Ethical Leadership: Not for the Timid


Ethical Leadership: Not for the Timid

I spent many years working within a University Parking and Transportation organization. Early in my career, I recall thinking that if I ever got the chance to promote into supervision, I’d make certain I would be the most supportive, positive boss ever. Having had the experience of working with a supervisor I believed wasn’t as supportive as they could be, I felt certain that if given the chance, I’d knock it out of the ballpark. 

What’s that saying – “Be careful of what you ask for”?

That goal stuck with me and as a new supervisor, I made a concerted effort to offer unwavering, positive support at every opportunity. After just three months, it was time to complete my first round of written employee evaluations. First Giant Mistake: With best intentions, I gave everyone who worked on my team a substantially above average or even outstanding rating, even to those who hadn’t done anything to deserve such high marks. 

I just knew that this heaping helping of positive reinforcement would set me up for future success as a supervisor and would inspire everyone to do their very best. Naively, I assumed that this would develop and motivate the team. I didn’t realize it then, but my actions could not have been more significantly misguided. 

Now, we all know how office chatter works. No matter the topic, it takes a nanosecond for the word to get out. Before long, everyone was talking about the glowing evaluations I’d given to every single member of the team. The staff who had never made any real effort to meet or exceed established goals and expectations were surprised – even thrilled – with their high ratings. Not surprisingly, those team members who had consistently applied themselves and had made the effort to do their best work felt that the glowing evaluations for everyone were a direct insult. After all, if members of the team can earn gold stars and top ratings for little or no effort, what’s the point of trying? Hmmm. Excellent question, isn’t it? 

In my misguided attempt to motivate and encourage the team, my miscalculation had inadvertently demotivated hard-working team members and planted seeds of distrust in my leadership. I discovered rather quickly that my poorly conceived plan had effectively blown up in my face. Had I understood and applied some of the basic concepts of ethical leadership to that initial evaluation process, those efforts could have led me down a very different path. I want to share 3 key points of ethical leadership that I should have considered: 

Consider the impacts, both positive and negative. In my haste to gain favor and trust, I had clearly failed to stop and think about what the consequences of my decision would be. An important part of ethical leadership requires us to recognize when it’s time to hit the pause button. Had I paused to consider the potential impacts on hard working team members, I likely would have made a different choice. 

Take time to think about your values and principles as a leader. When was the last time you sat down and really thought about values and principles that are important to you? What traits and characteristics do you value in other leaders? Have you unintentionally strayed over time? Ethical leadership requires reconnecting with your deepest values and principles and periodically reexamining how you think, decide, and behave. Are your actions as a leader practical and principled? Are you doing the right thing for the right reasons? Ethical leaders cultivate loyalty and unify people around a noble purpose. 

Lead with purpose. Our success as leaders comes when we can maintain our focus on pursuing a higher purpose. Operating with purpose helps us to lead with significance. Remember, ethical leadership means doing “the next right thing,” not the “next thing right.”

It took years to convince many on the team that I was ethical – albeit flawed – yet worthy of leading. Had I initially approached my role in leadership with more reflection and forethought, I might have been perceived as a more effective leader earlier in my career. 

As part of the conference session, “Ethical Leadership: Doing What’s Right, Not What’s Easy,” I’ll offer some thoughts about characteristics that define ethical leadership and why it matters. Come prepared to participate in small group conversations regarding some of the leadership challenges we encounter and how ethical principles and practices help us to promote team success. 

I hope to see you there! 

Cindy Campbell is Senior Training & Development Specialist at the International Parking & Mobility Institute. She can be reached at



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Cindy Campbell
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