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Ethical Leadership: Are You Humble Enough?

July 18, 2018

By Kimberley MacKenzie, CFRE

Transactional leadership, autocratic leadership, transformational leadership, authentic leadership, situational leadership... the list could go on. There are probably as many leadership styles as there are leaders. I believe our sector would benefit greatly if we all intentionally pursued the concept of ethical Leadership.

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to meet Mpumi Nobiva at a conference. Nobiva is an AIDS orphan who was living in South Africa. Nobiva lived in extreme poverty and was smart enough, and lucky enough, to get into Oprah Winfrey’s Leadership Academy for girls, where she excelled. Nobiva realized her dream to go to University in the United States and now she is a force for good and truth.

When Nobiva came on stage and humbly asked if her outfit met expectations, I was charmed. Her strong and powerful presence combined with grace and humility is enviable. When she passionately said: “Oprah Winfrey didn’t change my life. It was my mother and my grandmother who made sure I was who I was for the day that Oprah walked into my life.” I was moved to tears. So far, I was very entertained but wasn’t expecting much beyond that.

It was when this 25-year-old dynamo started talking about ethical leadership that I leaned forward and pulled out my notebook. Woah! I had never heard leadership described as ethical. What does that mean? How can I get some? Am I an ethical leader?

Nobiva described ethical leadership as doing the right thing even if it goes unnoticed. The concept reminded me of a book I had read last year by Adam Grant called Give and Take.

In Give and Take, Grant talks about drivers for success and three specific professional profiles: matchers, takers and givers. The book is full of case studies from the corporate world. Matchers will do something for you if you do something for them. Takers take and leave you in the dust. Givers lift everyone around them up. Guess which profile ended up with the most lucrative and satisfying career? While the concept of ethical leadership is not mentioned in the book I believe it is the "givers" as defined by Grant that definitely fit Nobiva’s description of ethical leaders.

What does this idea of ethical leadership have to do with the charitable sector?


We talk and talk and talk about the leadership gap, staff turnover and burn out. We need to have more conversations about the concrete tools or tactics to help address these systemic problems. What would happen if more of us strive to be ethical leaders? What if more of us live and work with intention and commitment to the following:

Build up the people around us. Enter every conversation from a position of service. Thinking or frankly saying out loud to colleague: “How can I make your job easier today. What can I do for you?

Be fiercely loyal to our donors and beneficiaries. As development professionals, our truth must be serving the mission of our organization by advocating fiercely for donors. That is what being “donor-centered” is all about!

Celebrate and actively support the success of others. It is hard to stick your neck out with a job application or a conference session submission and be passed by, only to watch your colleagues soar. When that happens give yourself a small private pity party, then check your ego and congratulate your colleagues on their win. Let’s embrace confidence combined with humility so that we can truly support the success of others.

Can you think of someone who has impacted your life who demonstrates ethical leadership? Please share. Let’s raise the bar for everyone. Let’s close the leadership gap.

Kimberley MacKenzie works with a variety of organizations to create the change needed to advance a culture of philanthropy and ultimately raise more money for their missions. She has served as editor of Charity eNEWS, as a member of the Advisory Council for the Rogare Think Tank in Plymouth University and as director of education for the Planned Giving Council of Simcoe County. Contact her via @kimberleycanada, or email her at