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  An Integrated Ethics Approach to Christian Leadership
  Kelly Monahan

An Integrated Ethics Approach to Christian Leadership

          Rarely are decisions that leaders face black and white.  Consequences, and the right decisions, are often easier to evaluate in hindsight.  With rising concerns regarding corporate greed, growing skepticism over government leadership, and lack of trust in spiritual leadership (Dorgan, 2004; Grant & McGhee, 2010), where does one turn to for ethical decision-making?  The study of ethical leadership is increasing in relevancy, as once-famed organizations have fallen from grace.  In recent years, one has observed the collapse of Enron, the fall of the Lehman Brothers, and the housing market crash, all due in part to unethical behavior.  Green and Odom (2003) note the lack of ethical leadership in Enron caused harm to thousands of employees, invoked greater government regulation, and crippled consumer confidence of the financial industry (Thompson, 2010).  This paper proposes an integrated model of ethical leadership, combining the principles found in some of the leading contemporary ethical theories.  In doing so, this paper conducts a brief overview on ethical leadership and proceeds to define the variables within the proposed model. 


           Thornton (2009) notes, “in the global marketplace, with fierce competition for business and resources, the scope of problems that can occur in leadership ethics has expanded exponentially.”  Because of the increasing scope of concerns within today’s organizations, one of the greatest needs is a charismatic ethical leader (Mackie et al., 2006).  However, Darcy (2010) describes the current climate of organizations as skeptical regarding ethics.  In a qualitative study completed by the author, it was discovered that 66% of people question if ethics within leadership even exists.  This is what the author refers to as “a crisis of trust.”  The conclusion of the study found that the biggest problem in organizations and individuals today is a lack of trust in leadership.

          Executives at large organizations define ethical leadership as “simply a matter of leaders having good character and the right values or being a person of strong character” (Freeman & Stewart, 2006).  Yet, executives admit that following the law and obeying regulations is the easiest part of ethics.  The executives even admit that influencing others to do the right thing is not the hardest part of ethical leadership.  Rather, the hardest part of ethical leadership exists in the gray areas of who is responsible when problems arise (Plinio, 2009).

          A variety of academics attempt to define ethical leadership as well.  Greenleaf (1977), who theorized servant leadership, states, “Service to followers is the primary responsibility of leaders and the essence of ethical leadership.”  Heifetz (2006) proposes that the primary responsibility of ethical leaders is to deal with conflict among followers, and instruct them in the right way.  Hickman (1998) describes ethics as way to develop standards by which a leader can judge the effects different behavior have on one another. Varying definitions are constructed; however, all of these authors agree that ethical leadership focuses on influencing followers to do the right thing.  Ethical leadership is not about a process, but rather a way of being and making the right choice (Darcy).

Proposed Model

          At the beginning of this paper, the following question was asked: Where should one turn to for ethical decision-making?  Proposed is the following model in Figure 1.1 for the ethical Christian leader.  At the core of the model is Scriptural literacy, defined as a leader’s knowledge and application of the Bible.  Scriptural literacy influences both internal and external characteristics of leadership.  The internal components are a leader’s motives and values. The external behaviors are promoting follower’s freedom and utility.  This all occurs within the leader’s sphere of influence.

The Core:  Spiritual Literacy

         The proposed model in Figure 1.1 suggests that Scriptural knowledge is the foundation of ethical formation.  Scripture in one’s life is not to be a one-time experience, but rather a daily affair. “And these words which I [God] command you today shall be in your heart.  You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up” (Deuteronomy 6:4-7, New King James Version).  The function of Scripture is authoritative, divine guidance for one’s life.  “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16 -17, English Standard Version).  The Scriptures are central and at the core of all ethical decisions in a Christian leader’s life.

          Crossman (2010) notes the tangible benefits of spiritual leadership, including increasing morale, reducing stress and employee turnover, improving revenue, and even having a positive impact on share price.  Leaders who possess spirituality are ones who are inspiring and visionary, more easily overcoming obstacles (Fairholm, 1998, Sikula and Sikula, 2005).  Burns (1978) also credits spiritual leadership as possessing the ability to raise morality and motivation. 

          In the Judeo-Christian faith, spirituality stems from Biblical knowledge and application.  Yet, a revealing 2007 Kelton Research survey found people know more about the contents of a Big Mac than they do about the Bible.  In fact, more people can name the members of the Brady Bunch than the Ten Commandments (Swenson, 2009).  “Pollster Gallup has called the United States a nation of biblical illiterates” (Prothero, 2007, p. 7).

          Spiritual literacy is a pressing need of ethical leaders in today’s society.  “The character is first and foremost a product of understanding and embracing the finished work of Christ on our behalf and of unreservedly devoting ourselves to God” (Beltz, 2006, p. 65).   Binns (2008) examined the impact that knowledge has on the personal ethical development of a leader.  The author argues that leaders do not know how to develop ethically if not learned through studies—in the Christian’s case, through Scriptural reading.  The author notes in the study that with knowledge, leaders are able to shed their incorrect ways of thinking and become liberated to think ethically, without bias. 

Followers Utility (Servant Leadership)

          In figure 1.1, servant leadership can best explain a follower’s utility, which according to the figure is the external expression of internal values.  Greenleaf was one of the first theorists to define the notion of servant leadership (Spears, 1996).  Servant leadership’s primary goal is meeting the needs of followers first (Greenleaf, Spears).  The servant leader’s motivation comes from a desire to serve, even at the expense of personal rights (Baggett, 1997; Wilkes, 1996). As a result, these types of leaders find worth in human equality and pursue the development of a follower’s well-being (Russell & Stone, 2000). Covey (1998) said, “the servant-leadership concept is a principle, a natural law, and getting our social value systems and personal habits aligned with this ennobling principle is one of the great challenges of our lives” (p. 14).

          In Scripture, the concept of servant leadership stems from the words of Paul to the Philippians.  In these verses, one sees Christ, the reigning King, take on the role of a servant: 

In humility, count others more significant than yourselves.  Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.  Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men (Philippians 2:3b-7, English Standard Version).


          “The values in leadership literature are very pertinent to servant leadership” (Russell, 2000, p. 76).  Kuczmarski and Kuczmarski (1995) describe the need for leaders to foster values relating to the service of others.  In fact, values are at the very essence of servant leadership (Batten, 1997), and are the independent variable, which actually triggers servant leadership actions (Rinehart, 1998).  Therefore, the internal values of leaders result in one’s distinct external behavior (Russell).

          From a Judeo-Christian perspective, Malphurs (2004) defines values as having the following characteristics: constant, passionate, Biblical, and part of one's core beliefs.   Values, according to the author, drive decision-making and determine how resources are spent as well as the goals one establishes.  In addition, it is important to note that values are either actual or aspiration.  Actual values are the ones a leader exhibits with consistency and passion, whereas aspirational values are those which a leader believes to be important, but are not practiced consistently (Malphurs).  Leaders who exhibit actual values are often more ethical in their actions versus those who only hold aspirational values (Hughes et al., 1993; Malphurs).

          The writer of Hebrews informs its readers of the importance of Scriptural literacy in perfecting one’s value systems.  “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of the soul and of the spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12, English Standard Version).  The more literate a leader is in the word of God, the greater the refinement of values, concluding in the external display of servant leadership, as modeled by Christ in Philippians.

Motives (Kant’s Ethical Theory)

           “Jesus said, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.  This is the first and greatest command.  And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:36-40, New International Version).  Loving God and others is the motive guiding a Christian ethical leader, whose life is grounded in the Scriptures.  The apostle Paul instructed, “Whether, then, you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31, New American Standard Version).

           An overlaying ethical theory to this motive is Kant’s ethical theory.  Kant’s theory considers the ends as respecting persons (Beauchamp & Bowie, 2004).  If the ends are not in the motive of respecting people, then Kant argues one is merely a slave to one’s own appetite and desire.  “To act freely is not to choose the best means to a given end; is it to choose the end itself, for its own sake” (Sandel, 2009, p.109).  Kant’s theory determines that motives are of the upmost importance, because ethical decisions come from the right and moral rationale (Beauchamp & Bowie). 

Promoting Freedom (Libertarianism Theory)

          The expression of a leader’s motives is the passion to protect the rights of others, made in the image of their Creator.  The Scriptures say, “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24, New American Standard).  The writer of Deuteronomy describes God as, “executing justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing” (Deuteronomy 10:18, New American Standard).  King Solomon says, “To do justice and judgment is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice” (Proverbs 21:3, King James).  Justice is a key characteristic of both God and His call to humanity.  As part of the integrated model, protecting individual freedom is part of an ethical Christian leader’s role, emphasized in Libertarianism Theory.   The central belief of Libertarianism Theory is that humans possess certain natural born rights and the denial of these natural born rights is immoral (Boaz, 1997).   The United States defined these rights as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. 

          The Christian ethical leader’s focus is leading an organization without compromising individual freedoms. “Those who really deserve praise are the people, who, while human enough to enjoy power nevertheless pay more attention to justice than they are compelled to do by their situation” (Hickman, 1998, p. 360).  

Sphere of Influence

          The integrated model can only be applied to one’s sphere of influence.  Scripture contains numerous examples of varying degrees of resources given to leaders.  Jesus spoke of a parable in which servants were measured not by the amount given, but rather their influence regarding the resources given (Matthew 25:14-30, New American Standard).  At the end, Christ says, “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things” (Matthew 25:23, New American Standard).  Paul speaks of this allegorically in his writing, noting that all members of the body are needed, but do not share the same function (Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12, New American Standard).  When all is said and done, the measurement of success is not how large one’s sphere of influence becomes, but rather what one did within their own environment, using their God-given resources.  In the story of Esther, the leader was asked, “And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:14, English Standard Version).  So then, who knows when the next ethical Christian leader will arise, for such a time as this?


Kelly Monahan is a 2009 graduate from the Master of Strategic Leadership program at Roberts Wesleyan College and is currently working on a Ph.D. in Organizational Leadership at Regent University. Additionally, Kelly works as a marketing consultant at a Fortune 100 finance company. Her research interests include ethics in leadership, intergenerational workplace, and organizational development. Kelly may be contacted at