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Ethical leadership

How 'healthy shame' creates more ethical leaders


Karen Liebenguth eschews traditional understandings of leadership in favour of an ethical, eco-centric way of working – exploring some of the facets of ethical leadership, including employee wellbeing, self-reflection, and 'healthy shame'.

16th Aug 2022
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Gone are the days of individualistic, ‘my way or the highway’ leaders who are driven solely by performance and productivity.

In order to progress and adapt, leaders must be able to make honest assessments of themselves as people – studying their actions and behaviours so as to achieve greater self awareness.

Improving their own self awareness will enable them to see beyond the self and truly embrace the concept of ethical leadership – moving from ‘what I need and want’, towards ‘what the other needs and wants’ and ‘what the world needs and wants’.

Defining ethics

The ancient Greek word eudaimonia, translated as wellbeing or happiness, is at the heart of Aristotle’s ethics and political philosophy, and underlies his concept of the ‘good life’ which is about living in service to others.

Aristotle highlights virtues such as courage, generosity, justice, equity and amiability that we should practice in our private and public lives. The ethical life is above all an active life that requires practice and contemplation to lead to right action, to being and doing good for the benefit of all beings including oneself (source: The Future of Coaching, Hetty Einzig, 2017).

Ethical leadership requires attitudes of curiosity, humility, kindness and compassion.

To build on Aristotle’s virtues, ethical leadership requires attitudes of curiosity, humility, kindness and compassion. However, to develop these attitudes, we need courage, as without it, all other virtues are not possible. We need courage to look at ourselves completely without leaving anything out – qualities and shortcomings alike.

The benefits of leading from a place of values and ethics

When, as leaders, we are able to go beyond our own needs and wants, we begin to become more aware of self and others, and hence notice more and more our interdependence and the impact we have on others. And so our ethical sense increases.

This manifests in our capacity to feel healthy shame. Healthy shame is what we feel when we know we haven’t lived up to our own values and ethics. It’s like an inner compass that keeps us moving toward all that matters to us.

Healthy shame is not easy to feel. We might like to squirm away from it. It requires us to be humble and honest with ourselves, to practice daily and to be compassionate. Yet to feel healthy shame means that our inner compass is working well. We know where we stand from our own centre and our own values, not from anyone else’s standpoint.

Facing healthy shame enables us to learn and examine what caused us to fall below our own standards, allowing us to become more conscious of what drives our patterns of thinking and behaving.

Healthy shame is like an inner compass that keeps us moving toward all that matters to us.

It’s a feeling of ‘I don’t feel good about something I did or didn’t say or do’ – a sense of unease or disquiet. It’s held in the body and manifests as physical tension, tightness or constraint.

This can be followed by self-inquiry, i.e. by asking oneself: ‘what are my preconceived views or biases here?’, with a willingness to apologise, take responsibility and make amends.

How to incorporate ethical leadership within your organisation

A good start is by creating quiet space daily to honestly reflect on oneself and one’s interactions with others, remembering that all actions – be they thinking, speaking, and/or behaving – have consequences on oneself and others.

Here are some questions for reflection that you might find helpful:

  • Have I treated my colleagues and employees with respect today?
  • Have I included everyone as best as I could? Or have I favoured some over others and why? What are my unconscious biases?
  • Whom have I disliked today and, consciously or unconsciously, pushed away or pushed out?
  • Have I harmed anyone through my words, my way of thinking or behaving?
  • Where have I been unkind, reactive, dishonest, aggressive, dismissive?
  • Where have I pursued my own interests at the expense of others? 

Whatever your answers are, examine what you noticed and what happened. Celebrate what you liked about your ethical behaviour and look at what you want to do differently next time.

It’s important to examine oneself with a learning mindset and an attitude of curiosity, openness, kindness and compassion.

It’s important to examine oneself with a learning mindset and an attitude of curiosity, openness, kindness and compassion so we can further increase our ethical sense vs collapsing into self-denigration.

This is the practice of ethics, i.e. having a daily intention to cultivate the best of ourselves for the benefit of all beings – humans and non-humans alike.

Can ethical leaders really make a difference?

The absence of ethical leadership leads to non-inclusivity, disrespect, dishonesty, and abusive management. Research shows that it’s not true that organisations have to squeeze their employees to make profit.

Ethical work cultures have healthy employees with good mental health, with research showing that on average they are 20-25% more productive.

The absence of ethical leadership leads to non-inclusivity, disrespect, dishonesty, and abusive management.

An organisation run by ethical leaders has the potential to create a culture of psychological safety and trust, where employees feel they are treated with respect and kindness, and where people feel they belong, can speak up, be creative and thrive.

This, in turn, fosters motivation and a willingness to collaborate because people don’t feel they have to protect themselves and let down their guard.

Interested in ethical leadership? Karen Liebenguth is the co-founder of Parcival - a six-week ethical leadership programme, designed for engaged leaders. The programme is highly reflective and enables leaders to come together to explore the meaning and application of the essential attitudes for ethical leadership such as kindness and compassion, non-judgement and curiosity. For more information, visit:

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