In This Article Ethical Leadership

  • Introduction
  • Introductory Works

Management Ethical Leadership
John Schaubroeck, Zachary W. Woessner, Bernie Malonson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 January 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846740-0038


Within the past fifteen years ethical leadership has become a topic of scientific inquiry, with established measures and a corpus of research and theoretical work examining antecedents and consequences. During the same period the unethical acts of organizational leaders have received increasing attention in both the commercial media and the organizational literature. A practitioner literature has emerged that presents observations of events and proposes solutions to the problem of unethical behavior among leaders. This article does not seek to review the literature on the unethical behavior of leaders; rather, it focuses on the psychological construct of ethical leadership.

Introductory Works

What exactly are the obligations of leadership? Many observers of organizations believe that leaders are obliged only to act within legal and contractual restraints, nothing more (Brown 2007). This perspective leaves out the importance that ethics and morality play in the role of the leader as one who provides for the needs of their followers. Concerns about ethical leadership span not only time but cultures as well. The study of ethics and leadership appears to be a universal concern dating back to Antiquity. In the Western world the study of ethics dates back centuries to the philosophers of ancient Greece such as Aristotle, Plato, and Socrates; and to the European Renaissance and political philosophers such as Niccolò Machiavelli. The East has maintained its own separate traditions of ethics and leadership based on the philosophical traditions of Confucius, Sun Tzu, and others. Despite their differences, most cultures have been found to have similar understandings of various aspects of ethical leadership, such as character, integrity, collective motivation, and encouragement (Resick, et al. 2006). In its more modern incarnations, the study of ethical leadership has moved from the realm of philosophers to the domain of social science. Social scientists have seen ethical leadership as a complement to related constructs, such as character (Wright and Quick 2011). They have examined it from both managerial (Enderle 1987) and psychological (Treviño, et al. 2000) perspectives. To our knowledge, Treviño, et al. 2000 is the first work to refer to a psychological construct of ethical leadership. The modern period of more popular interest in the relationship between leadership and ethics, or more specifically in the unethical behaviors of leaders, seems to have commenced after the Enron debacle, which came to light in October 2001.

  • Brown, M. E. “Misconceptions of Ethical Leadership: How to Avoid Potential Pitfalls.” Organizational Dynamics 36.2 (2007): 140–155.

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    The author draws from the popular business press to identify and provide examples of what he sees as five popular misconceptions that leaders may hold regarding ethical practices in their leadership styles.

  • Enderle, G. “Some Perspectives of Managerial Ethical Leadership.” Journal of Business Ethics 6.8 (November 1987): 657–663.

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    The author discusses several aspects of ethical leadership, including the specific tasks associated with being an ethical leader and being responsible for the effects of one’s decisions on the people while seeking to implement corporate goals.

  • Resick, C. J., P. J. Hanges, M. W. Dickson, and Mitchelson, et al. “A Cross-Cultural Examination of the Endorsement of Ethical Leadership.” Journal of Business Ethics 63.4 (February 2006): 345–359.

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    The authors examine the extent to which employees in many different countries evaluated ethical leadership dimensions as being important to effective leadership. The dimensions were Character/Integrity, Altruism, Collective Motivation, and Encouragement. They concluded that the dimensions of ethical leadership have similar meaning in different societies, and also that ethical leadership in general is universally endorsed. However, they also note that the level of endorsement for particular dimensions varies across cultures.

  • Treviño, L. K., L. P. Hartman, and M. Brown. “Moral Person and Moral Manager: How Executives Develop a Reputation for Ethical Leadership.” California Management Review 42.4 (Sum 2000): 128–142.

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    The authors interviewed executives and discovered that ethical leadership reputation was based on the executive's visibility as both a moral person and a moral manager. The authors argue that developing a reputation for ethical leadership reduces legal problems and increases employee commitment, satisfaction, and ethical conduct.

  • Wright, T. A., and J. C. Quick. “The Role of Character in Ethical Leadership Research.” Leadership Quarterly 22.5 (October 2011): 975–978.

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    The authors provide a historical overview of the character literature and a working definition of character and character-based leadership, and they make suggestions for those scholars interested in investigating and examining the role of character-based leadership in their teaching and research.

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