Ethical Leaders Start With Ethical Educators

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Wednesday, February 21, 2024
By Malavika Sundararajan, Binod Sundararajan
Photo by iStock/ozgurdonmaz
If we want to create positive societal impact, we must be teachers who care, who act courageously, and who choose to do good.
  • If there are inconsistencies between what their teachers say and do, students will likely ignore the lessons their teachers try to impart about the importance of sustainability, ethics, and impact.
  • By regularly reviewing an “ethical checklist,” educators can reflect on their beliefs and behaviors to look for areas where they can make positive changes.
  • If educators are serious about training ethical leaders, they must act as role models not only in their classrooms, but in their everyday interactions on campus. 


“When educators who train leaders fail, leaders fail, and society crumbles.” – Paramarthananda

The words above, spoken by a teacher of Vedic texts, seem relevant not only to what educators teach, but also to how they act outside their classrooms. After all, the hallmark of an educated intellect encompasses more than knowledge. Those who develop such intellect also possess emotionally mature and composed minds; they know when and how to share knowledge, as well as how to apply it. If we want to train leaders who champion positive societal impact, we, too, must operate from a similar elevated consciousness. We must free ourselves of misconceptions and be aware of what knowledge is worth sharing with our students.

But what happens when what we do and what we teach do not coincide? One of our colleagues once called us regarding a campus event. She said, “You know, I am looking at the academic speakers on this sustainability panel. Not one of them is ethical or practices sustainability in any way.” 

We know that self-centered leaders who commit unethical actions can destroy the fabric that holds together any organization. But what happens when we present examples to students that do not fulfill the ideals we teach? When this happens, we are paying mere lip service to what we profess to be important.

It’s even worse when an institution’s administrators and faculty themselves do not live up to those ideals. As they negotiate over new policies or curricular changes, they might engage in petty fights, toxic outbursts, or vengeful retaliations that create divisiveness and conflict. 

Students observe everything. If teachers are inconsistent in what they say and what they do—if they engage in destructive or selfish behaviors—they only decrease the impact of their teaching. Their students will be less likely to absorb their lessons on the importance of ethics, integrity, sustainability, and positive impact. 

We ask all academic administrators and faculty—especially those who teach leadership and management—to take time for self-reflection. We believe we all must regularly ask ourselves: Do our behaviors match our messages?

It takes tremendous courage to admit our weaknesses. But once we hold our own actions up to the light, we can become passionate and ethical educators who act as true role models for our students.

We might find that too often we strive to be in control of situations and lack trust in others. Or, that we prioritize looking good to our colleagues or chasing citations over achieving goals that truly matter.

It takes tremendous courage to admit our weaknesses. But once we hold our own actions up to the light, we can become passionate and ethical educators who act as true role models for our students.

What does it mean to strive to be an ethical educator? Below we share an “ethical checklist” that includes important questions to ask ourselves. It is divided into four thematic areas, which each begin with a set of questions that are followed by suggestions for potential ways to respond if any answers point to unethical practices. Not meant to be prescriptive or exhaustive, this checklist is only a starting point for reflection about our behaviors with peers, superiors, subordinates, and students.

Part One—Consideration for Others

  • Am I a control freak, afraid to let go of the situation?
  • Am I afraid to trust others? 
  • Are my actions harming others?
  • Am I abusing my power by controlling access to information, people, or agendas?
  • Am I using my position or authority to form coalitions and alliances, delay progress, or sabotage the efforts of others?
  • Am I engaging in backbiting, gossiping, spreading divisive narratives, or shaming or blaming others?
  • Am I shouting or arguing, without giving the benefit of doubt to others?

Why we must consider how our actions affect others. Intellectually, we know that no one has the right to yell or shout at another. We know that leading through fear and manipulation is destructive and short-lived. But even so, in the heat of the moment, we might fall into negative or self-centered behaviors.

People who strongly identify with a particular position, title, or role might develop misconceptions about their power and responsibility. In the best-case scenario, this can result in ineffective leadership; in the worst case, it can lead to an abuse of power.

Once we free ourselves from attachment to positions or titles, we focus far less on whether we are right or whether we like or dislike those around us. We realize that what we think is right might not be right, or it might not be the only way to accomplish a goal. Instead, we make the work itself the focus. 

As we work with others, we might be either experts or novices. It takes empathy, integrity, and resilience to manage gaps in knowledge—either those of others or our own—without harming others. This is known as emotional maturity. It is a gradual process.

Even if we are, in some cases, the most intelligent or effective people in the room, others have opened doors for us. As we consider the questions above, we must remember that someone once lent us a helping hand, supported our ideas, or waved celebratory flags for us.

In other words, we have all been receivers of first and second chances. We should give those chances to others.

Part Two—Honesty and Integrity

  • Am I speaking the truth or bluffing my way through the meeting? Have I studied and contemplated the topic under discussion before stating my ideas?
  • Am I looking for what is right or just trying to prove I am right?
  • Am I trying to achieve the goal or just trying to get credit for my work?
  • Am I refusing to accept I am wrong for fear of exposure or dishonor? Are pride and vanity in play?
  • Am I behaving in a particular way because I am trying to hide my incompetency?
  • Am I trying to pass off someone else’s idea or work as my own?

Why we must act with honesty and integrity. Good leaders and educators step up and speak the truth, rather than try to defend themselves or bluff their way through situations. If they are wrong or don’t know the answer to the question, they admit it immediately. They know that having the right knowledge is more important than maintaining false pride. 

With this in mind, we must understand that our fears and anxieties are only momentary. By building reputations for always speaking the truth, not only will we become more confident and less worried about what others think of us, but we will be ensuring the right knowledge is communicated. While being so transparent about our own limitations might seem shaky and scary at first, our pursuit of the truth will ensure superior thinking, knowledge, skills, and abilities—and contribute to a more sustainable institution.

Part Three—Conscious and Unconscious Bias

  • Am I concealing from others my biases or unvoiced expectations?
  • Am I being vindictive and vengeful in my decision-making, either because I feel that others do not listen to me, because I am jealous of them, or because I believe I am better than they are?
  • Are my attitudes clouded by pride, greed, hatred, jealousy, delusion, possessiveness, or anger?
  • Do I make my conversations and collaborations with others about my own likes, dislikes, wants, and needs?

Why we must cultivate unbiased minds. In all our actions, we must be honest with ourselves. If we discover that we hold certain biases about others in our professional or personal circles, we must counter these biases by freely sharing all information about processes and decisions with the relevant members of the team. We must check whether we are exposing ourselves to external sources that feed biased ideas; if we are, we must distance ourselves from such sources.

We must ask ourselves if what we believe is indeed true, or does it simply reinforce an existing bias we hold? We can stop categorizing people as good and bad, or friends and foes, depending on whether they adhere to our own likes and dislikes. In this way, we can learn to have preferences, but still be open to the ideas of others.

Part Four—Alignment

  • Do I know with absolute clarity what will make me feel contented? And if so, do I know whether acting on that is the right decision for all concerned?
  • Am I able to continuously learn, review, and implement what my role requires of me so that I can be an ethical and effective leader and educator?
  • Am I acting according to my values?
  • Am I protecting others who also are acting ethically?

Why we must develop self-awareness and self-regulation. Answering these questions requires us to upskill continuously in our fields of expertise, so that we can always have the right knowledge and know how to apply it.

These questions are meant to trigger a process of learning, sense-making, and decision-making that ensures that we all act with fairness, equity, and truthfulness. Doing so, of course, is beneficial not just for us, but for others.

Small Actions, Big Impact

While it is easy to speak about topics such as ethics and sustainability, we must not forget that integrity, goodness, and earnestness begin with us. Our words and actions spread outward to students and colleagues who might emulate us. Every small interaction with others at our institutions can result in a significant positive impact on society.

For instance, suppose you witness one faculty member being disrespectful, rude, or unethical to another faculty member, staff member, or administrator. On the one hand, you might stay silent out of fear of offending your rude colleague—however, in doing so, you lose any potential to be an ethical role model.

Faculty who act in responsible, ethical, and considerate ways bring those experiences into their classrooms. In turn, the future leaders they teach will create ethical workplaces and foster cultures that support happier employees and families.

On the other hand, if you intervene to openly elevate the other person’s unheard voice, the person you have championed might have a positive experience to share in class and practice, or he or she might pass on those positive sentiments to others. Students who witness or hear about the experience will be more likely to be similarly courageous and conscientious leaders.

In fact, we have presented this ethical checklist to our MBA students. Reflecting on its questions has helped our students understand how excessive attachment to a role or title can lead to abuse of power. It has helped them self-observe, course correct, and self-regulate. 

Ethical Educators, Ethical Leaders

Whether we are professors, department chairs, deans, provosts, or presidents, we have opportunities each day to embody the role of ethical educators. In our everyday activities and encounters on campus, we can ensure that students see that our actions match our words.

This might mean standing up for a colleague in a public meeting. It might be taking the blame for a mistake and taking action to remedy it. It could also include a willingness to graciously step down from a position, if necessary, for the greater good. Or it might be simply practicing ways to achieve a better work-life balance.

Faculty who act in responsible, ethical, and considerate ways bring those valuable learning experiences into their classrooms. In turn, the future leaders they teach will create ethical workplaces. Those future graduates will foster cultures that support happier employees and families, more sustainable communities, and more prosperous nations.

Or, to paraphrase Paramarthananda, when educators who train leaders act with integrity, leaders act with integrity, and society prospers.

It starts with us!

Malavika Sundararajan
Associate Professor of Management, Anisfield School of Business, Ramapo College of New Jersey
Binod Sundararajan
Professor of Management, Departments of Leadership & Organizations and Marketing, Faculty of Management, Dalhousie University
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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