We all make mistakes. But as a leader of a major corporation, small business, national security, etc. those mistakes should be minimal. The moment you accept the responsibility, the compensation, the perks, etc. Your responsibility to ethics becomes so much more than it was when you were rank and file. Ethical leadership should be practiced all the time by anyone in a leadership position – whether that position is formal or informal, intentional or unintentional. There are no times when it’s more appropriate than others, nor are there people for whom it is more appropriate than for others.
There are definitely times when ethical leadership is more difficult than not – when there are hard choices to make, or when the right choice is clear but unpleasant (confronting a nice person who’s simply not doing his job, and making everyone else’s harder as a result, for example, or acting against your own self-interest). In fact, the difficult times are when ethical leadership is most important, because the stakes are higher.
The stakes in ethical leadership may also vary widely, depending on the level and responsibilities of the leadership in question. Few leaders of business organizations find themselves faced with the kinds of life-and-death decisions that may be experienced by national leaders. Yet their decisions can still have serious ethical and human consequences, even though those consequences may play out in a more limited sphere.
Ethical leadership is part – although by no means all – of the definition of good leadership. Being an ethical leader is a full-time job – it isn’t something you can put on and off at will. You either are or you aren’t, and if you are, you have to try to be one all the time.