Purpose - This article seeks to address the need for ethical and informed leadership in professions in general and library and information science in particular, and the challenges of professional education in library and information science in providing a theoretical basis for professional work that incorporates an understanding of ethical principles. Design/methodology/approach - The article provides an overview and analysis of ethical leadership issues in a range of international, organizational and individual circumstances. While the private and public sectors provide a frame of reference for considering library and information science education, the nature of the professional values in library and information services is also presented. In addition, the research related to limitations in ethical decision-making ability among individuals is presented, in highlighting the need for educational approaches that support conscious consideration of biases and application of ethical principles. Findings - There are significant challenges associated with educating future leaders about the importance of ethics, based on the competing motivations of professionals and managers, the complexity associated with ethical decision making, and the limitations of the knowledge base associated with ethical decision making. The published research suggests that a thoughtful and informed approach is needed in order to prepare graduates for their roles as ethical leaders in library and information services organizations. Practical implications - In addition to the many incentives to make unethical choices in the face of competition and demands for performance and success, there is the need for decision makers to be conscious of the pitfalls associated with ethical decision making. Such an awareness is enhanced by educational programs that emphasize the nature of ethical principles and the importance of an informed approach to leadership and decision making. Originality/value - This article addresses the ethical leadership challenges facing individuals and organizations in the public and private sectors, higher education and libraries and identifies the legislative, regulatory, and organizational approaches that have been undertaken to encourage ethical decision making. The challenges and responses provide a framework for considering ethical leadership and decision making in library and information services and in library and information science education.