What Does Ethical Leadership Look Like?

How Leaders Can Face and Deal With Challenges Ethically



A man who was a great humanitarian – most commonly remembered for leading the fight against abolishing the slave trade in 1807. Only one of many other humanitarian and philanthropic reforms and deeds he accomplished in his lifetime.

William Wilberforce was a great man of character who emanated characteristics of an early childhood (EC) leader in the way he led through his humanitarian cause. The way he led in regards to change and innovation to address key challenges he encountered as a leader within his world of British politics and Parliament he has much to teach all aspiring to be leaders, and to those who are already leaders, he has even more to challenge and teach them. Even in the early childhood education and care (ECEC) field, Wilberforce can teach and inspire the profession.


William Wilberforce, was a man of GREAT CHARACTER. Wilberforce’s character spoke of great leadership qualities in the way he displayed and exerted his power that made him the successful and influential leader that he became in politics and in his fight for the cause of the abolition of the slave trade.

Leading and using power through CHARACTER AND ETHICS is characteristic of INTENTIONAL LEADERS. These qualities can lead to the empowerment and respect of various stakeholders including, early childhood practitioners (ECPs) and families (8,17).

” ‘Intentional leadership’, builds on the definition of ‘INTENTIONAL TEACHING’ … that involves being deliberate, purposeful and thoughtful in decisions and actions. ‘Intentional teaching’ is the opposite of teaching by rote or continuing with traditions simply because things have ‘always’ been done that way…” (17, p.13).

“Likewise, ‘INTENTIONAL LEADERS’ are educators who engage in ethical practice by implementing leadership responsibilities in positive, purposeful ways. Such leaders demonstrate courage in their decision-making and find ways to collaborate with others to achieve collective goals” (17, p.13).

Wilberforce was involved in societal reforms, namely, ‘The Reformation of Manners’. The Society for the Reformation of Manners began in the 1680s to the early 1700s, which then formed again during the 1780s. It was this second time, that Wilberforce joined the Society and when he stepped into the political arena. It was also this time round that the Society endeavoured to “make goodness fashionable” (1, p.152), as it was at a time when morality and religious leadership were lacking in the community. It is in this example that EC intentional leadership is evident, in particular three of the seven foundational principles (17).

1. Having a PHILOSOPHY to commit to.

  • Embedded in the culture and everyday practices (17).

2. Sharing a PASSION “…to support the potential [of others] …” (17, p.14).

  • Leaders needing to have the passion that inevitably will push the dreams and vision of leaders into becoming reality (5). Wilberforce’s passion was ‘the drive’ that saw his vision become reality 20 years later.
  • A passion that can ensure integrity and ethical decision-making and behaviour, which are all important characteristics of intentional and ethical leaders (3).

3. Having a VISION.

Wilberforce was also an inspiration to others around him with his big vision. As he fought a long arduous journey through campaigns and other public awareness events. This not only made England aware of his cause, but Wilberforce’s reforms were influential and are still recognised overseas. In particular, till this day, Wilberforce is highly esteemed in the United States of America, India and Africa for ending the slave trade.

This is a testament that one person’s vision, persistence and determination can make all the difference… AND is possible to achieve (17).

Wilberforce certainly defined his vision and was a visionary

Keeping his vision in front view during the fight for the abolition of the slave trade to think and act with hope and faith of seeing the impossible.

AND… Ensuring that it did make a difference not only to his immediate world, but also to the millions of slaves around the globe.

facing CHALLENGES AS A LEADER… overcoming challenges by initiating change and innovation

As a shown leader in Parliament and in the political arena, Wilberforce addressed key challenges he encountered.

Despite the challenges, he was true to his cause with a clear vision and “held a strong commitment to a common set of political ideals” (1, p.58).

It was Wilberforce’s vision for the greater and wider purpose of social morality in his community and nation along with his passion and persistence that enabled Wilberforce to keep on fighting. This gave him the drive to overcome any challenge as he initiated change and innovation.

  • A VISIONARY is an important leadership role, which involves seeing things in new and creative ways. Ways in the future that seem impossible to be and achieve in the past (16).
  • LEADING PASSIONATELY is an important aspect of seeing change and innovation, through the role of leadership. It is this passion that helps direct leaders, their vision and purposes, and that ultimately will initiate and drive innovation and change (5,16).
  • ETHICAL LEADERSHIP is vital during times of change and innovation. This is because during times of uncertainty and anxiety, ethical leadership will provide moral support and stability. 


In the late 18th century, political bribery, as well as verbal humiliation and/or attacks to win votes at any cost were often used to get Parliamentary Acts passed. It was a very negative, unethical approach but equally accepted, and even a form utilised by Wilberforce in the earlier years of his political life.

However, it was the ethical nature of the way Wilberforce led that set him apart from other leaders and that enabled him to succeed in Parliament and politics to lead a revolutionary humanitarian change and innovation that had not been seen before in the arena of politics. This not only made an influential impact upon the politics of Britain, but also the people and the nation.

Ethical leadership provided direction (towards the vision) and role modelling – in the new transformational way politics was heading towards. This included, role modelling positive behaviour and attitudes that would assist in the enculturation of the more ethical, moral social reforms that Wilberforce was involved in during his time of leadership for change and innovation (2,4,13).

  • In particular, the first and one of the major reforms that Wilberforce was involved in that changed his attitudes and approach to politics was the cause of the ‘Reformation of Manners’, as he “… believed that true philanthropy could not flourish in an immoral society” (1, p.165). Thus, this set him on his course for change and innovation whereby he and his team “… turned around society and a culture” (1, p.152).
  • Therefore what began as a societal goal (i.e. ‘moral reformation’) for British society, became one of an organisational change to the nature of politics.

In doing so,  Wilberforce embraced another leadership role – the ROLE OF ‘STEWARD’. A role where he took his vision and made it part of the everyday life of politics. This enabled Wilberforce to address and overcome key challenges he encountered (8,16).

  • A ‘steward’ – a leadership role that recognised the “… purpose of their work was for others” and “… for the benefit of others(8, p.439). Rather than for self-serving interests and self-promotion (8).
  • For Wilberforce, as a steward he influenced the broader part of politics in such a way that politics would now be highly influenced by principles that would affect the types of future Acts passed in Parliament, including that of the abolition of the slave trade and inevitably slavery as it would be. This is an example of ‘transformational change‘. A type of change that is key to realising innovation, which is an important aspect of all types of leaders (7).

That is, leaders have the role and responsibility to instigate and promote change – transformational and innovative change.

It assists the successful progression of each of the stakeholders including, the teachers, leaders, and organisation. More importantly, it allows for personal growth, specifically growth in leaders, to overcome challenges encountered with more skill and knowledge (7, 15).


LEADING BY CHARACTER allows leaders to guide their teams with stability and more positively into accepting change with support. This type of leadership supports change when change occurs. Change that often brings with it uncertainty, resistance, and setbacks (13).

Wilberforce’s character was a defining factor as a leader. As he led through his character, in particular, demonstrating humility, trust, honesty and care he demonstrated the characteristics of an ethical leader (2,17). He also effectively gained respect and empowered those of his electorate.

  • In upholding his humility, Wilberforce no longer engaged in verbal humiliation and attacks against his opponents. Instead, he engendered another characteristic – faithfulness – a quality drawing his political opponents to also fight the same humanitarian cause with him rather than against him in the future.
  • By leading with charisma, Wilberforce built trust with his fellow colleagues and opponents, whereby there was a shift in self-serving interests to that of the greater good (2,10). This leadership quality along with leading ethically by character enabled Wilberforce to lead his team and ultimately politics to the embrace of innovation and acceptance of change (8,13,17).

Connections with characteristics of early childhood leaders and practitioners…


CHARACTERISTIC 1: Two leadership qualities/styles


  • This is reflective of the use of ‘referent power’ (17, p.128) and is characterised by influencing others through personal qualities.
  • A ‘power with’ approach is used which is effective in leading, guiding and motivating others – to empower them to make decisions (2,14,17).

On the other hand, some leaders use the ‘power over’ approach who believe they “… come with knowledge more superior to others because of their position…” (17, p.130).

They exercise and/or believe they have the right to have ‘power over’ their team.

Wilberforce used a ‘POWER WITH’ approach. This reflected ethical leadership where leaders would empower their followers who would hold differing views, interests and needs. As a result, this enabled shared decision-making and ‘voices’ from all stakeholders to be heard which was an important aspect of Wilberforce’s success in leading in politics (14,17).


  • Leaders are seen as motivators through the personal emotional link they have with their employees (2).
  • The emphasis is on the importance of stakeholders communicating differences and disagreements openly and honestly. Leaders promote creativity and “… encourage multiple ways to view a problem or opportunity” (3, p.26).

Wilberforce’s most striking characteristic and rule that he lived by as a leader, was also a characteristic he used to address his challenges…

His ability to see the best in people and build bridges with everyone he met, no matter from what background they were from.

Initially, he thought bridges should be formed only with people who were like-minded. However, upon reflection, Wilberforce found that the best and most effective way forward was to “… work together with philosophical opposites for the greater good (1, p.95).


From reflection of this first issue there is a necessity of ECPs to recognise the importance of all stakeholders in EC settings. Stakeholders are important in terms of developing the organisation’s philosophy, vision and values. They are also important in relation to high quality teaching for the positive development of children.

  • ECPs, in particular leaders, have a responsibility to be ‘WEAVERS’ (16), and to BUILD RELATIONSHIPS with all stakeholders. That is, their team of teachers, families, children and the community.
  • This is because leaders cannot lead by themselves. Instead, it is most effective to do so with and through others(16, p.648).
  • We cannot go forward by ourselves. We need to go hand-in-hand with others as it is a COLLABORATIVE WALK that will enable us to take the next step and next leap.

CHARACTERISTIC 2: Shared ethos characteristic of intentional and pedagogical leadership


As Wilberforce brought together those with differing opinions, values, skills and knowledge this reflected both intentional and pedagogical leadership.

  • When those roles are practiced under a shared organisational ethos only then can differences and diversity be acknowledged and respected (17).
  • This can have positive contributing effects for both internal and external stakeholders, importantly families and children, with long-term effects (17).


  • Ensure that a shared ethos is established in the EC setting so that differences are acknowledged, respected and utilised for the benefit of all stakeholders.
  • In this way, a strengths-based approach is also promoted with stakeholders whereby they are encouraged to see themselves ‘with power’ with a voice. They can then make a difference with the knowledge and skills that they do have, rather than see themselves as powerless and without a voice (3,6,14,17).

However, it goes beyond just the sharing of knowledge. But also ensuring that pedagogical leadership is in place to “… build the capacity of the staff team as curriculum decision-makers” (17, p.95).

  • Building the leadership capacity of stakeholders. In particular, ECPs and families so that they become less dependent on the director and/or other EC leaders. Instead, become INTERDEPENDENT thinkers and decision-makers with each other (14).
  • For effective school leadership it is very important for leaders to ensure that stakeholders know that they are needed to participate ALL THE TIME – that leaders rely on them, “… rather than just include them when it suits the purposes of the leader” (16, p.651).
  • In this way, ECPs and stakeholders are able to develop trusting two-way relationships, whereby quality care can be realised together (10,12,16).

CHARACTERISTIC 3: Leadership style and strategies

Wilberforce also contributed to the positive acceptance of change and the successful transition to change by adopting a certain type of leadership style, as well as utilising specific strategies that characterise effective EC leaders.


  • This leadership style empowers the team through shared leadership, and collaborative, participative decision-making processes (2,12,14).
  • In particular, during times of change, this style of leadership has been found to have positive outcomes for all stakeholders.
  • This approach is team-oriented, with flexible lines of authority, “… builds on each person’s strengths and interests… and enables [stakeholders] to contribute in ways that match their creativity, skills and capabilities… ” (3, p.26).


  • Give ECPs a ‘voice’.
    • By giving them a ‘voice’, ECPs develop a personal investment to the team through a sense of responsibility (3, 6,13). A ‘voice’ to speak their concerns, interests, needs, wants. As well as a ‘voice’ to speak out their opinions during change.
    • Having a ‘voice’ empowers all stakeholders and has positive outcomes for directors, team leaders, ECPs, families, and most importantly, children.


  • Importance of EC leaders and ECPs to develop cognitive and emotional empathy skills (9).
    • Cognitive empathy skills or perspective-taking skills = Understanding how others see the world.
    • Emotional empathy skills = Feeling how the other person feels, sensing how they feel.


  • Without good listening, you can’t have empathy. Listening is one of the greatest predictors of either leadership failure or success (9). So it is most important to develop ACTIVE LISTENING SKILLS.
    • Active listening is characterised by respect.
    • It is done through being involved in the conversation, reflecting feelings, asking open-ended questions, making non-judgemental statements, as well as through summarising and reflecting feelings to show that you understand what you have heard and to seek clarification if needed.


In empowering stakeholders with a ‘voice’ “… teamwork and collaboration can be problematic as it MAKES ASSUMPTIONS. It assumes that everyone has the capacity to and will contribute effectively to the work environment… and to how matters are resolved” (17, p.160).


*** In reality, not everyone will contribute, and will want to contribute to the work environment, solving of problems, and inclusion of changes to the same degree. ***

However, ALL contributions should be accepted as equal. It is not about equal giving, but about equal sacrifice.


  • EC leaders need to recognise and acknowledge, as well as respect ALL contributions from ALL stakeholders.
  • Acknowledge their way to express their ‘voice’ and match them with the most appropriate and effective way to express this ‘voice’. Acknowledge their contribution to the EC setting.
  • Reflect on human resource management (HRM) policies and procedures. Ensuring that ‘soft’ HRM (i.e. expressive/developmental approaches) and ‘hard’ HRM (instrumental/rational approaches) are taken into consideration (17).
  • As a result, people and teams, in addition to motivation and empowerment are values that are promoted for the benefit of ECPs, other stakeholders, and for the ‘greater good’ so they feel safe and supported to contribute to the team and EC setting as a whole.

CHARACTERISTIC 4: Connection with external stakeholders

Passion is often seen in terms of… social justice(5, p.5).

It is through connections with external stakeholders that EC leaders can express this passion.

It is to this idea that a final point is paralleled with Wilberforce and the characteristics of EC leaders. That of HAVING A PASSION and HOLDING A VISION. Wilberforce’s twenty-year long-term vision of ending the slave trade would have been impossible if not first considering the ‘Reformation of Manners’ – his passion for social justice. 

In Wilberforce’s situation, by considering the political and social climate (namely, that England was highly involved in the slave trade), and addressing that goal first, it realigned his vision where it could be placed in a context that was relevant to his community.


  • Politics influence policy, that inevitably will influence social outcomes, including the contexts that both directly and indirectly relate to the ECEC field, EC setting and ECPs. As a result, this will affect families and children.
  • The political arena and political climate also influence EC services directly. When EC leaders stay current and involved in the world of politics they are in a position to be active and more influential in the decisions that are made when changes and improvements are instigated through the political context (11,12).


  • It is important for ECPs, specifically EC leaders to become knowledgeable and aware of things that are happening, specifically in relation to the political side of early childhood.

As theorist Freire said “teaching is a political act” (17, p.21).


To ensure that the vision is lived and breathed in the organiation, it is important for EC leaders to engage in all roles and responsibilities of organisational culture and operational changes (11).

  • This involves keeping the vision in front view where it is kept ‘active’, rather than ‘on the shelf’. That is, rather than having the vision metaphorically and literally ‘put on the shelf’ – in a folder – forgotten among the daily routines, just a concept that was once referred to; the vision needs to be a lived vision – a lived passion, where plans are passionately envisioned and yearning to be accomplished.
    • This involves the need for all stakeholders, particularly ECPs, to be ‘stewards’ ensuring that the vision is lived in the everyday. ‘Stewards’ where everyone works together towards the common good – the vision.

Strategic planning and development, that is, ensuring that the VISION IS ABLE TO BE LIVED AND BREATHED, and to be ACCOMPLISHED at the end of a long journey where everyone is still committed (11).


To ensure that the plan – the vision – is kept alive and achievable in the hearts of all those who are heading towards it…

  • Recognise, ackowledge and celebrate the little accomplishments and milestones with all stakeholders – both individual and group celebrations. This is keeping the vision alive in the ‘present’, rather than wait for the final vision to be accomplished and then holding a big celebration (3, 16,17).
  • For example, celebrating one person’s achievements in a centre newsletter, going out for group dinners when certain milestones or achievements are made.


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© Tirzah Lim 2017