Ethics and moral leadership in project management

President, Proficient Project Consulting, Inc.


In today’s competitive business environment, project managers and leaders need to ensure that ethics permeates all aspects of organizational operations. As strategic initiatives are implemented through projects, it has become imperative that these projects are managed effectively and ethically. Making ethical decisions is not easy, because not every ethical dilemma has a right solution. Ethics and leadership, together, can add a moral dimension to the decision-making process for the success of any organization. This presentation will outline a framework for ethical behavior and effective moral leadership. As a result of this presentation, attendees will recognize the social and ethical responsibilities and consider the ethical dimensions to define strategies that will lead to success.


“In this global economy, where there is a desire to win through achievement and success, ethical lapses are everywhere” (Maxwell, 2003, p 4). With large corporate failures, the role of ethics in the conduct of business and politics is receiving increased attention. Ethics are making a comeback. Today, most large corporations have a code of ethics and conduct and they are incorporating ethics into their training and employee orientation. Ethics is also being added as a field of study in university curriculums.

Business leaders want to establish a practice of positive workplace ethics within their organizations and this is adding a new moral dimension to leadership. “Moral leadership has always been there, but recently, after the corporate ethical scandals, it has attracted increased attention” (Rhode, 2006, p 4). The focus on the role of ethics in key decision making leads to moral leadership. While ethics is a set of principles of right conduct, moral leadership is ethical decision making with the right moral values.

Ethics 101

Ethics is not science because it does not have a body of knowledge and an accepted methodology; it is different because its fundamental data are feelings and emotion, not concepts. Most ethical decisions are not supported by scientific facts but are based on the values of the presenter and the circumstances. Ethical judgments are subjective and may vary within cultures and communities.

Every community has moral codes, so most businesses today have a code of ethics and moral conduct. Ethics code is the principles, values, standards, or rules of behavior that guide the decisions, procedures, and systems of an organization. Due to globalization, there have been dramatic changes to communication technology, transport infrastructure, and deregulation. This has added a new dimension to ethics, because managers and leaders need to minimize ethical conflicts due to cultural differences. To be effective, ethical management principles must be preached and adopted at every level in the organization.

Ethics in the Workplace

This is a common saying: Good Ethics is Good Business. Although ethics has been functional in society, there is a lot of focus on ethics in the workplace. An organization with an established code of ethics and conduct always functions better. As the code enables self-regulation on the parts of the employees, it is considered very valuable especially when challenging decisions have to be made. Also, the code establishes a strong group ethic, which results in better products and services and greater client satisfaction. Organizations lack professionalism when they make compromises due to lack of ethics.

Ethical violations and dilemmas may occur because of multiple reasons, as outlined below:

  1. There is misinterpretation of data for personal benefit
  2. Personal values conflict with business ethics
  3. Disrespect of coworkers because of different cultural beliefs
  4. Unprofessional behavior, which violates the code of conduct

Although workplace ethics is very subjective to an organization, the practice of good ethics in business leads to maximum productivity and good employee morale.

Ethical Decision-Making Framework

Good ethical decision making requires a trained sensitivity to ethical issues and a clear method for analyzing the ethical aspects. In today’s age of globalization, where there is a collision of culture, values, and beliefs, having a method for ethical decision making is absolutely essential. The framework should guide us to analyze the problem, seek insights and different perspectives, and help make good ethical choices. When the framework is practiced regularly, it becomes a habit, which leads to ethical behavior and moral leadership.

The framework for ethical decision making should broadly follow the steps outlined below:

  1. Recognize an Ethical Issue
  2. Get the Facts
  3. Evaluate Alternative Options
  4. Make a Decision and Test It
  5. Reflect on the Outcome

While making decisions, leaders need to consider the organizational code, the professional code of ethics, and personal values.

Ethical Decision Making Hierarchy

Exhibit 1 - Ethical Decision Making Hierarchy

Leadership and Moral Leadership

Leadership has been one the most discussed topics over the past few decades. There are several leadership models, some of which outline the characters of leaders, whereas others focus on the relationship with followers. Leadership theory is full of options—from authentic leadership to transformational leadership, and from servant leadership to values-based leadership. More recently, there has been a greater attention to ethics in leadership with a moral dimension.

Moral leadership puts a great emphasis on the role of ethics in key decision making. With the emergence of ethics initiatives via organizational codes of ethics and/or conduct, moral leadership is a requirement today. Also, with the growth of social media, people around the world are able to judge and share their comments on leadership decisions,which increase the need for morality in leadership. There is a public consensus that “ethics pays” and any lack of ethics can only lead to self-destruction.

The Practical Challenges of Moral Leadership

To understand the practical challenges of an effective, moral leader, one must understand the study of the moral conduct. “Based on the study, there are three practical challenges that shape the ethical challenge faced at work – time, ambivalence and the sense of self ” (Rhode, 2006, p 4). Moral leaders need to manage all three factors, especially under real ethical challenges. Moral leadership requires clear conviction, avoidance of impulsive decisions and commitment. Understanding these challenges and actively navigating them are the core values of moral leadership.

Global Moral Leadership and its Perspectives

Moral leadership involves leading people and organizations to accomplish a higher order of moral purpose, and because different cultures and countries have different moral values, it is difficult to clearly outline global moral leadership.

Global moral leaders are individuals that influence and transcend their societies but, eventually, during their lifetimes make an impact on people and organizations across the globe. “Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King can be described as moral leaders.” (Rhode, 2006, p 4) The characteristics of a global moral leader are:

  1. A personal commitment to a set of values that transcends a single nation
  2. A need for moral value that is not currently practiced
  3. The courage and conviction to promote the value
  4. The communication skills to share the value effectively

With globalization, there is an increasing need for a discussion on universal moral values. Moral leaders will need to accept and practice these moral values to make a significant impact on the growth of the social and political structure of each organization.

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Copyright@ 2011 Shobhna Raghupathy
Originally published as a part of 2011 PMI North America Global Congress proceedings



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