Journal of Business Ethics

, Volume 124, Issue 2, pp 225–242 | Cite as

What Does Ethics Have to do with Leadership?

  • Michael P. Levine
  • Jacqueline BoaksEmail author


Accounts of leadership in relation to ethics can and do go wrong in several ways that may lead us too quickly into thinking there is a tighter relationship between ethics and leadership than we have reason to believe. Firstly, these accounts can be misled by the centrality of values talk in recent discussions of leadership into thinking that values of a particular kind are sufficient for leadership. Secondly, the focus on character in recent leadership accounts can lead to a similar error. The assumption here is that because good character is often a locus of descriptions of leaders, such character is necessary and sufficient for leadership. Thirdly, we can fall victim to an observer bias that colors our accounts of the leaders we admire and thus wish to either have or be, which in turn leads to the fourth way in which accounts of leadership can go wrong in their description of the role of ethics in leadership. Through inattention or through wishful thinking accounts of leadership can become merely prescriptive and stipulate that ethics is requisite and at least partly constitutive of leadership. Keeping in mind these ways in which accounts of leadership commonly go astray, we can say that any adequate account of leadership must, at least in the first instance, be able to differentiate not only between leadership and good ethical character, but also between leadership and power, authority, influence, managerial ability, and charisma. Taking a closer look at some of the ways that the relation between leadership and ethics is misconstrued is necessary to better understanding both leadership and its connection to ethics. It is, however, just a first step. Asking whether we have reason to think of leadership as an Aristotelian virtue should, we think, enable us to give a more accurate and useful account of the complexity of the relation. It also captures underlying reasons for wanting to see the two as intrinsically connected.


Leadership Virtue Ethics Machiavelli Aristotle 



Thanks are due to several anonymous referees for their comments and feedback. Earlier versions of this paper were read at a public lecture hosted by the Institute of Advanced Studies at the University of Western Australia and at the 2012 Australasian Association of Philosophy conference. Thanks are due to both of these hosts and to the comments are question of audience members on both occasions.


  1. Aristotle, (2000). Nichomachean ethics (Vol. 5). Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  2. Aristotle, (1996). Politics (Vol. 13, pp. 15–20). Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  3. Avey, J. B., Wernsing, T. S., & Palanski, M. E. (2012). Exploring the process of ethical leadership: The mediating role of employee voice and psychological ownership. Journal of Business Ethics, 107(1), 21–34.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Avolio B.J. (2002). Developing potential across a full range of leadership: TM cases on transactional and transformational leadership. In B.J. Avolio (Ed.). Lawrence Erlbaum Associates: Mahwah, p. 8.Google Scholar
  5. Bass, B. (1990). Bass and Stodgill’s handbook of leadership: Theory, research, and managerial applications (3rd ed.). New York: Free Press.Google Scholar
  6. Burns, J. M. (1978). Leadership. New York: Harper & Rowe.Google Scholar
  7. Burns, (1991). Leadership for the twenty-first century (p. xii). New York: Praeger.Google Scholar
  8. Ciulla, J. (1995). Leadership ethics: Mapping the territory. Business Ethics Quarterly, 5(1), 17.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Ciulla, J. (2005). The state of leadership ethics and the work that lies before us. Business Ethics: A European Review, 14(4), 323–335.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Cox, D., Levine, M., & Newman, S. (2009). Politics most unusual violence, sovereignty and democracy in the war on terror. London: Palgrave Macmillan.Google Scholar
  11. Den Hartog, D. N., Deanne, N., & Belschak, F. D. (2012). Work Engagement and Machiavellianism in the ethical leadership process. Journal of Business Ethics, 107(1), 35–47.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. DePree, (2010). What is leadership. In J. Perry (Ed.), The Josey:Bass reader on nonprofit and public leadership (p. 5). San Francisco: Wiley.Google Scholar
  13. Driver, J. (1989). The virtues of ignorance. The Journal of Philosophy, 86(7), 373–384.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Eubanks, D. L., Brown, A. D., & Ybema, Sierk. (2012). Leadership, identity and ethics. Journal of Business Ethics, 107(1), 1–3.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Gardner, J. (2006). The antileadership vaccine. In W. Rosenbach & R. Taylor (Eds.), Contemporary issues in leadership. Boulder: Westview Press.Google Scholar
  16. Graham, G. (1983). What is special about democracy? Mind, XCII, 94–102.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Graham, G. (2002). The case against the democratic state: An essay in cultural criticism. Charlottesville: Imprint Academic.Google Scholar
  18. Grint, K. (2010). Leadership: a very short introduction (p. 1). Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Hoopes, J. (2003). False prophets the gurus who created modern management and why their ideas are bad for business today. Cambridge: Perseus Publication.Google Scholar
  20. Hoopes, J. (2007). Hail to the CEO: The failure of George W. Bush and the cult of moral leadership. Westport: Greenwood Publishing Group.Google Scholar
  21. House, R. J., & Howell, J. M. (1992). Personality and charismatic leadership. The Leadership Quarterly, 3(2), 81–108.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Hursthouse, R. (1991). Virtue theory and abortion. Philosophy & Public Affairs, 20(3), 223–246.Google Scholar
  23. Hursthouse, R. (1999). On virtue ethics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  24. Kellerman, B. (2004). Bad leadership: what it is, how it happens, why it matters. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.Google Scholar
  25. Kouzes, J. (2010). The Jossey-Bass reader on nonprofit and public leadership (p. xvii). San Francisco: Wiley.Google Scholar
  26. Lao, T. (1963). Tao Te Ching. London, New York: Penguin Books.Google Scholar
  27. Liden, R. C., Wayne, S. J., Zhao, H., & Henderson, D. (2008). Servant leadership: Development of a multidimensional measure and multi-level assessment. The Leadership Quarterly, 19(2), 161–177.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Mumford, M. D. (2006). Pathways to outstanding leadership: A comparative analysis of charismatic, ideological, and pragmatic leaders. Hoboken: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.Google Scholar
  29. Oakley, J. (1996). Varieties of virtue ethics. Ratio, 9(2), 128–152.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Popper, K. (1957). The open society and its enemies. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.Google Scholar
  31. Rich, F. (2006). The greatest story ever sold: The decline and fall of truth-the real history of the Bush administration. New York: Viking.Google Scholar
  32. Rost, J. C. (1991). Leadership for the twenty-first century. New York: Praeger.Google Scholar
  33. Slote, M. (1993). Virtue ethics and democratic values. Journal of Social Philosophy, 24(2), 5–37.Google Scholar
  34. Smircich, L., & Morgan, G. (1982). Leadership: The management of meaning. The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 18(3), 261.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Takala, T. (1998). Plato on leadership. Journal of Business Ethics, 17, 785–798.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Taylor, P. (1975). Principles of ethics: an introduction. Belmont: Wadsworth Publishing Company.Google Scholar
  37. Thiel, C. E., Bagdasarov, Z., Harkrider, L., Johnson, J. F., & Mumford, M. D. (2012). Leader ethical decision making in organizations: Strategies for sense-making. Journal of Business Ethics, 107(1), 49–64.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Ünal, A. F., Warren, D. E., & Chen Chao, C. (2012). The normative foundations of unethical supervision in organisations. Journal of Business Ethics, 107(1), 5–19.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Humanities M207The University of Western AustraliaPerthAustralia

Personalised recommendations