6. Leadership

Leaders are expected to be effective public managers, capable of steering their teams, inspiring their workforce, and setting an organisational culture that promotes innovation while reinforcing public sector values, including high standards for integrity and ethics. In light of these responsibilities, leaders’ roles in promoting and actively managing integrity in their organisations cannot be overestimated. Leaders assign resources to integrity systems, designate them as organisational priorities, oversee their co-ordination and integrate them into the core of their organisational management. Without committed leadership, integrity systems cannot deliver their intended impact. Moreover, by setting a personal example, leaders are a core ingredient for establishing and reinforcing an integrity culture in public sector organisations.

The OECD Recommendation on Public Integrity calls on adherents to “invest in integrity leadership to demonstrate a public sector organisation’s commitment to integrity, in particular through:

  1. a. including integrity leadership in the profile for managers at all levels of an organisation, as well as a requirement for selection, appointment or promotion to a management position, and assessing the performance of managers with respect to the public integrity system at all levels of the organisation;

  2. b. supporting managers in their role as ethical leaders by establishing clear mandates, providing organisational support (such as internal control, human resources instruments and legal advice) and delivering periodic training and guidance to increase awareness of, and to develop skills concerning the exercise of appropriate judgement in matters where public integrity issues may be involved;

  3. c. developing management frameworks that promote managerial responsibilities for identifying and mitigating public integrity risks” (OECD, 2017[1]).

The Recommendation’s principle of leadership focuses on administrative leadership in the public sector. Elected politicians, ministers and their direct cabinets are not the focus of this chapter, (for more, see Chapter 1), but they add an important element of context since their own leadership often constrains administrative leaders when it comes to specific activities such as setting strategic policy direction, budget and resource allocation, or engaging directly with citizens on various politically sensitive issues. The line between what is political and what is administrative is always evolving, and will differ from one national system to another.

Promoting integrity leadership incorporates two broad goals: first, ensuring that the people appointed to leadership positions have an integrity profile – moral people with the skills to be moral managers; and second, supporting these leaders as they carry out their functions as integrity leaders. While there are a number of tools and mechanisms that governments can use to achieve these goals, the following are essential features to operationalise integrity leadership:

  • Integrity leadership is recognised as a trait and as a style, and developed early in future leaders.

  • Mechanisms are in place to attract and select integrity leaders.

  • Incentives and accountability frameworks promote and reward integrity leadership.

Understanding how to develop integrity leaders requires first clarifying what integrity leadership means. The most common understanding of leadership in large hierarchies is the understanding of those occupying the most senior level positions. Most OECD governments institutionalise this as a specified and separate Senior Civil Service under different terms and conditions. Those occupying positions in the SCS are usually subject to a common set of leadership competencies (see Figure 6.1) that clarify how they are expected to deliver the results outlined in their performance agreements.

The principle of leadership is not, however, concerned solely with leadership as a position, but rather as both a trait and as a style. Leadership as a trait is understood as something that someone exhibits (e.g. “she showed great leadership on this topic”), or a skill set related to the ability to convince, motivate and guide a group towards a desired outcome. This skill set includes technical skills, conceptual skills, interpersonal skills, and emotional and social intelligence. These are skills that any member of a work team can demonstrate, and are often reflected in competency frameworks that emphasise various leadership components and apply to all civil servants (Box 6.1).

Leadership as a style (e.g. “how one leads”) is another critical element. Building on an analysis of the behaviours associated with leaders who are perceived to be ethical by their employees, ethical leadership can be understood as “the demonstration of normatively appropriate conduct through personal actions and interpersonal relationships, and the promotion of such conduct to followers through two-way communication, reinforcement, and decision-making” (Brown, Treviño and Harrison, 2005[3]). Two interrelated aspects are required to be an “ethical leader”: the leader must be perceived to be a moral person; and the leader also needs to be a moral manager (Treviño, Hartman and Brown, 2000[4]).

Regarding the aspect of moral person, ethical leaders are expected to hold themselves to high ethical standards, which guide their own decision making in clear and demonstrable ways. Ethical leaders are perceived to have specific traits (integrity, honesty, and trustworthiness) and behaviour (doing the right thing, concern for people, being open, personal morality) (Treviño, Hartman and Brown, 2000[4]). This is demonstrated in their decision making. Ethical leaders are perceived as having a high level of awareness about their own moral positions and the ability to use their personal values as a guide when confronted with ethical dilemmas. In other words, their behaviour matches their rhetoric. Moreover, ethical leaders display a high level of fairness, loyalty and trustworthiness to those they lead. This engenders a reciprocal relationship among followers who seek to emulate the ethical behaviour of their leader.

The other aspect of moral manager relates to a leader’s responsibility to promote ethical decision making among those they lead. Table 6.1 highlights the four aspects of a moral manager (see also Chapter 9).

When understood as a trait and as a style, it becomes clear that ensuring integrity leadership requires foresight. Governments can use several methods to develop the skills of integrity leadership in future leaders early to build the talent pool. Social learning theory suggests that people learn behaviours by emulating credible and attractive role models (Bandura, 1986[6]). Most ethical leaders can point to an ethical role model who made a significant impression on them early in their careers, and most were people with whom they worked closely – a direct supervisor or manager rather than a distant executive. “Having a proximate, ethically positive role model during one's career makes it more likely that an individual will become an ethical leader” (Brown and Treviño, 2006[7]).

This suggests that integrity leadership starts early and is diffuse – that “tone at the top” is essential, but that reinforcing it at every layer of leadership in an organisation is vital. Moreover, these insights show that the key venue for developing integrity leadership is the day-to-day work environment and the daily interactions between leader and follower. Being an effective moral manager requires managers to understand employee development as a core aspect of their role and to make time to have discussions of this nature with their employees. Otherwise, the demands of a fast-paced work environment tend to crowd out opportunities for developmental interaction. To build effective moral managers early in the process therefore, public entities should require “employee development” to be a core leadership competency, along with delivering results. Moreover, public entities should ensure that managers receive training on how to develop their employees and how to have ethical discussions with them.

Role models can also be identified through formal mentorship and coaching programmes, where employees are paired with a more senior manager (not their immediate superior) or a management expert, and are encouraged to raise ethical management issues on which they would like guidance (Box 6.2 provides an overview of select, albeit not integrity-specific, mentorship programmes). Additionally, mentoring and coaching could be built into talent management programmes, where future leaders are rotated into specific roles of higher ethical intensity and work with an ethical leader for a period. In both of these cases, integrity issues should be included when assessing potential mentors, coaches, or managers for talent rotation programmes.

The emphasis on experiential learning does not mean that integrity leadership should be ignored in other leadership development modalities. Classroom or online learning modules can cover various aspects of the government’s integrity standards and system to ensure that there is a common understanding of managers’ integrity obligations and the mechanisms and tools available to help managers meet them (for more, see Chapter 8). This knowledge-based approach can be supplemented with case studies of real leaders facing real ethical dilemmas in context, to teach and practice moral reasoning. These should be used not only to prepare future managers and leaders for the integrity roles they will undertake, but also new managers and leaders who may have recently arrived in the organisation and be less familiar with the particular kinds of ethical dilemmas faced in their specific line of work.

Leadership training can also include modules on how to be moral managers. As discussed above, moral managers are role models who discuss ethics openly, who reward ethical behaviour, and who empower their employees to make ethical decisions. To achieve this, managers can practice discussing moral decision making with colleagues, and can learn different communication techniques to promote their efforts to be visible role models.

Managers are expected to behave in ways that demonstrate integrity, and this becomes a criterion for hiring, promotion and performance assessment. However, making this competency framework actionable requires governments to think carefully about how the concept translates into demonstrable and assessable behaviour. For example, the competency framework in the New South Wales Government in Australia identifies five levels of integrity and the behaviours associated with each (Table 6.2).

Integrity can also be incorporated into every aspect of leadership selection, beginning with the job description and advertisement. Candidates for positions seek organisations that fit with their own values. Therefore, hiring organisations that promote integrity as an organisational value at the outset are more likely to attract the right people for the job. In Chile, integrity is a core value in public managers’ recruitment system. To reinforce this value, after candidates are selected they are required to attend integrity training.

In some OECD countries, background checks and pre-screening for integrity are two of the first activities used to weed out people who present high risk (Box 6.3). This can be done even before their skills and competencies are considered. Identifying effective pre-screening tools can however be a challenge, as there is little consensus on the accuracy or reliability of pre-screening tools when it comes to integrity (U4 Anti-Corruption Resource Centre, 2012[9]). For that reason, integrity should be tested at multiple stages of a selection process.

Not all management positions will face the same level of ethical decision making and therefore may not require the same degree of pre-screening. For positions of some ethical intensity, candidates could be tested in exercises that reflect the kind of ethical situations they are likely to face, so that they can demonstrate their personal values and moral reasoning skills. Positions of lower ethical intensity could be seen as steppingstones where future leaders can demonstrate their integrity leadership capabilities. In this way, leaders could begin to develop an integrity track record that can be assessed and used in future staffing decisions. Proportionate requirements for specific functions occupied by the highest political and management levels are further discussed in Chapter 1.

Testing for integrity, moral reasoning or other values is a practice used in some countries, either across civil service or within specific organisations (as is the case in Australia, in the intelligence and national security agencies). This complex discipline requires support from qualified psychological experts. Line managers and/or HR specialists are not likely to be equipped with the right skills, particularly for positions of higher ethical intensity. The following tools have been used by public organisations and provide examples of how this could be implemented:

  • use of uniform curriculum vitae formats, allowing to apply integrity filters to ease identification of suitable candidates

  • pre-screening integrity test (e.g. on line), personality tests or similar examinations, as a first step to be considered for the position, and/or as input into the final decision

  • interview questions asking candidates to reflect on ethical role models they have had previously in the workplace, and/or to discuss ethical dilemmas they have faced and how they reacted to them

  • situational judgement tests and questions that present candidates with a morally ambiguous situation and have them explain their moral reasoning

  • role-play simulations and gamification to be conducted in an assessment centre

  • reference checks which include questions related to ethical decision making and assessment from peers in previous positions on the ethical nature of the person and their ability to manage others ethically

  • questions that enable the candidate to demonstrate awareness of and model moral management behaviour (recognising that being an integrity leader is not only about being a sound moral person, but also about actively role-modelling ethical decision making, communicating about ethics to employees, using rewards and sanctions to promote ethics, and giving employees an appropriate level of discretion and guidance to make their own ethical decisions).

Once leaders are developed and appointed, they require support and reinforcement to be integrity leaders. As ethical decision making is highly influenced by the specific situational and social context, ensuring the right conditions for moral people to become integrity leaders is a responsibility for senior civil servants, integrity practitioners, HRM officials and all public managers.

One tool that public entities can use is performance agreements and assessments. In order for performance systems to promote and reward integrity leadership, they need to balance an assessment of not only what leaders achieve, but also how they achieve it:

  • On the “what” side, leaders could be expected to achieve specific deliverables and goals linked to integrity. This could include objectives to deliver specific reforms of or improvements to integrity systems, implementing new standards, or engaging partners in new ways that promote transparency and integrity. These could be framed as specific objectives in a performance agreement.

  • On the “how” side, integrity (or a related concept) is often a competency against which leaders are assessed. Leaders should be asked to present examples of how they demonstrated integrity leadership during the previous performance cycle, in terms of both the ethical decisions they made and the moral management they displayed. Assessing this component could also include input from 360-degree reviews and staff surveys to inform leaders about how they are perceived, whether they are seen as an ethical role model for others, and whether employees under this leader feel comfortable bringing forward integrity concerns.

The integrity component of performance assessments needs to be reinforced by rewards and sanctions. Leaders who are particularly strong on integrity could be identified for career development opportunities, particularly to positions of higher ethical intensity. Those with lower assessments should be given developmental opportunities and, if necessary, removed from their position if significant risks are identified.

The nature of the public service poses several challenges to integrity leadership, including a need to manage in the face of deep ethical dilemmas and well-defined HRM structures.

For instance, the mission, role and context of public sector organisations can often result in deep ethical dilemmas. The ability to regulate, apply coercive power, and control systems and processes that have a broad impact on society (e.g. defence, health, social welfare) suggests the magnitude of impact of ethical decision making. Increasingly blurred boundaries between public sector organisations and their complex partnerships with other sectors can pose further ethical dilemmas. This suggests that leaders in the public sector need to be ethically involved and aware, and have a greater role as moral managers.

Moreover, public employment systems tend to be well defined, which can make it difficult for leaders wishing to protect merit to build their own teams and set their own hiring and performance criteria. This could result in fewer opportunities to reward and sanction ethical behaviour, and may require greater emphasis on communication and role modelling. Public sector leaders also tend to head very large and distributed organisations that may have offices located throughout the country, a situation that raises integrity risks and makes it harder to communicate and monitor. There is thus a real need to ensure that subordinates are clear on the ethical framework and that they are supported to make the right ethical decisions.


[6] Bandura, A. (1986), Social Foundations of Thought and Action: A cognitive Theory, Prentice-Hall, Inc.

[7] Brown, M. and L. Treviño (2006), “Ethical leadership: A review and future directions”, The Leadership Quaterly, Vol. 17/6, pp. 595-616, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.leaqua.2006.10.004.

[3] Brown, M., L. Treviño and D. Harrison (2005), “Ethical leadership: A social learning perspective for construct development and testing”, Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, Vol. 97/2, pp. 117-134, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.obhdp.2005.03.002.

[5] Heres, L. and K. Lasthuizen (2012), “What’s the difference? Ethical leadership in public, hybrid and private sector organizations”, Journal of Change Management, Vol. 12/4, pp. 441-466, https://doi.org/10.1080/14697017.2012.728768.

[1] OECD (2017), OECD Recommendation of the Council on Public Integrity, OECD, Paris, https://legalinstruments.oecd.org/en/instruments/OECD-LEGAL-0435 (accessed on 24 January 2020).

[8] OECD (2017), Skills for a High Performing Civil Service, OECD Public Governance Reviews, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://dx.doi.org/10.1787/9789264280724-en.

[2] OECD (2016), Survey on Strategic Human Resources Management in Central / Federal Governments of OECD Countries, OECD, Paris, https://qdd.oecd.org/subject.aspx?Subject=GOV_SHRM (accessed on 24 January 2020).

[4] Treviño, L., L. Hartman and M. Brown (2000), “Moral person and moral manager: How executives develop a reputation for ehical leadership”, California Management Review, Vol. 42/4, pp. 128-142, https://doi.org/10.2307/41166057.

[9] U4 Anti-Corruption Resource Centre (2012), Overview of integrity assessment tools, https://www.u4.no/publications/overview-of-integrity-assessment-tools.pdf.

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