Business Strategy

Honest, Open, and Ethical Leadership Nurtures Organizational Morale

Honest Leadership

Leadership is the art of motivating people to achieve a common goal. Effective leadership requires honesty (truthfulness) which fosters trust. Past research supports the idea that people want to follow honest leaders. Several studies listed numerous leadership traits and asked over 75,000 respondents to select the traits they mostly admired in their leaders. More than half of the respondents (50% – 80%) in each study listed honesty as one of the most important leader traits. Organizational unity increases with honest leadership. Leaders set good moral examples by conducting their affairs honestly and transparently. Leaders should be a model for honesty, openness, and ethical behavior.

Open Leadership

Open leadership requires sharing important information with followers and accepting feedback. To practice open leadership, leaders must be able to admit and share mistakes. Concealing mistakes is a major barrier to open leadership.

Mistakes are concealed because leaders who make mistakes are sometimes viewed as failures and inept leaders. Therefore, leaders tend to withhold information until they are certain the information does not reveal their mistakes. Although withholding information hides mistakes, it can also lower productivity and eventually lead to follower distrust concerning leaders. Leaders need to accept that they will make mistakes and ensure their followers recognize mistakes will occur. Effective open leadership requires that leaders and followers understand that mistakes will not always lead to retribution.

Leaders will sometimes withhold information to maintain power/control. Many leaders understand that knowledge is power and believe they will lose power if they do not have more information than their followers. Past successful leaders have shared that preparing their followers (and then empowering those followers) to act on their leader’s behalf leads to organizational success. Followers respect leaders who are open and many view open leadership as a source of security. Although open leadership nurtures trust, leaders should be mindful of how they reveal organizational information (i.e., leaders should only reveal sensitive organizational information in confidence and in appropriate settings). Revealing internal information at the wrong time and to the wrong audience can be detrimental to an organization.

Ethical Leadership

Ethical leadership is a concept that concerns doing what is good or right in accordance with one’s moral duty and obligation. Simply put, ethical leaders do the right thing. Some scholars believe personal character and values are the most important aspects of ethical leadership. Leaders should carefully consider their values before making decisions. Leaders should critically think about what they have been taught and decide whether or not changes in their beliefs are necessary. Ethical leaders should have the courage to stand for what is right and do what must be done to correct unethical situations. When leaders do not practice ethical leadership, their actions eventually affect their organizations negatively and often cause harm to their followers.

One leader, an army General, ordered two of his followers to bunk in a barracks that had often been fired on by the enemy. The two subordinates, knowing how often the barracks had been fired on, chose a different barracks. Although the General had been taught to never expose his soldiers to serious danger, he maintained his order that the two use the historically dangerous barracks. Because the subordinates refused, the General had the two soldiers charged with disobeying an order, court marshaled, and dismissed from the military. In another case, an army officer, a Lieutenant Colonel, ordered a federal civil servant employee under his supervision to take part in a two-hour teleconference. The civil servant attended all but the last ten minutes of the teleconference before leaving to use the toilet. Although the Lieutenant Colonel knew the subordinate attended the teleconference for one hour and 50 minutes and that general meeting guidelines stipulate a ten-minute break/hour, the Lieutenant Colonel ensured the civilian worker’s supervisor punished the subordinate for not following his order. The General and the Lieutenant Colonel, in the aforementioned cases, made unethical decisions that negatively affected their subordinates and likely harmed organizational morale. Ethical leadership is vital to maintaining a healthy organization. Unethical leadership, sometimes referred to as toxic leadership, can be detrimental to followers and organizational morale.

Toxic Leadership

Toxic leadership can be defined as leadership that is poisonous, destructive, or harmful. It has been noted that many military students view toxic leaders as being focused on visible short-term mission accomplishment and preoccupied with providing superiors with impressive presentations of mission-focused activities. Many military students find toxic leaders to be arrogant, self-serving, and less concerned about subordinate or organizational morale. Toxic leadership breeds toxic followership and, subsequently, another generation of toxic leaders. Leaders need to realize they promote the standard they set and if their leadership is toxic, organizational morale will suffer.

Organizational Morale

Organizational morale is defined as the degree to which followers exhibit a positive or motivated psychological state and have positive feelings concerning assigned duties and the work environment. Organizational morale is an indicator of how an organization will perform. Leaders can facilitate morale by maintaining an ethical climate and creating an atmosphere of open communication. Honest, open, and ethical leadership engenders a trusting environment and inspires followers to adopt the organization’s mission–thereby having a positive influence on organizational morale. In addition to establishing a climate of trust for the organization, an effective leader has to model the behaviors that promote a healthy organization–leaders must lead by example.


Leadership is the art of motivating people to achieve a common goal. Organizations benefit from honest, open, and ethical leadership. Leadership that does not include transparency (i.e., leadership that is not open) can be detrimental to followers and organizational morale and can eventually grow to fit the definition of toxic leadership. Leaders should take actions to foster trusting environments. Trust breeds cooperation and positively influences followers’ perceptions of leaders and the organization. Leaders should employ practices that positively influence leader-follower relationships (e.g., being honest, open, and ethical). Leaders should make use of models to assist in nurturing positive values, behaviors, and organizational morale.

The Ingram Transparency-Morale model ( http://juney1.wix.com/transparencymorale ) illustrates the relationship between transparency, perception of fairness, and morale. The model shows how transparency is controlled by leadership and how followers’ positive perceptions increase as transparency increases. The combination of transparency (employed by honest, open, and ethical leadership) and increasing positive perceptions assist in realizing a healthy level of organizational morale.

by Harroll Ingram

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