Scrabble pieces on white background that spells out "trust"

5 Ways Ethical Leaders Solve Problems

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Ethical leadership encourages people to follow you because they trust you. Learn what Ethical Leadership is and the 5 ways it helps you solve problems: Lead By Example, Care About Your Stakeholders, Listen, People Want to Work with You, and Ethical Leaders are the Cornerstone of The Team

Ethical leadership is the ability to have people follow you and trust your ideas. Not through coercion or manipulation, but through positive actions and the care you take of those around you.

A formal definition could be: ethical leadership is influencing those around you through your own positive behaviours.

This article explains what ethical leadership is and five ways it helps you to solve problems.

Table of Contents

What is Ethical Leadership?

Scrabble pieces that spell out "focus on remedies not faults"
Ethical leaders generate solutions not problems. Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

An ethical leader understands the two opposing halves of management. The cold, calculating structure with its policies and process, and the warm, complex, sometimes squishy, people side.

Policy, process and procedure, the three P’s, are there to guide employees through the maze of daily emails, spreadsheets, and meetings. Otherwise, we could get lost among the urgent tasks or do something inappropriate with the copy machine.

An ethical leader appreciates the reasons for the three P’s existence. They understand:

  • The impact on those who follow the policies and use the processes
  • Work to ensure their team and stakeholders benefit from the outcomes of the procedures.

Ethical leaders help the people side of the business understand the benefits and advantages the structural side generates.

Ethical Leadership is the Cornerstone of Problem Solving

Bixby Creek Bridge, Pacific Highway, California
Problem solving as a leadership skill is as important as the arch is in bridge building Photo by Cody Hiscox on Unsplash

Problem solving is to leadership what the arch is to bridge building—a critical element. And like a bridge, leadership needs a solid foundation. The ability to influence others to do the right thing is the cornerstone of that foundation.

The cornerstone is the first block laid in a masonry foundation. It is the reference point from which all subsequent stones achieve their alignment. If the cornerstone is uneven or not square to the foundation lines, the finished building will be flawed.

Therefore, if we place our cornerstone incorrectly because we don’t treat people with respect or cannot build trust, our problem solving will be defective.

Here are three ways we influence, or are influenced, ranging from good to bad.

Deliberate Dark Design Patterns

On the dark side of influence, the bad-end of our scale, we have social media apps and peer pressure. How many of us have tried to cancel a subscription and got lost among the maze of hard to find “delete” buttons and obvious, “Please Stay! Here’s a Free Gift!” buttons?

Ambivalent Management Mandates

Some people revel in the rules, others rebel. Most of us just shrug our shoulders and tolerate them with an eye-roll and the occasional “convenient interpretation” when needed. This makes mandates and policy passive influencers.

Influence Through Positive Behaviours

Of the leaders you admire, what traits do you copy? Do you work to replicate their business acumen or their ability to lead people to greater heights? How do they influence other leaders to trust their ideas?

What makes ethical influence, well, ethical is it requires the behaviours that engender trust. We listen, understand, promise to take action, and deliver on our promises.

When we do the right thing, we encourage our colleagues to do the right thing. No cold, heartless policy or dark design patterns needed.

Additional Reading in The Become a Better Problem Solver Series

5 Ways Ethical Leaders Solve Problems

Scrabble pieces that spell out the phrase, "Choose your words"
Ethical leaders know their words and actions affect those around them. Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

1. Ethical Leaders Lead by Example

Common problems leaders need to solve are unhappy employees and the related issues of low productivity and poor work quality. The common response is to tighten down on policies and procedures.

Sometimes it works, but in my experience, mostly not. Here’s why. If you change the mechanics, without looking at the environment in which the problem is occurring, the problem will likely remain.

Now, team culture and your behaviours aren’t always the root cause of someone else’s poor performance, but they are an important area for you to review. Again, here’s why.

The Bobo Doll Study

Albert Bandura, a Stanford University psychologist, conducted an experiment in 1961 to study observational learning in children.

He showed a film of an adult punching and shouting at a Bobo Doll to a group of children before letting them into a room to play with a variety of toys, which included a Bobo Doll.

Those who saw the film were more likely to attack the doll than those who hadn’t.

Think back to your own work experiences, or watch the folks around you. Of those who have angry, stressed-out, micro-managing bosses, how many copy their boss’s bad behaviour when dealing with others?

Ethical leaders have teams that are a pleasure to manage, are personable, and productive. Because that’s how they behave.

Scrabble pieces that spell out the phrase, "I am with you"
Ethical leaders look out for the people they work with. Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

2. Ethical Leaders Care About Their Stakeholders

Either the analysis and requirements gathering folks misunderstood the problem and the desired features, or the end-users didn’t engage with the change management and training. The result is confusion around the benefits and advantages the project provides.

Ethical leaders care about the people they work with and the hoped-for outcomes. Here’s how they demonstrate they really do care:

  • If they say they can solve a problem, they genuinely want to succeed at doing so.
  • They start by taking the time to ask the right questions and building trust with their stakeholders.

Ethical leaders understand the problem they’re working to solve. To help communicate the benefits of their solution, they ensure the right people are getting the right message at the right time.

Scrabble pieces that spell out the phrase, "listen more"
Ethical leaders listen without interrupting. Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

3. Ethical Leaders Listen

Ethical leaders listen and consider what they have heard, whether it’s from people friendly to their ideas or those with opposing opinions.

The intent is to learn if their ideas are good or bad, or if their plan is workable. Not to retaliate and defend it to the death, or roll over without explanation.

The result of listening to feedback and making adjustments is your idea now benefits a wider group rather than just meeting your own personal agenda. Which leads back to our earlier point of ethical leaders caring for the people they work with.

When Pilots Don’t Listen to Their Navigator

A former manager once proudly proclaimed they were the pilot flying the plane, while the rest of us were the hard working air stewards looking after the passengers.

An interesting analogy, which made sense at the time as we were one of three teams working on a major project. Unfortunately, none of the managers could see eye to eye on the issues they were hoping to solve.

In my next one-on-one meeting with my manager, I shared a potential problem with their airplane analogy.

If the pilot, co-pilot, and navigator couldn’t agree on the bearings to follow, then we would all end up at the wrong destination. No matter how hard the air stewards worked to keep the passengers fed and comfortable.

If Paris, France, was the destination, and we ended up in Paris, Texas, that was a problem.

The only way to guarantee landing at the right destination was for the pilot to listen and ensure consensus in the cockpit.

Another example where not listening can lead to serious problems, is in the medical field.

Doctors Have a Very Short Listening Span

In the time I take to swallow two mouthfuls of coffee, my doctor has made their diagnosis.

That might make sense when the malady is obvious, like a broken arm. But what if my lower back is sore? Is it muscle stiffness, arthritis, or a symptom of bone cancer? Passing professional judgements within two slurps from a coffee cup leads to misdiagnosis and the potential for serious health issues.

Next time a team member speaks, be aware of how quickly you interrupt to offer an opinion.

Ethical leaders listen to feedback from all areas before committing to a direction.

Scrabble pieces that spell out the phrase, "let it go"
Ethical leaders don’t take things personally. Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

4. People Want to Work with Ethical Leaders

Look around your office or workplace. How many of your colleagues do you enjoy working with and how many… well, not so much?

Is there anyone you really want to work with, to stand beside them in the same team? What traits, good or bad, do you share with them?

Senator Ted Kennedy’s 3 Rules for Getting Things Done

During his lengthy political career, Senator Ted Kennedy sponsored an extensive list of legislation to better the lives of Americans. Central to his success was his passion for the issues and his ability to build lasting relationships across the political aisle.

In their book, Lion of the Senate, authors Nick Littlefield and David Nexon mention three leadership habits Senator Kennedy subscribed to:

  1. Ensure there are no surprises
  2. Be the smartest person in the room
  3. Remember, it’s not personal

No surprises: The senator knew who would be in the meetings he was attending, how they felt about the items on the agenda, and their alliances with the other attendees.

Be the smartest in the room: His goal was to have a sound understanding of the subject at hand, to comprehend concepts and terminology used, and to offer solutions others may not have considered.

It’s not personal: Ted Kennedy was a Democrat and a progressive, while his great friend, Senator John McCain, was a Republican and a conservative. How did they get along? They both had respect for each other and worked to find the common ground between them, for the greater good.

Even though their advocacy for their position was, at times, heated, they could always separate the issues from the person.

Ethical leaders are prepared, well read, don’t waste time asking obvious questions, and speak intelligently to different topics. Importantly, they care about the issues they are working on and the people they are doing it with.

Ethical leaders are their team’s foundation. Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

5. Ethical Leaders Are the Cornerstone of Their Team

Remember our cornerstone from earlier? How every block in a masonry construction uses the cornerstone as a reference?

In business, ethical leaders are the cornerstone for their team and organization. Ethical leaders:

  • Do the right thing
  • Are proud of the work they do
  • Take the time to ask the right questions and listen without interrupting; and
  • Care about the problems they are working to solve and the people they are doing it with

Colleagues look to ethical leaders for guidance and learn from them through observational behaviour.

Recap: Using Ethical Leadership to Solve Problems

Scrabble pieces that spell out "go for it"
Make a difference and solve the problems others can’t – all starts when you ethically influence those around you. Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

Ethical leadership is influencing those around you through your own positive behaviours. If you do the right thing, your team will also do the right thing.

Ethical leaders:

  • Lead by example
  • Care about their stakeholders
  • Listen
  • People want to work with them
  • Are the cornerstone of their team

That’s why colleagues and clients want to work with them. Repeatedly.

Are you ready to be the leader others look up to and admire?

Additional Reading

Think of your ability to solve problems like building an arch. You have your foundation – that’s thinking and acting differently – on top of which sits the cornerstone – ethical leadership. This supports the bricks and mortar – your positive behaviours – which are locked together by the keystone – your keystone habit of influential behaviours you perform daily.

The next article in the Become a Better Problem Solver Series, Ask the Right Questions: 2 Problem Solving Questions That Make the Difference, shows how to develop the behaviours that encourage people to follow you and solve problems.


  1. Dark design patterns are, sadly, ubiquitous in our digital lives. The Dark Patterns website explains what they are while the Center for Humane Technology delves into the impact some of those patterns have upon us. ↪︎ return
  1. A few years ago I was part of a Workday software implementation working alongside consultants from one of the Big 4 consulting firms. The number of 100 page plus slide decks they had was frightening. Forbes explains what “death by powerpoint” is and the British Broadcasting Corporation has tips on how to avoid it. ↪︎ return
  1. Humans are a social species and when in groups we tend to mimic those around us. has an interesting article on the chameleon affect that explains why and cites several studies. ↪︎ return
  1. Additional information on observational learning, the Bobo Doll experiment and Albert Bandura. ↪︎ return
  1. Project Management survey results come from: Wellingtone PPM Intelligence’s The State of Project Management 2018 survey, . ↪︎ return
  1. The article from a medical malpractice attorney that cited the 11 second statistic. ↪︎ return

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