The relevance of leader ethicality has motivated ethical leadership theory. In this paper, we emphasize the importance of moral identity for the concept of ethical leadership. We relate ethical leadership incorporating an internalized moral identity to productive deviant workplace behavior. Using qualitative empirical data we illustrate the relevance of critical situations, i.e., situations in which hypernorms and organizational norms diverge, for the distinction of ethical leaders with or without internalized moral identities. Our paper takes a multidisciplinary approach integrating insight from management as well as humanities and social sciences toward a comprehensive sense of ethical leadership.
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We use the terms “morality” and “ethics” and their cognates interchangeably in this paper.
The advantage of using this concept of hypernorms is that they are widely shared by individuals and theorists who hold different moral worldviews. For example, a Muslim, a Christian, an atheist utilitarian, and a virtue ethicists can agree on the rule to avoid unnecessary harm innocent bystanders. A fully developed view of morality and the way in which it relates to human character would, of course, have to take into account more dimensions of morality and of moral identity. For the purposes of this paper, however, it is sufficient to refer to hypernorms.
Unfortunately, we cannot here discuss how the very idea of “morality” is socially constructed in business, or fails to be constructed. As Bird and Waters argued in 1989, it has often been difficult for leaders to couch moral questions in moral terms (see Bird and Waters 1989). Maybe this is changing, with public pressure on corporations increasing, which also increases the risk of reputational damages if corporations or their leaders are seen as unethical. The language of “sustainability”, in any case, seems to be more accepted now than it was a decade ago. The language of “morality” still seems to be met with a lot of resistance.
Mayer et al. (2012) theorize a positive relationship between moral identity internalization and ethical leadership, and find this relationship in one quantitative survey study to approach and in another to reach statistical significance. This points towards the fact that individuals with an internalized moral identity are indeed more likely to pursue ethical leadership. Yet, the statistical insignificance of the relationship in one of the studies could be a sign that in some cases (forms of) ethical leadership might also be pursued without an internalized moral identity.
The concept of Machiavellianism is related to this question. Machiavellianism implies manipulating others for personal gain (Wilson et al. 1996). As Den Hartog and Belschak (2012, p. 44) find, “being high on Machiavellianism does not necessarily imply being low on ethical leader behavior in the eyes of followers”. However, the questionnaire methodology used by the authors does not allow discovering the leader’s behavior in critical situations. As Den Hartog and Belschak point out: “[Our research] […] also calls for attention to the authenticity of the displayed leader behavior” (p. 45, emphasis added).
In order to protect the identity of these interviewees, their gender is not revealed and male terms are used throughout.
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Skubinn, R., Herzog, L. Internalized Moral Identity in Ethical Leadership. J Bus Ethics 133, 249–260 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10551-014-2369-3
- Moral identity
- Deviant workplace behavior
- Ethical leadership