The importance of ethics in leadership in the absence of solitary standard of morals

Ethics and morals play important role in defining the quality of leadership. People often use those two concepts to analyze behavior of leaders, particularly in distinguishing ‘good’ and ‘bad’ behaviors. We should bear in mind, however, that ethics and morals are two different concepts. In certain situation or context ethics and morals may be in harmony, while in other situation they are at odds. When ethics and morals are in conflict, question about priority emerges. Which aspect leaders should pick out: ethics or morals?

We can start by reviewing main differences between those two concepts. Ethics refers to the rules of conduct recognized in respect to a particular group or culture. The main source of ethics is social system, so people adhere ethics because the society says it is the right thing to do. Ethics of diplomat, for example, refers to the rules of conduct diplomats must abide to be categorized as right. Failure to observe such rules can make a diplomat considered as incorrect.

Meanwhile morals refers to principles or habits with respect to right or wrong conduct. Differ to ethics, the main source of morals is not social system but individual belief. Considering that each individual has their own way of life, standard of morals can differ from one to another. In a larger scope, standard of morals may also vary among different societies. What is perceived as right in one society may be seen as wrong by others.

The concept of ‘moral relativism’ emerged to portray the absence of agreement on single standard of morality. Gilbert Harman in his article titled ‘Moral Relativism Explained’ notes that there is not a single true morality. Harman further notes that:

“There are a variety of possible moralities or moral frames of reference, and whether something is morally right or wrong, good or bad, just or unjust, etc. is a relative matter—relative to one or another morality or moral frame of reference.”

Reviewing the definition of morals, the logic behind the concept of moral relativism is acceptable. Personal experience, level of education, type and scope of interaction, and social environment – all can influence standard of morals at the individual level. At the societal level history and common belief can also effect the common standard of morals. Judging certain standard of morals using those of other, therefore, can lead to unfairness.

Each leaders, as individuals as well as members of their respective societies, may have their own standards of morals. In one aspect they may have common ground in defining what is right and what is wrong. But in other aspect they may have sharp differences on it. What is right according to one leader can be wrong for others.

Ethics can also be interpreted from various perspectives. Unlike morals, however, the source of ethics is not individual interpretation but collective perception within society. Ethics of a profession, for example, is developed based on agreement within an organization or society where such a profession exist. Ethics of diplomat, for instance, was agreed by diplomatic society based on norms, values, and customs observed in conducting diplomacy.

To examine the role of ethics and morals for leaders, let’s put these two philosophical concepts into daily life context. Leaders of an organization – for example the Ministry of Foreign Affairs – may come from various social backgrounds with different – or even opposing – standards of morals. At the personal level it is possible for them to have different moral judgements on certain policy or action.

In fulfilling their duties as leaders, however, they have to observe standard of ethics of the Ministry. They may face ideal situation when their standard of morals and the Ministry’s standard of ethics are in harmony. Back to moral relativism, however, they may face conflicting situation when their standard of morals is on contrary with the organization’s standard of ethics. In this situation leaders should put ethics ahead of morals to justify their conducts.

One of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ leaders may also have leadership role in his community, let’s say as head of neighborhood or rukun tetangga (RT). In his capacity as head of RT he should act based on the standard of ethics of head of RT and not that of the Ministry. In a conflicting situation between morals and ethics, he must refer to standard of ethics of head of RT in making a decision.

Based on the discussion above I would like to draw the following conclusion. First, in the absence of solitary standard of morals, ethics plays influential role as guidance for leaders in performing their duties. An organization should develop its standard of ethics comprehensively and its leaders should observe the standard as their behavior’s guidance.

Second, leaders will possibly find themselves in a conflicting situation when their standards of morals differ from their organization’s standard of ethics. In such a situation leaders must act according to standards of ethics and set aside their standards of morals.

Finally, in this digital and borderless era exchange of ideas and values across the globe takes place rapidly. The existence of various ideas and values within societies leads to the proliferation of standards of morals among individuals. This situation makes the role of ethics become more and more important as guidance for leaders in accomplishing their tasks.


Gilbert Harman, ‘Moral Relativism Explained” accessed on 28 February 2018 on