Beyond Values-based Leadership

Put yourself in this scenario: As president of your chapter, it comes to your attention that one of your members has stolen textbooks from another member and, despite evidence to the contrary, lied about the theft. For the values-based leader, the decision is simple: the member must be held accountable for his or her actions. Stealing is against the law and lying is in direct contradiction to fraternal values.

But what if there were more to the story? What if the member who stole the textbooks did so in order to send money home to help his or her single mother who has medical bills piling up due to cancer? What if the member who sold the books had intended to pay the other member back for the textbooks after working over the summer?

The act of stealing is still illegal and lying is incongruent with the fraternal values of honesty, loyalty, integrity, and more. However, a member stealing from another member to provide for his or her sick mother certainly complicates the issue. One could argue that the member was demonstrating loyalty by financially supporting their sick mother. Suddenly, the decision is not so simple. What should the values-based leader do in this situation?

The ethical dilemma provided above presents a situation wherein two common fraternal values, honesty and loyalty, are in conflict. If one were to exercise values-based leadership alone, he or she would have to prioritize one of these values over the other. This is problematic as most organizations intended for their fraternal values to not be mutually exclusive. This is not to say that a fraternity or sorority member should ignore his or her fraternal values when making decisions. On the contrary, good leaders use their fraternal values as a foundation for their leadership. However, when faced with an ethical dilemma a fraternity or sorority leader must be able to move beyond values-based leadership and become an ethical leader.

The ethical leader is not only able make difficult decisions when fraternal values are in conflict but also can provide justification for that decision to his/her peer, advisors, and other constituents. This is where the values-based leader can turn to the ethical justification model, a tool anyone can use to become an ethical leader.

Originally developed by Dr. Karen Strohm Kitchener, the ethical justification model proposes that ethical decision-making is situational and based on facts present in an ethical dilemma. These facts dictate the ethical rules, principles, and theories that the ethical leader should use to justify his or her decision. This model is hierarchical in nature, meaning that the ethical leader should take a step-by-step approach to his or her ethical reasoning (Kitchener, 1985).

Ethical Justification Model

Step One: Determine relevant ethical rules

Ethical rules provide the first level of justification for the ethical leader’s decision making. For many leaders, ethical rules can be found, not surprisingly, within the organization’s code of ethics. While some organizations may not have a specific “code of ethics,” other organizational documents may be applicable. An organization’s founding documents, constitution, creed, or by-laws might outline rules of conduct that each member explicitly agrees to follow by virtue of their initiation.

The ethical leader will find that some ethical issues are directly addressed in his or her organization’s ethical rules. However, there are many instances in which ethical rules are ambiguous or even offer contradictory advice (Kitchener, 1985). Using the aforementioned example, a code of ethics that calls for members to act with honesty and integrity at all times in one section and then in a later section emphasizes the importance of honoring one’s commitment to friends and family would be offering contradictory advice in this situation. When ethical rules cannot provide adequate guidance, the ethical leader should turn to ethical principles for guidance. 

Step Two: Identify critical issues using ethical principles 

Unlike ethical rules that tend to provide specific advice regarding ethical issues, ethical principles tend to be more broad and abstract. In many ways, ethical principles can fill in the gaps and help to provide reasoning not clearly articulated by ethical rules. Commonly recognized ethical principles include: act to benefit others, promote justice, respect autonomy, be faithful, and do no harm (ACPA Ethics Code, 2006).

Act to benefit others. The ethical leader should always strive to promote the health and well being of others.

Promote justice. The ethical leader should treat individuals or groups with fairness by seeking justice through impartiality, equality, and reciprocity.

Respect autonomy. The ethical leader should not restrict a member’s freedom of choice and action unless his or her actions significantly interfere with the welfare of others or the organization.

Be faithful. The ethical leader should make all efforts to be loyal, trustworthy, honorable, and respectful of others.

Do no harm. The ethical leader should not engage in activities or make decisions that threaten an individual’s self-worth, dignity, or safety.

As is the case with ethical rules, the ethical leader will inevitably face an ethical dilemma in which ethical principles provide conflicting advice. For example, the member who stole textbooks from another member did so to help his ill mother (act to benefit others). However, he or she does so the expense of another member (do no harm). At this point he or she should move on to the final step, consulting ethical theories for rationale.

Step Three: Provide rationale through ethical theories

For thousands of years, philosophers have attempted to create theories that could be universally applicable to all ethical dilemmas. As a result, there is no shortage of ethical theories in existence that prescribe how individuals should live and lead ethically. Although some theories share similarities, each philosopher utilizes a different ethic or means of measuring ethical behavior. Early philosophers sought to connect religious rules to ethics. Later philosophers argued that a particular ethic such as virtue, duty, or happiness should be at the epicenter of ethical decision-making (Wrona, 2011). These four ethics provide the framework for the following ethical theories: Golden Rule, Golden Mean, Categorical Imperative, and Utilitarianism.

Golden Rule. The Golden Rule is an ethical philosophy that appears in most major religions. The basic premise of this philosophy is that one should treat others as he or she would like to be treated. Leaders who use the Golden Rule in their ethical reasoning are able to put aside assumptions or biases they may hold against a person or group in order to make a decision that they feel is fair or equal. However, someone using this theory must take in to account that what he or she may deem appropriate may not be viewed that way by the other individual or group.

Golden Mean. Aristotle believed that virtuous or ethical decisions were the direct result of identifying the two extreme responses to an ethical dilemma and selecting the middle ground (Aristotle, trans. 2011). A leader who uses the Golden Mean in his or her ethical reasoning wishes to restore harmony among all people and groups involved in the situation. Someone using this ethical theory to make a decision regarding the earlier example might determine that two extremes are to: 1) do nothing and pretend the theft never occurred and, 2) expel the member from the chapter and notify the police of the theft. Based on these two extremes the ethical leader should ask, is there a middle ground that can be reached? 

Categorical Imperative. Developed by the philosopher Immanuel Kant, the Categorical Imperative Theory asserts that a decision made out of a sense of duty or obligation is ethical. A leader who uses the Categorical Imperative in his or her ethical reasoning believes that anyone else facing the same ethical dilemma should make the same decision regardless of personal will or desire (Kant, trans. 1989). Someone using this ethical theory would need to be able to make a decision based on his or her moral obligation without taking in to account personal relationships with any of the members involved in the incident. In doing so the ethical leader should ask, would I expect another member to then make the same decision?

Utilitarianism. Utilitarianism moves beyond the needs of the individual and takes into account the needs of the organization or the greater community. A leader who uses this theory makes decisions with the desire of promoting the greatest good for the greatest number (Mill, 1889). As leaders of self-governing organizations, fraternity and sorority leaders can use utilitarianism to justify decisions that are made for the betterment of the chapter as a whole. Nevertheless, the ethical leader should be prepared for a vocal minority within the organization to disagree with the decision.

Ethical theories not only provide the ethical leader with a universal framework from which to justify his or her decision but also increases individual ownership over a decision. The ethical leader may develop preferences for using particular ethical theories for justification based on his or her personal beliefs or worldviews. However, he or she should not feel confined to using just one ethical theory for all ethical dilemmas. Rather, an ethical leader should feel comfortable using multiple ethical theories to justify decisions and actions. The above-mentioned are but a small sampling of the many ethical theories a leader has at his or her disposal. For a more comprehensive listing of ethical theories, one should consult “Exploring Morality” by Dan Wrona in the Summer 2011 issue of the Association of Fraternity/Sorority Advisors’ Perspectives magazine.

Practice Makes Perfect

The evolution from values-based leader to ethical leader does not occur overnight. Nor does it occur by reading a well-written article in Connections. In order to become an ethical leader one must apply ethical reasoning to his or her everyday decisions and actions. As practice, one can use the example of the ethical dilemma discussed at the beginning of this article. What ethical rules from your organization do you feel are relevant to this dilemma? Based on the critical issues presented, what ethical principles would you apply to this dilemma? Once you have made a decision, what ethical philosophy would you use to justify your reasoning? For the more pragmatic reader, this chart can serve as a step-by-step roadmap to ethical reasoning. The next time you or members of your executive committee are faced with an ethical dilemma, try applying this model to the decision-making process.

For each ethical leader, the results of using this roadmap may vary from person to person. Even members of the same organization may find themselves traversing down very different paths from one another. However, one thing to keep in mind with regard to ethical leadership is that there is no right or wrong path. Ethical leaders can and will disagree on a proper course of action from time to time. In the end, what is important is that all ethical leaders can justify their actions and decisions to their peers, advisors, constituents, and, more importantly, to themselves.


ACPA Ethics Code. (2006). Association of College Personnel Administrators. Available at URL:
Kitchener, K.S. (June 1985). “Ethical principles and ethical decisions in student affairs.” Applied Ethics in Student Services (No. 30), San Francisco: Jossey-Bass
Wrona, Dan. (Summer 2011). “Exploring Morality.” Perspectives. Association of Fraternity/Sorority Advisors: Indianapolis, Indiana.


By Dustin B. Struble


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