What Does Ethical Leadership Look Like? Part 1

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…

To know how you can apply these characteristics in an early childhood context, specifically identifying implications for early childhood practitioners , read part 2 of this article. 

We will discuss four important characteristics that need to be considered to becoming an ethical leader.

Characteristic 1: Two leadership qualities/styles – Leading with charisma, and working with ‘philosophical opposites’.

Characteristic 2: Shared ethos of intentional and pedagogical leadership.

Characteristic 3: Leadership style and strategies – Facilitative non-hierarchical leadership style.

Characteristic 4: Connection with external stakeholders – Understanding the climate of the external environment, and organisational culture and operational changes.



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© Tirzah Lim 2017