Most ethical leadership literature is underpinned by a positivist functionalist theory. It is argued that this theory and its mainstream textbook approach perpetuate the Global North’s hegemonic beliefs and ‘performance’ principles, reducing ethical leadership to a set of prescriptive behaviours, traits and styles that are alien to managerial leaders in the Global South. The usefulness of this approach came to a head during the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic when the public and employees looked to leaders – in ways they had not done before – to deal with the significant ethical challenges and dilemmas that arose from the crisis. The purpose of this study is to argue for an alternative approach, using the theory of institutional logics, to capture the ethical leadership experiences and perceptions of managerial leaders from a non-Western context, in this case Vietnam. To this end, a case study of managerial leaders in the manufacturing sector in Vietnam is presented, analysing how they dealt with the fallout from the COVID-19 crisis, showcasing the application of institutional logics to interpret ethical leadership decision-making in a cross-cultural context. The findings indicate that when confronting ethical dilemmas, Vietnamese managerial leaders draw on a self-based logic they referred to as tâm, which is shown to be influenced by broader Vietnamese belief systems that shape their ethical thinking and behaviour. The study demonstrates that much Global North (Western inspired) knowledge of ethical leadership is lacking because it is unable to capture the institutional context of countries outside of these regions. The study concludes with implications for both theory and practice of ethical leadership development.