Leadership ethics is a field that studies the ethical issues related to leadership. Ethics have a central role in the practice of leadership, as leadership entails different kinds of interpersonal relationships with distinctive moral problems. The field of ethics generally examines the concepts of right, wrong, good, evil, virtue, duty, obligation, rights and justice in relationships both among people and between people and other living things. For most people ethics is something they feel they know from experience, it is seen more as practical knowledge rather than theoretical knowledge. On the other hand, the field of leadership studies is concerned with what leadership is and how the relationship between leader and follower works. Leadership ethics is where the two disciplines meet in an attempt to establish the connection between the art of leading and ethical values.
According to Joanne B. Ciulla in Ethics: The Heart of Leadership (1998), there are morally unattractive and morally attractive definitions of leaderships. The morally unattractive definitions imply a coercive and manipulative relationship between leaders and followers, where the input of followers is not taken into account. In contrast, the morally attractive definitions stress the non-coercive, participatory and democratic nature of the leader-follower relationship, recognizing the autonomy and input of followers. There are two elements that make such definitions morally attractive: first, leaders are not seen as people who induce but rather as people who influence; and second, leaders recognize the beliefs, values and needs of their followers. According to the morally attractive definitions, leaders and followers are partners in defining the goals of a group and working on achieving them. The supporters of these definitions make a clear distinction between leadership and headship, or positional leadership. A person who holds a position of power (for example a manager in a company) is not necessarily a real leader exercising leadership and the other way around. One does not have to hold a formal position in order to be a real leader.
Despite the differences in definitions, leadership studies is generally focused on establishing what good leadership is, according to Ciulla. Here the word good has a dual meaning: morally good and technically good, which essentially means effective. It is namely this first meaning of morally good that, according to Ciulla "ethics lies at the heart of leadership studies." While judging whether or not leaders are effective is quite easy, assessing their ethics is more difficult as there is not one common understanding of what factors are relevant in such an assessment. Only a few leadership researchers look at the concept of good leadership from both perspectives, according to Ciulla. One implicit question in leadership ethics, which remains unanswered, is whether leaders are more effective when they are nice to people or when they use certain techniques for structuring and ordering tasks.
In Ethics: The Heart of Leadership (1998) Ciulla cites two normative leadership theories. The first one is the transforming leadership theory of James MacGregor Burns (1918-), where leaders are seen as people with strong values whose role is to raise other people's consciousness and help them reconsider their own values and needs. Leaders stand by their values and moral ideas and do not water them down by consensus. What makes this theory attractive is the idea that leaders actually elevate their followers to becoming leaders themselves, according to Ciulla. Burns makes a distinction between transforming and transactional leadership and also between modal and end values. Via transactional leadership, leaders and followers reach their own goals by supplying lower-level needs in order to be able to move up to higher needs. This type of leadership is based on so-called modal values, or "values found in the means of an act," such as responsibility, fairness, honesty and promise keeping. In contrast, transforming leadership is concerned with end values such as liberty, justice and equality. The second normative theory cited by Ciulla is the so-called servant leadership theory developed by Robert K. Greenleaf (1904-1990). According to this theory, servant leaders are driven by a wish to serve others and people follow them because they trust them. The aim of the servant leader is also to elevate people, to help them grow as persons and later become servant leaders themselves. The ethical values of leaders, no matter if they are good or bad, have an effect on the ethos of their followers. Leaders set the tone and shape the behavior in the group, which shows how important ethics is for leadership.