With lives and livelihoods on the line, the COVID-19 pandemic illuminated just how critical ethical leadership is in sustaining the health of our people. Faced with more questions than answers and mired in uncertainty and competing recommendations, there was no rulebook for leaders to lean on to determine the ‘right’ choices.

A 2021 ethics study revealed a gap between organizations having “purpose and values to guide choices in difficult circumstances” and their “ability to routinely take these aspirations into account in day-to-day deliberations.”  This is a disconnect under scrutiny by employees, consumers, and the public at large, who increasingly expect organizations to follow through on their promises to lead change.

Organizations of all sizes can bridge this gap with ethical leadership.

Leading an organization with character, ethics, and empathy requires preparation and practice. This guide will help you map out an ethical framework to help you make tough decisions, build a culture of integrity and trust, embrace courageous conversations, and empower your team to uphold ethical standards.

What is ethical leadership?

Ethical leadership means choosing to do what’s right, not what’s easy, and consistently upholding those values, especially when faced with difficult situations where there is not always a clear ‘right’ path forward.

Ethical leaders lead by example. They influence others by modeling how to navigate difficult decisions with ethics, and by inspiring others to embrace their own moral imagination to empathize with current reality while moving toward a vision of a better future.

This new metric of success can manifest as the suppliers you choose to partner with, how you treat your employees, how you mitigate your environmental footprint, and more. 

Why we need ethical leadership

Ethical leadership is essential for any social innovator because it provides a basis from which to make tough decisions with confidence, take steps to reflect your ideals and values as a leader, and courageously question the status quo.

The 2021 Ethics Study found companies that invested in ethical decision-making frameworks prior to the pandemic were able to make “quicker, better, and more consistent decisions” when faced with adversity. Conversely, those whose ethics were integrated as deep as the paper they were written on suffered “without the tools to navigate the crisis.”

An example of ethics underpinning strategic decisions is Everytable, a company making fresh, nutritious food accessible. Everytable put it’s “Pay it Forward” initiative on high gear throughout the pandemic, asking customers to help cover meals for struggling individuals. While this decision led to broader impact and positive press, it was the company’s pre-existing ethical leadership that allowed them to be nimble and effective in those decisions.

This is a stark contrast to a company whose values are revealed to be mere talking points instead of guiding principles, like in the case of Nike-sponsored track athlete Allyson Felix. Despite nine Olympic medals to her name and a near decade long sponsorship with a company claiming to believe in empowering women and girls, she found herself facing a 70% pay cut during the months around her pregnancy. It wasn’t until she challenged Nike about the fact that they were not acting in alignment with their stated values that they started a conversation to remedy the disconnect.

When ethical leadership is truly embedded into an organization’s strategic and operational decisions, it shows.

Ethical leadership has been shown to lead to positive outcomes in employee satisfaction, dedication, and willingness to report problems when they arise –– all benefits well worth the effort of walking the talk.

5 keys to ethical leadership

If the ‘right’ choice isn’t clear, or you’re oscillating between decisions, designing an ethical framework can help you navigate tough leadership moments with character and empathy at the center.

Without a clear ethical framework, inevitable moral dilemmas can lead to unethical behavior. The best way to avoid that is to define what "ethical" behavior means to you.

Here are five keys to build your own ethical leadership framework:

1. Start with values

“One of the first steps in practicing ethical leadership is to define who you are in the world and why it is that those values are so important to you. The world is full of decisions, however small they may be, that will test your values in the most unexpected ways,” says Jo-Ann Tan, Director of Acumen Academy. 
Take a moment to think about your core set of values. What does leading with those values look like in practice?

Recognize values in tension

One of our values at Acumen Academy is holding values in tension: the idea that there can be two seemingly opposing values that –– when examined closer –– both merit consideration. 
For example, Acumen Academy Director Bavidra Mohan explains, “the tension that I hold every single day is the tension between patience and urgency. The Fellows and course takers have such an amazing urgency about their work. They are on fire with purpose, but at the same time, they’re working on challenges that require deep systems change and behavior change. These changes will possibly take their entire lifetime, maybe even generations, to overcome.”
“Working with these Fellows to hold both the urgency of what it means to build in this moment and also not lose steam and hope. Acknowledging that maybe the best we can do is just push the needle forward in our lifetimes is quite the leadership challenge,” he adds. 
It’s impossible for any leader to anticipate every potential situation: there will always exist moments of uncertainty where having a defined set of values to turn to will help you weigh your options more effectively, build accountability, and gain clarity in the midst of ambiguity. 

2. Redefine success

Leading ethically requires not only defining guiding values but, more importantly, acting in alignment with them. 
According to Bavidra, “redefining success is being in service of something greater than yourself.” 
Standing up for what you believe in can sometimes go against the grain of what is expected from you. It requires courage to redefine what success means to you, regardless of the judgement or pushback that might accompany your actions.
Think about the ways your organization defines and measures success. Consider how those frameworks can be reimagined by grounding them on the ethics and values you plan to uphold. 

Create a manifesto

Acumen’s core values are outlined in the Acumen Manifesto: a few short sentences that distill what Acumen stands for and why we exist. In 2001, Acumen was founded on what were then radical ideas about “creating hope in a cynical world.” At its core, Acumen was committed to “changing the way the world tackles poverty and building a world based on dignity.”
While the Acumen Manifesto was written ten years ago, it’s words continue to hold value and meaning. It’s referenced frequently by Acumen Fellows and staff and serves as an anchor for anyone across the organization when faced with a difficult decision or conversation.
According to Director of Acumen Academy, Batool Hassan, ‘holding opposing values in tension’ and the 12 Principles of Moral Leadership are “guideposts for how we behave and how we act. Having that mission and vision as a base helps drive ethical leadership within Acumen.” 
One key way to lead your team in the direction of your values is to draft a living document or a public declaration, similar to Acumen’s Manifesto and 12 Principles of Moral Leadership.
“If you have these guides to turn to, then it makes individual decision-making in your day-to-day work a little easier. We know how to choose who to work with, how to operate, and how to treat one another,” says Batool.
But it’s not enough to simply publish a manifesto or code of ethics. To be of value, it must become an active part of your organization: embedded across organizational culture through onboarding, training, and daily team discussions.

3. Listen with empathy

Ethical leaders hold their values firmly but their ideas loosely. It requires listening to various perspectives, and taking competing views and priorities into account before making difficult decisions. 
Empathy can help leaders arrive at compromises, find unique solutions that might not have been immediately apparent, or commit them to having difficult conversations that cross lines of difference. 

Moral imagination starts with empathy, but it does not content itself simply to feel another’s pain. Empathy without action risks reinforcing the status quo. Moral imagination is muscular, built from the bottom up and grounded through immersion in the lives of others.

Jacqueline Novogratz
Ethical leaders actively listen to others in order to best serve their community and customers. 
Practice flexing your empathy muscle by reaching out to someone on your team or in your community who has a differing point of view. Be curious: what can you learn about them? What do you share in common? What can you learn about yourself? 
Listening with empathy requires sitting in someone else’s chair and experiencing the world from where they sit. An ethical leader takes what they’ve observed and mobilizes to change what is wrong, or can be made better. 

Continuously improve

At Thinkerbell, Avinash Kothuri, an Acumen Fellow in India, works to improve learning outcomes for visually impaired children. Their Braille teaching device, Annie, was a simple, voice operated six-dot display 7-years ago. But thanks to listening while innovating, today it’s the most comprehensive self-learning Braille device in the world.

Avinash Kothuri
India Fellow

Avinash Kothuri

Avinash is Director of Inclusive Education at Thinkerbell Labs, an organization that works towards improving learning outcomes for visually impaired children. Thinkerbell invented the world's first Braille literacy device, Annie, to increase Braille literacy rates in the world. Before Thinkerbell, Avinash worked with SocialCops to enable data-driven...

During their foundational years, Thinkerbell’s focus was primarily on the students and the struggles they faced while learning Braille. The kids were told that having fun while learning wasn’t a priority, so the team decided it was time to challenge that status quo — starting by listening more intentionally.
They sat in classrooms across the country to understand how children were learning. Realizing that students often felt isolated in Braille classes, the team decided to develop collaborative methods of learning Braille. This along with the goal of creating delight among the learners resulted in a more engaging learning experience for the children who previously felt that learning Braille was “boring.”
The Thinkerbell team also listened to the needs of the teachers, eventually creating a learning dashboard accessible to everyone involved in a child’s education — remote or in-person. Now, teachers can teach Braille to multiple students at once, effectively monitor students learning remotely, and keep the parents up-to-date about their child’s progress.

4. Prioritize organizational culture

Seth Godin, a leadership and marketing expert, says too many leaders fall into the trap of sacrificing team culture for the sake of getting the job done — an oversight that can have a lasting effect across your organization.
Culture drives everything your team does. It establishes a common ground that connects everyone involved. Deliberately crafting team culture attracts people with shared values and motivations, keeping them engaged and committed to seeing their work through to completion.
Acumen India Fellow Dilip Kumar Pattubala is the Co-Founder of Uninhibited, a Bangalore based social enterprise educating women and girls experiencing poverty about menstrual hygiene and improving access to affordable hygiene products.
Dilip Kumar Pattubala
India Fellow

Dilip Kumar Pattubala

Dilip is the co-founder of Sukhibhava, a Bangalore based social enterprise educating women and girls experiencing poverty about menstrual hygiene and improving access to affordable hygiene products. "The Period Fellowship" is their flagship project focusing on eduating 1 million girls in 1 academic year. Dilip Kumar has a Master’s degree in International...

During Acumen Academy’s BUILD 2021 Conference, Dilip offered three elements to more consciously craft team culture: 
  1. Values: These are the anchors that define what you’re working towards. They should prioritize actions and ground decisions in your particular set of non-negotiables.
  2. Practices: Many rituals are followed within an organization but are not always named. It’s recommended to document these practices and teach them to new team members so they feel part of the culture. Examples include how team meetings are opened/closed, or norms for making decisions or sharing feedback.
  3. Working Norms: These are how the team chooses to show up to achieve current goals; they will change based on what’s important for your organization in a given moment. For example, in 2020 the working norm could be compassion for shifting priorities during the pandemic, but in 2025 it might be innovating for growth. 
To put these into practice, consider creating a rotating culture committee within your organization responsible for driving culture, establishing a code of ethics, or brainstorming with your team to determine how to build a culture framed around your ethics. 

Define your “non-negotiables”

Acumen India Fellow Gayatri Jolly is the founder of MasterG, an apparel design and skills development social enterprise which runs training centers that teach women from low income neighborhoods pattern making and sewing skills to become financially empowered.

India Fellow

Gayatri Jolly

Gayatri Jolly is the founder of MasterG. MasterG enables women from low-income communities to unlearn and question the baggage of societal norms and to empower themselves financially through the vocation of apparel design. She is a qualified Fashion Designer from Parsons, The New School and studied entrepreneurship at Babson College. She has worked...

At the core of MasterG is a set of non-negotiable values that guide company culture, such as choosing to not cut corners in the supply chain to save time or money. Although challenging to implement at first, MasterG’s guiding values help rally the team around a shared commitment, and even influence the company’s partnerships with other brands. 


Building culture is a slow process that is shaped daily, by the decisions you make and by the ones you neglect. Refer back to your core values and consider your ‘non-negotiables’ as an ethical leader––what are the corners you are never willing to cut to get the job done?

5. Engage in courageous conversations

Demonstrating to your team that you’re willing to have difficult conversations invites them to do the same. Cultivating a culture that welcomes tough conversations means team members are more likely to speak up, voice their opinions, and resolve difficult but often overlooked situations. 

Find the third story

Sheila Heen, the co-author of the New York Times Business Bestseller, Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most, suggests you find “the third story” to manage conflict.

The third story is the version of the situation that is neither yours nor the other person’s. Instead of an either/or and right/wrong perspective, the third story gives you the opportunity to find the ‘and.’

The third story is the way a neutral party might describe the situation where both sides agree.

When emotions run high, it can be hard to engage with an open mind. Sheila recommends coming at it from a place of curiosity: you’re listening to understand, not to debate. 
For more tips on how to navigate difficult conversations, check out Sheila’s Acumen Academy Master Class on Difficult Conversations.


Evodius Gervas is an Acumen Fellow and the Co-Founder and Director of Hakizetu Organization, a nonprofit based in Mwanza, Tanzania which promotes the safety, health, and social protection of young women and girls to prevent early stage pregnancies and child or forced marriages.

Evodius admits building Hakizetu has not been a walk in the park. At first, people perceived his work in a negative way and many thought he was teaching daughters and wives to rebel.

“I was arrested several times because of this. My activism was a threat to harmful gender norms that were disempowering young women and girls. There was a lot of pushback from the community because it went against our culture. They thought our work would disintegrate families,” says Evodius.

Despite the challenges, Evodius knew he had to stand up for what was right. He found the courage to push through barriers and inspired others to support a new narrative for women and girls — one of dignity, hope, and empowerment. Throughout his leadership journey and as a member of the Acumen Academy community, Evodius learned valuable ethical lessons to bring back to his organization. 

While disagreements are part of the work, Evodius learned that it's important to have courageous conversations that help you iron out your differences and move forward — even if that means taking the next step without your business partners.

He also learned the importance of leading with integrity.

“You have to lead by example. It would be unfair to expect your team to follow the rules while you do not. If you want to lead with integrity and credibility, you have to follow the rules, no matter your level of authority,” he says.

“As leaders, we need to raise our voices when things are not right. The reason why so many bad things are happening is that good people are keeping quiet.”

Continuing your ethical leadership journey

It takes time and dedication to build the skills of an ethical leader. Below you’ll find additional resources to help you along your journey. 

To continue exploring crossing lines of difference and holding opposing values in tension, check out Jacqueline Novogratz’s free course, The Path of Moral Leadership

Learn to mobilize change and challenge the status quo. Sign up for Acumen Academy’s course on Adaptive Leadership and learn the skills to lead adaptively. 

If you’re curious about how ethical frameworks can be used in your marketing strategy, read our guide on Ethical Marketing: The Value of Brand Transparency.