’ on at will. In trying times, one cannot simply dust off the ethical leadership manual and, like a chameleon, transform one’s approach. The reason for this is that ethical leadership is honed through many years of practice.

Ethics is a long game

This is not a new idea. Aristotle described ethical virtue as a “hexis” – a state or disposition – that is shaped by our habits. We come to be ethical by acting ethically, consistently being guided by an ethical framework when making choices, regardless of how difficult this might be given the prevailing circumstances. This is what it means to be a person with integrity.

For this reason the COVID-19 pandemic will (and in some cases already has) reveal what leaders believe to be good (their values) and right (their principles). More importantly, it will reveal how committed they are to their ethical core. Those who have failed to make ethical practice a daily habit will find it difficult. They may already have stumbled or are perhaps struggling to win the trust of sceptical followers. For those who have made integrity central to their leadership, the turbulent waters will be somewhat easier to navigate. Making the ethical choice will come more instinctively.

There is also the possibility that ethical leadership will emerge in the current crisis from the most unlikely of places. People whom we may have thought were not cut out to deal with a crisis or a thrust into a position of leadership will rise to the occasion. Perversely, moments like these, instead of paralysing leaders, can provide greater clarity on what is the ‘right’ thing to do. The path one must take, although rocky, lights up and is clearly signed. A leader comes into their own.

Ethical leadership, not perfection

All this being said, one thing that we should not (and cannot) expect is ethical perfection. In situations like these where there are excruciating trade-offs associated with many decisions, ethical perfection cannot be defined. The available choices are evenly balanced, providing a myriad of possible outcomes that all have considerable merit. It would therefore be preposterous to think that any leader in these circumstances, no matter how ethical, will get everything ‘right’. We should respect those who are being called upon to make extraordinarily difficult decisions, with imperfect information, in a highly dynamic environment.

However, there are some minimal expectations we should expect from our leaders. We should expect a degree of candour and honesty, accepting that in some cases full transparency will do more harm than good. We should expect that the safety of people – particularly the most vulnerable – is prioritised, accepting that there will be unfortunate loss of life.  Above all, we should expect leaders to act with sincerity, rely on the best available evidence and display ethical competence. ‘Winging it’, ‘intuition’ and ‘common sense’ are not enough.

We all have a role to play

We should also understand that ethical leadership is not reserved for those who sit highest in the hierarchy, especially in unprecedented moments like these.  This is something that can’t be underestimated. Ethical leadership will need to emerge at every level of society if we are to find a way through what will be some very difficult weeks and months ahead. Do not discount our essential role as ethical citizens.

Jon Haidt, a professor of ethical leadership at the Stern School of Business at NYU, talks about how morality “blinds and binds”. It can evoke the passions and bind people around a common cause. However, in doing so, it can breed dogmatism and drive us into our ideological camps, blinding us to our common humanity.

For the first time in a while, the coronavirus has created a present and common cause that all of humanity can bind to. It will test our leaders and in doing so reveal those who make ethics more than a word in their by-line. It will produce benevolent and heroic acts among citizens that extreme circumstances like these so often educe. And hopefully, by producing a cause we can all be bound by, it will dampen some of the tribalism and self-interest that has been an unfortunate feature of some sectors of our society in recent times.


You can contact The Ethics Centre about any of the issues discussed in this article. We offer free counselling for individuals via Ethi-callprofessional fee-for-service consulting, leadership and development services; and as a non-profit charity we rely heavily on donations to continue our work, which can be made via our websiteThank you.