Chapter 7: Discretion, Supervision, and Leadership

7.5 Ethical Leadership

As we have learned, ethical conduct in law enforcement is critical. Leaders within law enforcement agencies play a significant role in determining the ethical orientation of their agency. Specifically, leaders must regard ethics as a key component of the agency’s culture in which officers behave ethically and respect the rights of others. This can only be accomplished by leaders demonstrating ethical actions to all members of the agency.

Zuidema and Duff (2009) believe that agency leadership can facilitate an ethical workforce in the following ways:

  • Incorporate agency values or ideals through mission statements. Mission statements are a tool agencies can use to explicitly state their values for all to see. Some agencies develop mission statements and present them to their workers who sign a confirmation that they hold the same values as the agency and will adopt the values stated in the mission statement. The confirmation is strictly symbolic in nature, but it can be a powerful reminder of the values that are important.
  • Focus on ethical behaviour as part of formal events and training sessions. Ethical behaviour should be woven throughout all training and stated in lesson plans. Leaders should not assume that ethical decisions are made, but rather they should remind and train members that ethical considerations are a critical component of their daily business activities.
  • Emphasize ethical behaviour in the agency’s philosophy. The agency must reflect ethics in all policies and philosophies. In law enforcement, agencies must be aware of the problems that arise when crime control models are too closely adhered to at the expense of ethical behaviour.
  • Do not tolerate any unethical activities, including unethical behaviour at the executive level. This means that agencies should consider a policy of zero tolerance for any unethical activity by executives. Agencies should consider universality as a test for executives: assessing the ethics of the behaviour by assessing whether the behaviour would be appropriate for every member of the agency.

Mayer et al. (2009) have proposed a “trickle down” model in which the effects of ethical leadership are mimicked by workers throughout the ranks and are eventually replicated by employees at all levels of the hierarchy. In a survey administered to employees and leaders in corporations in southeastern United States, Mayer et al. (2009) found:

  • Top management has an effect on employee behaviour indirectly through supervisory leadership.
  • Employees imitate the behaviour of leaders.
  • Employees will behave in a manner consistent with what they believe are the values of the employer.
  • It is likely that leaders who demonstrate ethical behaviour influence middle managers who influence all employees.

Mayer et al. (2009) further suggest that these findings have practical implications in large organizations; that is, because of the relationship between leaders and subordinates, it is critical to promote or hire ethical leaders. Ethics training for management is important for enhancing the ethical decision making of leaders, thereby promoting ethical behaviour throughout the hierarchy.

By extension, we can extrapolate that employees will replicate the unethical behaviour of leadership. In law enforcement, this can lead to corrupt practices among patrol officers who model the behaviour of corrupt leaders. The implication is that law enforcement agencies cannot tolerate unethical behaviour among members of the lower ranks and especially among those who serve in leadership roles.

Frisch and Huppenbauer (2014) studied ethical leadership by conducting a series of interviews with 18 executive leaders. They determined that ethical leadership leads to the following outcomes:

  • Enhanced well-being of themselves, society, nature, and other people
  • Financial success of their enterprise due to benefits resulting from a positive reputation
  • Satisfaction from customers and employees


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Ethics in Law Enforcement Copyright © 2015 by Steve McCartney and Rick Parent is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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