Being an Ethical Leader: The Journey Through Professional Ethics and Project Leadership

Beverly Peters, Assistant Professor

Students often enter American University's online class in Professional Ethics and Project Leadership with the assumption that there are concrete absolutes to the study of ethics and leadership. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth. Early in the semester, students discover there are few absolutes to some common ethical dilemmas we face as project leaders.

When I teach this class, I integrate my 25-plus years of project management experience into my teaching. I use the ethical and leadership dilemmas that I have faced as examples of what students could encounter in their careers. I challenge students to consider how they would become ethical, effective leaders.

Defining Ethical Leadership

But what is an ethical leader? Why are ethical leaders more effective? Being an ethical leader is not just about knowing right from wrong. It is about the tone of ethical behavior you set in the office. It includes your willingness to report misconduct and to act on misconduct reported to you.

Why are these aspects so important? CEB Gartner's research has shown an interesting correlation: When employees report that their companies are more ethical, the companies perform better than their peers in the marketplace. Organizational justice, open communications, and trust in colleagues tend to support a culture of integrity; and companies with a culture of integrity see fewer instances of misconduct and higher reporting rates.

As a consulting company, CEB Gartner encourages companies to assess their organizational culture and associated risks of misconduct.

Bringing Ethics Into the Workplace

To be an effective project leader, I have needed to act with honesty, integrity, and fairness. I needed to set an ethical example in the way I managed my own actions as well as in the ways that I oversaw others' actions. This helped set the values and vision of the office and encouraged an environment where employees felt compelled to act ethically. In so doing, I helped build a framework that encouraged others to follow ethical principles.

When employees act ethically, the organization operates more fairly and efficiently and has higher morale and productivity. We build better relationships amongst employees and meet obligations we have to our stakeholders, including business partners, shareholders, and the community at large. This environment creates a common purpose where all stakeholders work together, rather than being at odds with each other (Weiss, 2014).

Multi-Faceted Stakeholder Management

Creating an ethical corporate environment in today's globalized economy entails embracing what Weiss calls a stakeholder management approach. Stakeholders include those entities that have a stake or claim in the current and future direction of the firm or organization—suppliers, customers, employees, stockholders, and members of the local community. Their stakes are their interests or claims in the outcome of corporate or organizational policies, procedures, and actions (Weiss, 2014).

Stakeholder approaches help managers engage stakeholders in an effort to articulate corporate responsibilities and balance profit motives with socially responsible decision-making.

One aim of a stakeholder approach is to create channels of communication that support inclusive space for stakeholders to have their voices heard and influence operations and policy. This helps the company/organization understand what is happening in the community in relation to business operations and gives insight into how a company or organization can be responsive to internal and external stakeholders (Weiss, 2014).

Larry Fink, founder and CEO of asset manager BlackRock, Inc., reiterated these points in his January 2018 open letter to CEOs, A Sense of Purpose. Fink suggests a new model for corporate governance, where companies engage all stakeholders in long-term strategies. He encourages companies to analyze value creation, the role they play in the community, and to create a better framework for engaging all stakeholders, to support what he calls the prosperity and security of fellow citizens.

Larry's letter and the move towards Better Capitalism were topics of conversation at the World Economic Forum meetings in Davos, Switzerland in early 2018.

Looking to the Future of Ethical Leadership

Ethical leadership and stakeholder approaches are largely in the minds of the corporate sector today. Students in Professional Ethics and Project Leadership discuss these and other issues that help to challenge and support the growth of their ethical thinking. Using my management experiences as a backdrop, I encourage students to consider how they can become ethical, effective leaders in their future careers.

About the Author

Assistant Professor Beverly Peters, Ph.D., is a specialist in human security in Africa and has written extensively on economic development, democratization, and HIV/AIDS. She has more than 20 years of experience teaching, conducting research, and managing projects in southern and West Africa.

An expert on political and economic development in Zimbabwe, she has provided political analyses to the government of South Africa and the private sector, and is regularly featured in local and international media including the South African Broadcasting Corporation news, The New York Times, Voice of America, and Radio France International.

To learn more about American University's online MS in Measurement and Evaluation or Graduate Certificate in Project Monitoring & Evaluation, you can request more information or contact an admissions adviser at 855-725-7614.


Fink, Larry. An Open Letter to CEOs. Washington, D.C.: Blackrock, 2018.

CEB Gartner. A World of Business Misconduct. Washington, DC: CEB Gartner.

CEB Gartner. Identify Misconduct Before it Happens. Washington, DC: CEB Gartner.

Turner, Matt. "Everyone at Davos is Talking about 'Larry's Letter.'" Business Insider. January 26, 2018.

Weiss, Joseph W. Business Ethics: A Stakeholder and Issues Management Approach. Sixth edition. Oakland, CA: Berrett Koelher Publishers, 2014.