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  • Writer's pictureAlexis Ford-Duncil

Navigating Unprecedented Times: The Essence of Ethical Leadership

Effective and ethical leadership is paramount for businesses and organizations in today's rapidly evolving world. Ethical leadership is challenging to navigate in agriculture as pressures rise. In this blog, we want to explore critical principles and strategies ethical leaders employ to guide their teams through unprecedented times. We also sat down with Dr. Avery Culbertson, who shed light on what kind of leadership, tools and other qualities are essential to foster leadership and create a strong team dynamic. Let’s jump in!

Ethical leaders prioritize being present and engaged, actively understanding the challenges faced by their team members. By maintaining open lines of communication and fostering a supportive environment, leaders can simultaneously address concerns, provide guidance, and inspire all! Ethical leadership recognizes the importance of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Leaders foster innovation, collaboration, and equal opportunities for all by cultivating a diverse workforce and promoting an inclusive culture. (We talked more about diversity, equity and inclusion in organizations here in previous blogs.)

Good leaders and managers establish systems and processes that encourage collaboration and teamwork. Regular team huddles and check-ins facilitate effective communication, idea-sharing, and collective problem-solving. They value direct communication with their team members and engage in meaningful one-on-one interactions by eliminating unnecessary middle management barriers and fostering trust and understanding.

Ethical leaders also set long-term goals to inspire their teams to work towards a common purpose or “why.” One thought leader, Simon Sinek, explains the power of starting with why and then working into how and what through the “Golden Circle,” and talking about how great leaders inspire action. Leaders cultivate a sense of company pride by aligning individual and team objectives with the organization's mission, fostering loyalty and commitment.

Empowering and providing autonomy and opportunities for growth to team members is essential to success across the board. This can be done by recognizing the value of understanding their team member's unique strengths and personalities. Personality assessments can provide insights that enable leaders to tailor their management approach, leverage individual strengths, and foster a positive work environment. (We discuss personality tests and their impact below with Dr. Culberson, so hang tight.)

Most importantly, ethical leaders and managers lead by example, modeling the behavior and values they expect from their team members. Now, we know that everything we shared here, and especially the point of leading by example, isn’t something you “do.” For some, leadership comes naturally, while others need more support to thrive and foster leadership qualities/abilities. (All are totally OK!) We encourage the following thought to enter everyone’s mind, no matter your role in the company: Leaders inspire trust by demonstrating integrity, honesty, and ethical decision-making and creating a positive organizational culture. Treat others how you want to be treated, if you will. Those qualities should never cease to exist and can often inspire others to foster the same values in their personal and professional lives.

Ethical leadership is vital in steering businesses toward success in navigating unprecedented times. By prioritizing employee well-being, fostering inclusivity, and setting a clear vision, ethical leaders cultivate resilient teams ready to face any challenge that comes their way. We wanted to seek insight from professionals in the field of leadership and connected with Dr. Avery Culbertson, who joined the Fresno State faculty in the fall of 2016 in a newly-created position to develop an agricultural leadership curriculum for the Jordan College of Agricultural Sciences and Technology.

Dr. Culbertson received her Ph.D. in agricultural education and communications with a specialization in agricultural leadership from the University of Florida and a master of arts in communication studies and a bachelor of science in agriculture from New Mexico State University. Her research focuses on agricultural leadership, adult learning, facilitating experiential learning and reflection, and opinion leadership in the food, natural resources, and agriculture industries. Check out our Q&A with her below!

Insight on Ethical Leadership with Dr. Avery Culbertson

Q: How can ethical leadership help organizations navigate unprecedented/crisis times in the workplace/organization? (Covid, etc…)

A: First, before we even start to ask how it can help, we need to understand leadership and ethical leadership specifically. Leadership is bringing together a collective to achieve a common goal. Ethical leadership emphasizes how leaders pay attention to followers' needs and the importance of leader-follower relationships. Ethical leaders help followers confront conflicting values, encourage empathy and nurture their organizations and communities.

Ethical leadership can be practiced through respecting and serving others, treating everyone equally, being honest and prioritizing community. Leaders show respect by treating others as ends rather than means. In other words, the followers’ goals and what is best for the organization as a whole takes priority over the leader’s personal goals. Leaders respect others by listening, being empathetic, and allowing other people's values and decisions to be heard. Leaders focus on approaching others with a sense of unconditional worth and a value on individual differences. Service to others includes mentoring, team building and citizenship. Leaders should see themselves as stewards of the organization's vision and have an ethical responsibility to make decisions that benefit followers. Leaders are concerned with fairness and place it at the center of their decision-making.

Ethical leaders are honest and authentic while at the same time being sensitive to the feelings and values of others. They are accountable and tell the truth with a balance of openness while monitoring what is appropriate to disclose in a particular situation. Finally, ethical leaders have a concern for the common good, which means they do not impose their will on others but search for goals that are compatible with everyone. Leaders are attentive to the interest of the community and culture, consider everyone in the group, and reach out beyond their wants to focus on mutually defined goals.

Q: What is the true importance of being present as a manager in the field/workplace?

A: In this era of working remotely, I think it is imperative. As a natural introvert, I enjoy working alone or at home on occasion. However, as a teacher and member of a department team, I see the importance of interaction. Our students and colleagues need to know that we care, and really, that can't be conveyed through a black Zoom screen or an email. I think the same goes for management and leadership. To be clear, there are definitely benefits to working remotely, but as a leader, how are you connecting with your team members? One way is through communicating your availability. It is not only about the ability to answer an email in a timely manner, but are you present? Additionally, does your team know who you are? This is not only assessed in timed meetings but also through less formal interactions in the given workspace. Naturally, we want to know people, and we work harder for those we like and trust. Likeability and trust are established through time.

Q: Do tools like one-on-one meetings, team meetings, and check-ins help grow more successful working relationships? What are other ways to foster great working relationships?

A: Yes. To go back to the earlier question, it comes down to being present and being engaged. Technology is a great tool that I think should be utilized. So is the idea of working independently. Working relationships are not fostered through a Zoom screen with the camera turned off. However, workplace collaboration can be created using technology to share ideas on projects, enhance outputs and share passions and creativity. Additionally, one-on-one meetings, small group sessions and check-ins establish comradery, trust and accountability. These contribute to stronger working relationships.

Q: Are incentives and rewards like LinkedIn’s Kudos points, paid time off, raises, etc. really the right lane for businesses to be in? Are these good avenues for leaders to partake in or are they getting it wrong?

A: Incentives and rewards are of vital importance. Why do people want to stay, why should people feel a desire to be part of the culture? Though this should be intrinsically motivated, it is important for leadership to show that people are valued. Also, we must respect that work is not the only priority that fills our 24-hour day. Even though the majority of our time is spent in the office or workspace, our values often lie outside of those 8 to 12 hours. This can be through our families, self-identity, community, connections, and passions. How do we incentivize building a passion for work? We do that by showing value in our people. This can be done through engagement but also through reward systems.

Q: What are some ways that a leader can prioritize inclusivity and incorporate diversity and equity into their organization?

A: First and foremost, lead by example. We are not only motivated by leadership, but we often mimic and feed off of their values, attitudes and behaviors. If leadership prioritizes inclusivity, an example will be set for the entire organization. Other ways to incorporate diversity after the hiring process include setting up small workgroups so individuals can seek to understand one another better, designing brainstorming/creative sessions to learn from each other and encouraging question-and-answer sessions among different levels of the organization.

Q: How can ethical leadership contribute to fostering a sense of collective purpose and unity/trust within an organization? What about company pride and loyalty reducing turnover?

A: According to Patrick Lencioni and other leadership scholars, the most important element to establish in a group environment is trust. If we do not trust our leaders and those around us, we will not engage. If we do not engage in good communication, team identity, healthy debate and asking the tough questions, establishing commitment, accountability and positive results will not occur. It starts with building an environment where individuals feel safe, welcome and trusted. If you establish trust, they will trust you.

Company pride is established by identifying ourselves somewhere in the organization. I remember when a former boss asked me about this idea. It was at that moment I realized what I believed about work. I told him, “I don't work for things, I work for people. I need to be paid, I need to believe in the mission, but the thing that influences me to go beyond and be loyal- it's simple. It comes down to the people I trust, respect and want to work around.” If I feel a sense of belonging and my values align with the people I work with, my loyalty is established. I know not everyone works with that same philosophy in mind. Leaders need to find those individual motivations in their followers. Do people work for people, for values, for incentives, for appreciation, and/ or for the mission? Leaders need to seek to understand their people.

Q: What benefits can be gained from administering personality assessments and strength tests to support ethical leadership development and identify individual strengths within a team?

A: I often think assessments can be a double-edged sword. On the positive side, they can lead to greater understanding. It's not only about understanding others but just as importantly, understanding ourselves and how we fit into group settings. Strengths can also be assessed in the small group setting. However, I also think assessments allow us to ‘make it easy’ when assessing our impressions of others. For example, one of my favorite assessments is True Colors, based on Carl Jung’s work. It groups people into four personality types; Orange, Gold, Blue and Green. The assessment is fairly accurate and if taught well, is an enjoyable way to begin to understand people. However, it's also easy to put someone in a box and not acknowledge that people are layered beings. Our lives are multidimensional, and if we just narrow it down to a few personality qualities, we miss out on so much. So, personality assessments are a great beginning to understanding, but it doesn't provide the complete picture. That is done through time and interaction.


Ethical leaders set long-term goals that inspire their teams and align individual objectives with the organization's mission. They empower employees by providing autonomy and growth opportunities. Understanding individual strengths and personalities is valued, allowing leaders to tailor their management approach. Leading by example is crucial, modeling integrity and ethical decision-making. In times of crisis, ethical leadership is vital in steering businesses toward success by prioritizing employee well-being, fostering inclusivity, and setting a clear vision. We hope this blog has helped you better understand ethical leadership and how to thrive no matter what role you play in exemplifying leadership in both your personal and professional lives!


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