Virtues and character strengths are often assumed to be universal, considered equally important to individuals across cultures, religions, racial-ethnic groups, and genders. The results of our surveys and laboratory studies, however, bring to light subtle yet consistent gender differences in the importance attributed to character in leadership: women considered character to be more important to successful leadership in business than did men, and women had higher expectations that individuals should demonstrate character in a new leadership role. Further, the gender of the research participant affected character ratings such that male respondents viewed a female leader who exhibited agentic behaviors in a professionally challenging situation less positively than a male leader who displayed the same agentic behaviors. The data also showed that male participants rated almost every dimension of character displayed by the female leader lower than did female participants. Our findings suggest that the question as to what extent gender differences may bias the assessment of virtues and character strengths is an important one, and one for which the practical implications for individuals in organizations need to be studied in more detail.
There has been a surge of interest in leader character, both from academics in fields such as business, psychology, political science, education, and engineering, and from practitioners. We speculate that the interest in leader character is, to a great extent, the result of highly publicized leadership failures in the public, private, and not-for-profit sectors. However, despite this interest, as well as the belief maintained by many leadership scholars that character is a key component of leadership, there is no consistent understanding of what character really means. As a term, character is often loosely defined, and for many, it is an ambiguous construct.
Unsurprisingly, then, research has focused extensively on the nature or ontology of character as a leadership construct (e.g., Crossan et al., 2017; Hannah & Avolio, 2011; Quick & Wright, 2011). Many scholars anchor their discussion of leader character in the domain of virtuous character. They conceptualize character as an expression of virtues, personality traits, and values that manifest in observable behaviors that facilitate human excellence and produce social betterment (e.g., Bright et al., 2006; Crossan et al., 2017; Hannah & Avolio, 2011; Nguyen & Crossan, 2021; Peterson & Seligman, 2004; Sarros et al., 2006; Wang & Hackett, 2016; Wilson & Newstead, 2022). Research has also focused on the antecedents and consequences of character (e.g., Cameron et al., 2004; Seijts et al., 2022; Sosik et al., 2012), how to develop character in individuals (e.g., Byrne et al., 2018; Crossan et al., 2021a; Hartman, 2006), and how to embed practices and processes in organizational policies to facilitate the development of character (e.g., Crossan et al., 2021b; Sosik & Jung, 2018). Yet despite the significant progress in understanding character and its role in business leadership, many questions remain unanswered.
One question that particularly intrigues us is whether leader character has a gender—a question originally posed by Marjorie Garber in her 2020 book Character: The History of a Cultural Obsession. Studies have overwhelmingly shown that leadership and the interpretation of leadership have a strong gender component. For example, female leaders tend to adopt a more democratic or participative style and a less autocratic or directive style than do male leaders (e.g., Eagly & Johnson, 1990; Eagly et al., 2003). These patterns of behavior are likely a product of socialization and the concomitant expectations about gender that facilitate sex-typical role performance by men and women (e.g., Eagly, 2013; Eagly & Wood, 2012; Eagly et al., 2000). Substantial evidence also points to bias in evaluating women’s competence as leaders and their potential for leadership (e.g., Heilman, 2001; Prime et al., 2009; Ridgeway, 2001). This is mainly because agentic behaviors, characteristic of many leadership roles, are seen by many—but especially by men—as less desirable in women than in men (e.g., Carli, 2001; Eagly & Carli, 2007; Kark & Eagly, 2010; Phelan et al., 2008). The resulting perceived incongruity between the female gender role and the stereotypical leader role creates a bias that results in less favorable evaluations of women’s leadership behaviors and hinders women’s pursuit of leadership roles (e.g., Eagly & Karau, 2002; Heilman, 2012; Koch et al., 2015). Given the gender differences inherent in the evaluation of leadership and the central role that character plays in effective leadership, a rather predictable question emerges: Is character, including the universally positive behaviors it encompasses, evaluated differently in men and women? That is, do existing gender-based biases associated with leadership competence and behaviors extend to the evaluation of character as well?
Consider, for example, the following thought experiment to entertain the possibility that the components of character—virtues and character strengths—may be evaluated differently depending on the gender of the person who occupies a position of power in society: Brett Kavanaugh was nominated on July 9, 2018, by former president Donald Trump to serve on the Supreme Court of the United States. His confirmation hearing was extremely contentious. Christine Blasey Ford, professor of psychology at Palo Alto University and a research psychologist at the Stanford University School of Medicine, accused Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her while the two were in high school. He denied all the accusations. At no point during the televised confirmation hearings did Kavanaugh directly confront Blasey Ford. Instead, he attacked the Democrats, as well as Hillary and Bill Clinton, for what he felt was a conspiracy to prevent his appointment to the Supreme Court. What was striking in the interactions with the Democratic senators was that Kavanaugh was yelling and, at some point, even cried. Many people described him as evasive, angry, aggressive, belligerent, and disrespectful. As Garber (2020) observed, others appreciated that Kavanaugh had stood up to the Democratic senators and thought the emotions he expressed were entirely appropriate—akin to righteous anger—given the context.
McGinley (2004, 2019) noted that interpretations of behavior are never arbitrary; factors such as gender, race, and class influence attributions of performance and what is considered appropriate or inappropriate behavior. Indeed, consider how people may have responded had Brett Kavanaugh been Brandi Kavanaugh, and had Brandi responded to the accusations in the same way Brett did. As McGinley (2019) wrote, “Although Kavanaugh’s performance was criticized by many, his primarily masculine performance never would have been acceptable if performed by Blasey Ford or any other woman. Had Blasey Ford yelled, cried, and acted entitled as Kavanaugh did, she would have been considered a hysterical woman, irrational, and untrustworthy” (p. 77).
Our paper picks up this thread to advance the theory and practice of effective leadership by asking whether men and women hold similar views of character and its associated behaviors in a business leadership role. Specifically, we seek to understand if the gender of an individual affects (a) the importance attributed to character and its myriad dimensions in a leadership role, and (b) bias in perceived leader effectiveness among male and female leaders who enact identical character-related behaviors. We explore these questions through four studies, namely, two surveys (Studies 1 and 2) and two experiments using vignettes (Studies 3 and 4), resulting in four random samples collected between July 2020 and April 2021. Study 1 examined if men and women value equally or differ in the degree to which they attribute importance to character in a leadership role in business. Study 2 further probed this question by investigating if men and women differ in the extent to which they assess the importance of character in the ideal leader prototype. In Study 3, we explored how participants rate the importance of character when a male versus a female leader transitioned into a new leadership role. Finally, in Study 4, we evaluated if the gender of the participants affected attributions of character for a female versus male leader when the leader displayed agentic leadership behavior.
Our research makes several contributions to the scholarship of leader character, leadership perceptions, and gender. First, we extend the literature on leader character by showing that character—much like leader competence—is evaluated through the subjective lens of individual differences such as gender. Thus, our research responds to calls in the literature to better understand virtues and character strengths as they manifest within and across cultures, religions, racial-ethnic groups, and genders (e.g., Darnell & Kristjánsson, 2020; Newstead et al., 2018; Sarros et al., 2006). Second, our results suggest that the importance attributed to character in business leadership is contingent on the gender of the individual. For example, we show that female participants tend to view the dimensions of character as more important to achieve success in business leadership than male participants. Thus, given the observation that leader character is not viewed equally positively by men and women, our research brings to light the important implications of gender differences. Third, our results reveal that both the gender of the observer and the leader affect perceptions of character-related behavior. For example, male participants viewed a female leader who exhibited agentic character-related behaviors in a professionally challenging situation less positively than a male leader who displayed the same agentic behaviors. Thus, the results of our surveys and laboratory studies suggest that the gendered view of character may be an important factor that inhibits the fair evaluation and advancement of female leaders in organizations.
Our paper proceeds as follows: We begin by providing an overview of existing research on leader character and the importance of character in business leadership. Next, we focus on the perceived importance attributed to character in leadership and, in particular, we argue that men and women may be evaluated differently in their display of character-related behaviors in a leadership role. Then, we introduce four studies that explore different aspects of how gender affects leader character and discuss the findings of these studies. Finally, we highlight the theoretical and practical significance of our findings and recommend opportunities for future research.
It is not an understatement to say that leader competence has been foundational to research and practice for decades. Competence includes the knowledge, understanding, and skills that leaders are expected to demonstrate in order to be successful in their roles. However, more recently, leader character emerged as an indispensable component of leadership. For example, empirical studies have linked character—or dimensions of character—to positive outcomes at the individual and team levels (e.g., Hendriks et al., 2020; Rego et al., 2013; Seijts et al., 2020). Thus, it is not surprising that leadership scholars have begun to develop a deeper understanding of the role of character in business leadership.
We use a definition of character anchored in the virtue ethics perspective and described by Crossan et al. (2017) as a set of interconnected virtues or character dimensions that are manifested “in habits of cognition, emotion and behavior that embody human excellence and produce social betterment” (p. 2). Crossan et al. were guided by the seminal work of Peterson and Seligman (2004) and conceptualized character as an amalgam of virtues, values, and personality traits that enable human excellence through habits of behavior. Virtues are situationally appropriate behaviors, such as humanity, which are widely considered as emblematic of good leadership in that they contribute to the well-being of individuals and, ultimately, societies (e.g., Newstead et al., 2018; Peterson & Seligman, 2004). For example, demonstrating care for others and actively promoting their well-being in the workplace during stressful conditions such as the COVID-19 pandemic is a behavior associated with the virtue of humanity and contributes to both personal and professional development. Some virtuous behaviors reflect the activation of personality traits, such as openness to experience, which are relatively stable dispositional variables. These personality traits predispose employees to behave in certain virtuous ways, if not overridden by contextual variables such as the quality of relationships with colleagues (e.g., Costa et al., 2019). For example, to be a true advocate on race, individuals must have the openness to constantly learn and reflect upon their own biases and how these may have contributed to creating policies, processes, systems, and structures that act as barriers to people of color. Also, some of the virtues are expressed as values, such as justice. For example, leaders who provide timely, unbiased, and specific feedback to employees demonstrate the virtue of justice. Character, thus, is a habit of being—a set of observable and measurable behaviors anchored in virtues, personality traits, and values that facilitate human excellence and produce personal and social betterment (e.g., Bright et al., 2014; Crossan et al., 2017; Peterson & Seligman, 2004).
Our research employs the leader character framework developed and validated by Crossan et al. (2017) (see Fig. 1). The framework (and associated measures) was designed for organizational leaders in the private, public, and not-for-profit sectors as opposed to, say, the VIA Inventory of Strengths—a 240-item instrument that measures 6 virtues and 24 character strengths—which is intended for individuals from the general population. The framework is based on engaged scholarship; that is, Crossan et al. were guided by both prior research on virtues and character strengths as well as collaborations with leaders from the public, private, and not-for-profit sectors (hence the term leader character). The framework outlines 11 character dimensions and 62 supportive behaviors—called character elements—that are widely considered by academics and leaders to be exemplars of virtuous leadership. Researchers have used the framework in various settings including business and corporate governance, government, political science, law enforcement, education, sports, and the military, which speaks to the wide applicability of the framework.
The virtuous behaviors that collectively reflect strength of character are considered universal in achieving goodness [see, for example, Peterson and Seligman (2004) for a cross-disciplinary and in-depth examination of such virtuous behaviors]. However, as many leadership scholars remind us, context matters—not only for how the dimensions of leader character are enacted but also in how these dimensions are valued by individuals. For example, effective leaders are adept at exercising the different aspects of the leader character repertoire based on the demands of the situation (e.g., Eikeland, 2006; Schwartz & Sharpe, 2010). That is, the effective leader understands when it is appropriate to demonstrate vigor and be results-oriented (as part of drive; see Fig. 1) and when to be patient (as part of temperance) and considerate (as part of humanity) of an employee’s concerns; when to demonstrate modesty and reflection (as part of humility) and when to be confident and determined (as part of courage) in declaring leadership ambitions; and so forth.
In addition to the situational context, it is likely that the evaluation and enactment of specific dimensions of leader character are affected by individual difference variables. For example, it is plausible that gender affects the importance attributed to the role of character in leadership as well as how the demonstration of the myriad dimensions of character by male and female leaders is perceived by others. This is because research has shown that leadership behaviors as well as leadership evaluations are deeply intertwined with gender-based expectations, with female leaders expected to act in more communal ways and male leaders expected to behave in more agentic ways across a variety of contexts (e.g., Badura et al., 2018; Eagly & Karau, 2002). Such differences may not only be relevant to the demonstration of leader competence but also to the display of character-related behaviors in leaders. However, the connection between gender and character in business leadership has yet to be empirically explored. For example, are all character dimensions evaluated equally favorably by male and female leaders? Or do stereotypical expectations about leadership and leader behaviors influence the evaluation of character and its dimensions? We believe these are relevant questions that can shed greater light on how character—an essential component of leadership—is perceived and evaluated in individuals who hold a leadership role in business.
Leadership and Gender
Gender is an important contextual variable that shapes expectations of leadership as well as evaluations of leadership competence and behaviors. An extensive body of research focused on gender differences has shown that socialization plays an important role in shaping the different views that men and women hold regarding effective leadership and desirable behaviors in leaders (e.g., Boatwright & Forrest, 2000; Paris et al., 2009; Perrone-McGovern et al., 2014). Scholars investigating the role of gender in leadership and associated behavioral expectations often conceptualize behaviors on an agentic to communal continuum. Men are typically expected to behave in an agentic fashion—such as speaking assertively, expressing confidence in oneself, and being independent and decisive—and are rewarded for doing so (e.g., Phelan et al., 2008; Rosette & Tost, 2010). In contrast, women are often expected to behave in a communal fashion—such as being kind, helpful, nurturing, sympathetic to others’ needs, and avoiding conflict—and are rewarded for doing so (e.g., Abele & Wojciszke, 2007; Rosette et al., 2016). These beliefs continue to be held by men and women alike and suggest they are strongly ingrained in society (e.g., Hentschel et al., 2019; Tresh et al., 2019).
Studies have also shown that there are costs associated with behaving incongruently with or acting contradictory to socially prescribed gender or leadership roles. For example, Rosette et al. (2016) concluded that women frequently incur an agentic penalty for violating gender norms. They explained, “Agentic penalty stems from both prescriptive stereotypes (beliefs about how someone should behave, e.g., women should be nice) and proscriptive stereotypes (beliefs about how someone should not behave, e.g., women should not behave dominantly)” (p. 430). Such social expectations and associated penalties, captured in role congruity theory (e.g., Eagly & Diekman, 2005; Eagly & Karau, 2002; Rudman & Phelan, 2008), provide a framework to suggest that identical behaviors and mannerisms may be perceived more (or less) favorably by individuals depending on the gender of the leader.
It is true that research has revealed that there are more similarities than differences in the leadership styles and associated behaviors of men and women (e.g., Appelbaum et al., 2003; Eagly & Johnson, 1990; Oshagbemi & Gill, 2003). However, studies have also shown that, in comparison to men, women leaders are more likely to engage in transformational and participative leadership styles (e.g., Eagly & Johnson, 1990; Eagly et al., 2003), are more likely to remedy conflict through compromise (e.g., Holt & Devore, 2005; Valentine, 1995), and place greater importance on ethically resolving relational conflicts and ethical behavior (e.g., Dawson, 1997; Valentine et al., 2009).
While gender as a contextual variable affecting leadership emergence and effectiveness has been extensively studied, there is a lack of research on whether the gender of the leader or the observer affects perceptions of leader character. For example, the different dimensions of leader character may be categorized according to their gendered nature, and this categorization may carry important implications for perceptions of leadership. If we conceptualize the dimensions that comprise character on a continuum from agentic behaviors (e.g., accountability, courage, or drive) to communal (e.g., humanity, humility, justice, or temperance), the leadership approaches typified by female leaders tend to reside toward the communal end of the continuum. Yet the characteristics most often associated with effective leadership are predominately at the agentic end of the continuum, that is, those commonly typified by men. For example, leaders are often lauded for their courage, persistence, assertiveness, competitiveness, and willingness to stand out, and less for their abilities to encourage collaboration, create harmony, and express humility (e.g., Koenig et al., 2011; Vial & Napier, 2018).
These specifics obviously pose many questions regarding how the character of male versus female leaders may be evaluated by observers. For example, is courage similarly evaluated in both male and female leaders, or do female leaders pay a penalty for displaying agentic behaviors such as courage and drive? Are communal behaviors including humanity and humility more lauded in female over male leaders? These (and other questions) are the focus of our four studies that we present below. Specifically, in Studies 1–3, we explore whether men and women equally value the set of 11 character dimensions that Crossan et al. (2017) identified. In Study 4, we consider the possibility that the character dimensions and their concomitant elements are evaluated differently by observers depending on the gender of the leader.
Sample and Procedure
For each of the four studies, we recruited participants from the United States through Amazon Mechanical Turk (MTurk) in combination with TurkPrime, an MTurk add-on designed for behavioral science research. Crowdsourcing platforms such as MTurk have become a popular source of recruiting large samples of participants for studies in the behavioral sciences (e.g., Hauser et al., 2019; Porter et al., 2019). We took several steps to increase the quality and integrity of the collected data, consistent with the recommendations by Aguinis et al. (2021). First, for all four of the studies, each participant had to have an MTurk approval percentage of at least 90, thereby prohibiting respondents who incorrectly completed a task at least 10% of the time from participating. Second, the participants had to have completed at least 100 MTurk tasks, the minimum threshold allowed in TurkPrime. This was done to prevent duplicate entries on new accounts and ensure participants were familiar with MTurk. The possibility for duplicate entries was further thwarted by ensuring that each internet protocol address in the respondent sample was unique and that the credit-compensating code offered at the end of the survey was dynamic (changed with each participant). Following best practices helped to strengthen the external validity of our research findings. Several recent studies have emphasized that crowdsourcing platforms such as MTurk can be appropriate and useful tools for research purposes, particularly when formulating broad conclusions that warrant further testing (e.g., Cheung et al., 2017; Stritch et al., 2017). For example, a meta-analysis by Burnham et al. (2018) revealed that across several MTurk samples, demographic characteristics of workers closely approximated the general United States population on gender and race.
We used a different set of participants for each of our surveys and laboratory studies to protect against the possibility of any familiarity or priming effects: some participants may become aware that we were interested in the role of gender after our study manipulations became evident. Further, we wanted to avoid survey fatigue among the participants. This could have been a possibility had two or more of the studies been combined. Thus, 1183 unique participants were involved across the four studies. The minimum age of the participants was set at 18 years. The mean age of our overall sample was 38.99 years (SD = 11.87), and mean work experience was 17.45 years (SD = 12.25). Thus, our sample predominately consisted of working age individuals with substantial work experience, who have had ample opportunity to reflect on leadership in business and the character-related behaviors they consider important to success. Demographic background information of the participants varied slightly between the studies and hence is reported for each study separately. Completing each of Studies 1, 2, and 3 was anticipated to take around 5 minutes. Hence, compensation for these studies was set at CA$2.25 to ensure participants were compensated above the hourly minimum wage (CA$14.25 at the time of our studies) in Ontario, Canada. Study 4 lasted on average thirteen minutes and compensation was set at CA$5.00. The data for Studies 1–3 were collected in July and August 2020. The data for Study 4 were collected in April 2021.
For all studies, we specified the required sample sizes through an a priori power analysis conducted in G*Power 3.1; our targeted power was 90% using an effect of d = 0.35. This procedure reduces the likelihood that our findings are a Type I error and enhances the internal validity of our results. For Studies 1–3, which we ran at approximately the same time, we chose very large samples to ensure that even small effects would be detected, given that studies tend to underestimate the effects of gender differences (Swim, 1994). However, once we realized that the effect sizes obtained were larger than our conservative initial estimate, we lowered our sample size requirements for Study 4–40 participants per cell. The relatively large samples used in each of our studies also protect against selection bias, thereby further enhancing the internal validity.
In order to understand the effect of gender on leader character, we started with a fundamental question, namely, whether men and women differed in the perceived importance attributed to character in leadership. Study 1 used a survey to investigate whether there are any differences in the extent to which male and female participants rate character as important to achieve success in a leadership role in business.
Sample and Participants
The sample consisted of 316 participants (52% female, 48% male) with an average age of 39.51 years (SD = 12.05). The participants averaged 16.96 years of work experience (SD = 11.16). Roughly half of the participants (44%) possessed a bachelor’s degree; far fewer possessed a degree from post-graduate studies (17%). Sixty-seven % of the participants self-reported to hold full-time jobs, 15% of the participants worked part-time, and the remaining 18% consisted of students, homemakers, retirees, unemployed, and others.
Perceived Importance of Character
Participants were asked to respond to the following survey question: “Please rate each of the following dimensions of character according to how strongly you agree or disagree that it is important to achieve success in a leadership role in business.” The character dimensions were taken from the framework developed by Crossan et al. (2017) and included transcendence, drive, collaboration, humanity, humility, integrity, temperance, justice, accountability, courage, and judgment. Further, for each dimension, the participants were given the corresponding character elements shown in Fig. 1 to provide both clarity and a common frame of reference [(e.g., accountability (takes ownership, accepts consequences, conscientiousness)]. Scale scores ranged from 1 (strongly disagree) to 7 (strongly agree). We randomized the order in which the participants rated the dimensions of leader character to prevent any order effects bias. This procedure was utilized in all four studies and strengthens the internal validity of the results.
Results and Discussion
The overall results are shown in Table 1. A series of independent sample t-tests were conducted to examine whether participant gender had any effect on the perceived importance of the different dimensions of character in achieving success in a leadership role in business. Table 1 reveals that the top dimensions for women were accountability, integrity, drive, and judgment. For men, the top dimensions were judgment, accountability, and drive.
Female participants (M = 6.10, SD = 0.64) reported a significantly higher overall mean for the perceived importance of the character dimensions than did male participants (M = 5.84, SD = 0.72); t(305) = 3.26, p < 0.001. The effect size (d = 0.37) was medium (Cohen, 1988). A detailed inspection of the means revealed that female participants rated seven dimensions as significantly more important than did male participants: accountability [Female (M = 6.49, SD = 0.81), Male (M = 6.10, SD = 1.10)]; collaboration [Female (M = 6.15, SD = 0.86), Male (M = 5.94, SD = 0.99)]; drive [Female (M = 6.34, SD = 0.72), Male (M = 6.12, SD = 0.97)]; humanity [Female (M = 5.98, SD = 1.06), Male (M = 5.55, SD = 1.37)]; humility [Female (M = 5.82, SD = 1.19), Male (M = 5.52, SD = 1.33)]; integrity [Female (M = 6.37, SD = 0.91), Male (M = 5.99, SD = 1.21)]; and justice [Female (M = 6.08, SD = 1.13), Male (M = 5.70, SD = 1.21)]. Male participants did not report higher ratings on any of the dimensions of character than female participants.
We also explored the correlations between the overall mean for the perceived importance of the character dimensions and the demographic variables we measured. We did so because it is plausible that life and work experiences may affect perceptions of leadership and character. The correlation between the perceived importance of character and age was positive and significant (r = 0.15, p < 0.01) as was the correlation between the perceived importance of character and work experience (r = 0.21, p < 0.001). No other significant correlations were found. This set of correlations was replicated in Studies 2 through 4.
The results of Study 1 showed that female participants perceived character to be more important to achieve success in a leadership role in business than did male participants. This effect was especially prominent in the character dimensions of accountability, collaboration, drive, humanity, humility, integrity, and justice.
Although Study 1 revealed that men and women differed in the perceived importance attributed to character for success in a leadership role, it did not inform us why these differences exist. Therefore, to further probe gender-based differences in the perceived importance of character in leadership, we examined how men and women viewed the importance of character in an ideal leader. We used a survey to ask participants to consider what makes an ideal leader in business. Although scholars have always been interested in resolving the question of what makes an ideal leader, to our best knowledge, the format we used—to directly assess the perceived importance of the dimensions of character—is a unique contribution to empirical practice.
Sample and Participants
The sample consisted of 316 participants (51% female, 49% male) with an average age of 39.55 years (SD = 12.26). The participants averaged 18.17 years of work experience (SD = 12.17). Roughly half of the participants (51%) possessed a bachelor’s degree; far fewer possessed a post-graduate degree (19%). Seventy-three % of the participants self-reported to hold full-time jobs, 12% of the participants worked part-time, and the remaining 15% consisted of students, homemakers, retirees, unemployed, and others. Thus, consistent with Study 1, the participants had significant work experience and were well educated, and the large majority worked full- or part-time. Consequently, they were eminently qualified to share their perceptions about the role of character in business leadership.
Character in the Ideal Leader
Participants were asked to respond to the following survey question: “Please think about leadership and what you believe makes an ideal leader in business. Please use the 7-point scale below, where 1 means not at all and 7 means to a great extent, to rate the extent to which you believe the ideal business leader should demonstrate the following dimensions of character.” Again, the character elements were provided with each dimension to enhance the transparency of the dimension.
Results and Discussion
The overall results are shown in Table 2 and reveal that the top dimensions chosen by female participants were accountability, integrity, and justice. The top dimensions chosen by male participants were integrity, accountability, and judgment. This shows that, overall, there was some overlap in the character dimensions considered important by both men and women.
We conducted a series of independent sample t-tests to examine whether the gender of the participants exerted any significant effect on the perceived importance of character in the ideal leader prototype. Female participants (M = 6.08, SD = 0.61) reported a significantly higher overall mean for the perceived importance of the character dimensions in ideal leaders than did male participants (M = 5.78, SD = 0.73); t(303) = 3.91, p < 0.001. The effect size (d = 0.45) was medium (Cohen, 1988). The average scores and effect size are comparable to the result we obtained in Study 1. Further, a detailed inspection of the means reported in Table 2 revealed significant differences between female and male participants on nine out of the eleven character dimensions. Female participants considered character to be more important in the ideal business leader than did male participants. There were no significant differences in ratings for drive and judgment. Thus, consistent with Study 1, our data suggest that gender has a notable influence on how individuals view the importance of character in business leadership.
Overall, the importance of character to women was bolstered further by the results we obtained in Study 2: with the exceptions of drive and judgment, female participants attributed greater importance than male participants did to all character dimensions in an ideal business leader. The effect size was medium across both studies. And, consistent with Study 1, male participants did not provide significantly higher ratings than female participants on any of the dimensions.
Studies 1 and 2 revealed that women placed greater importance than men did on the role of character in achieving success in a leadership role as well as in the ideal leader prototype. However, an important limitation of Study 2 is that we did not know whether the ideal leader the participants had in mind was male or female. Consequently, we could not determine the potential impact of participant and leader gender on the ratings of importance attributed to character. Hence, in Study 3, we used vignettes that situated character in a richer, more applied business context. This is a novel approach to gather more specific data to examine the relationship between gender and attributions of leader character. In particular, we sought to examine how participants rated the importance of character when reading about a common business situation involving a male versus a female leader transitioning into a new role. The use of vignettes is a common approach to explore research questions in the behavioral sciences and leadership literatures (e.g., Cohen et al., 2001; Thomas, 2019).
Sample and Participants
The sample consisted of 394 participants (51% female, 49% male) with an average age of 37.60 years (SD = 11.61). The participants averaged 15.95 years of work experience (SD = 10.89). Roughly half of the participants (44%) possessed a bachelor’s degree; far fewer possessed a post-graduate degree (16%). Sixty-nine % of the participants self-reported to hold full-time jobs, 14% of the participants worked part-time, and the remaining 17% consisted of students, homemakers, retirees, unemployed, and others.
The procedures were nearly identical to those in the previous two studies with one major exception: the participants were randomly assigned to one of two vignettes. The vignettes were identical except for the name of the leader. In the first experimental condition, participants read a vignette involving a leader named Jim; the second condition involved a leader named Jane. The vignette described a gender-neutral job, one frequently occupied by both men and women. This was critically important because we did not want to trigger any a priori perceptions or stereotypes that a particular job is, or ought to be, performed by a woman or a man. The design of Study 3 was therefore a 2 (participant gender: male, female) × 2 (leader gender: male, female) between-participants factorial design. The scenario provided to the participants was as follows:
(Jim, Jane) is excited as (he, she) just received word that (he, she) has been hired as the Manager of Projects, Operations & Stakeholder Engagement, at the Becker Institute of Health Studies, affiliated with Breville Hospital. In this leadership role, (Jim, Jane) will be responsible for the effective management and operations of the Institute. Working with the Executive Director and key stakeholders to set the Institute’s strategy, (Jim, Jane) will conduct outreach and develop/sustain relationships with internal and external stakeholders to support the objectives of the Institute. This includes the management of projects and development of organizational systems that will support the Institute and facilitate the achievement of its research and program objectives. The responsibilities of the Manager of Projects, Operations & Stakeholder Engagement include supervision of the Institute’s research, the management of projects, management of events and conferences, and outreach to external stakeholders.
Participants were instructed to read the scenario carefully and think about what it would take for (Jim, Jane) to be successful in (his, her) new role. They were asked to answer the following question upon completion of reading the vignette: “Please use the scale below to rate the extent to which you think (Jim, Jane) personally needs to demonstrate the following dimensions of character to be successful in (his, her) new role.” Participants appraised the 11 dimensions of character using the scales used in the previous two studies: a 7-point Likert scale where 1 meant not at all and 7 meant to a great extent.
Results and Discussion
The overall results for the character dimensions are shown in Table 3. The results from a series of ANOVAs revealed that regardless of leader gender (Jim, Jane), female participants reported a significantly higher need than male participants for the leader to demonstrate accountability [Female (M = 6.27, SD = 0.95), Male (M = 6.02, SD = 1.13)]; drive [Female (M = 6.18, SD = 0.92), Male (M = 5.96, SD = 1.03)]; integrity [Female (M = 6.09, SD = 1.04), Male (M = 5.88, SD = 1.04)]; judgment [Female (M = 6.20, SD = 0.93), Male (M = 5.93, SD = 1.12)]; justice [Female (M = 5.61, SD = 1.19), Male (M = 5.27, SD = 1.19)]; and temperance [Female (M = 5.96, SD = 0.98), Male (M = 5.58, SD = 1.12)] in the leadership role. Consistent with Studies 1 and 2, male participants did not provide significantly higher ratings than female participants on any of the dimensions of character. Also, women (M = 5.85, SD = 0.72) reported a significantly higher overall mean than men for the need to display character in the leadership role (M = 5.62, SD = 0.71); F(1371) = 9.34, p < 0.01. The eta squared or η2 (0.03) indicated a small effect. No other significant effects were found; there was neither a main effect for leader gender nor a participant gender × leader gender interaction effect on any of the character ratings. These findings indicate that female and male participant ratings for the importance to demonstrate character was not affected by the gender of the leader. Female participants, in general, reported higher expectations of the need to display character than did men, irrespective of the gender of the leader.
The findings from Study 3 reinforce those from Studies 1 and 2: women appear to perceive character to be more important to achieve success in a leadership role than do men. The results from these three studies also suggest that this difference is primarily driven by significant differences in accountability, collaboration, drive, humanity, humility, integrity, justice, and temperance. Another robust finding from the three studies is that men did not report significantly higher ratings than women for any of the dimensions of character.
A limitation of Studies 1–3 was that participants were not provided with any performance information; we only asked the participants about their perceptions of the importance of character in leadership and leadership roles. We therefore decided to conduct a fourth study to explore whether the gender of the participants affected attributions of character for a female versus male leader when the leader displayed an agentic response (e.g., behaviors that pertain to self-assertion, confidence, independence, and courage) to a challenging performance episode in the job. Study 4 thus explicitly addresses the issue of ratings and gender bias in attributions of character. Similar to Study 3, we explored this question through the use of vignettes.
Several of the dimensions of character shown in Fig. 1 are more communal in nature, while others are more agentic. For example, character dimensions such as accountability, courage, and drive exemplify highly agentic traits or behaviors, including ambition, confidence, competitiveness, power, and autonomy (e.g., Eagly & Karau, 2002; Rosette et al., 2016; Williams & Best, 1990). In contrast, the character dimensions of humanity, humility, justice, collaboration, and temperance have strong communal characteristics, including warmth, friendliness, consideration, caring, understanding, and strong needs for nurturance and affiliation (e.g., Eagly & Karau, 2002; Rosette et al., 2016; Williams & Best, 1990). Given that the different character dimensions are intertwined with agentic and communal qualities, it is likely that some behaviors associated with character are deemed to be more acceptable or desirable in male leaders versus female leaders and vice versa. Therefore, we sought to understand how an agentic leadership response to a challenging performance episode would affect an observer’s attribution of character in male versus female leaders.
Sample and Participants
The sample consisted of 157 participants (50% male, 50% female) with an average age of 40.34 years (SD = 11.04). The participants averaged 19.62 years of work experience (SD = 11.94). Our inclusion criteria for Study 4 were somewhat different from the previous studies. First, participants were required to have obtained at least one post-secondary degree or diploma. The vast majority of the participants (64%) had a bachelor’s degree; 29% had completed post-graduate studies. Second, participants were required to be either employed full- or part-time or retired; thus, we excluded students, homemakers, et cetera. Ninety-five % of the participants were employed full-time. Third, participants must currently serve in a supervisory role (or did prior to retirement). We imposed these criteria because of the experience that would be required to provide an informed assessment of the requirements to perform the job effectively and evaluate the performance of the protagonist in our scenario. We believe these criteria enhance the extent to which the results of our study are generalizable to workplace settings.
The participants were randomly assigned to one of two experimental conditions. The six-page vignette described a series of events involving either Jonathan or Jane. Both vignettes were identical except for the gender of the protagonist. The design of Study 4 was therefore a 2 (participant gender: male, female) × 2 (leader gender: male, female) between-participants factorial design. The vignette was written with the assistance of a senior leader in the public sector who was asked to recall a critical performance episode that generated considerable conversation and debate among colleagues. And, consistent with Study 3, the vignette included a gender-neutral job—one that did not specify or imply gender. The use of a vignette based on a real-life workplace event enhances the external validity of our results.
The vignette focused on (Jane, Jonathan) who was declined a permanent senior director position in a government agency and instead was offered a temporary, less senior position. The materials given to the participants consisted of a series of emails from (Jane, Jonathan), the supervisor, and the selection committee. For example, in an email to the selection committee, the supervisor indicated that (Jane, Jonathan) was more than technically qualified for the permanent position; however, the supervisor also expressed concerns regarding apparent deficiencies in managing teams and interacting with key stakeholders. Some clients had indicated that (Jane, Jonathan) could be impolite and inflexible in performing the requisite duties and had an unreasonable sense of what could be accomplished given resource constraints. The materials also explained that (Jane, Jonathan) understood that people did not always agree with (her, his) recommendations during highly complex negotiations; however, these recommendations had always been based on sound background research. The materials added that some colleagues had expressed frustration in the way (Jane, Jonathan) led the team and assigned goals. Nevertheless, as the supervisor reported to the selection committee, the team routinely met high benchmarks because (Jane, Jonathan) was driven and clever. Therefore, the decision had been made to offer (Jane, Jonathan) a temporary assignment at a junior executive level with the hope that closer supervision and time would give (her, him) the resources needed to further mature as a leader. Many of the character-related behaviors described in the materials were agentic in nature, such as being results-oriented, speaking assertively, expressing confidence in oneself, showing determination, and being independent and decisive. The full set of materials can be obtained from the second author upon request.
On average, participants spent thirteen minutes completing the materials, which suggests they spent a reasonable amount of time to read and absorb the information embedded in the vignette.
Perceived Importance of Character
Participants were asked to respond to the following question: “Please rate each of the following dimensions of character according to how strongly you agree or disagree that it is important to achieve success in a leadership role in business.” Scale scores ranged from 1 (strongly disagree) to 7 (strongly agree). Participants were asked to answer this question before the vignette was presented to them.
Perceived Leader Effectiveness
Participants were asked to answer the following question upon completion of reading the vignette: “How effective do you consider (Jane, Jonathan) to be in demonstrating each of the dimensions of character?” Participants used a 7-point Likert scale to provide their ratings where 1 meant not at all and 7 meant to a great extent. The midpoint of the scale was to a moderate extent (4).
Results and Discussion
The results for the perceived importance of character to achieve success in a leadership role in business are shown in Table 4. A series of independent sample t-tests were conducted to examine whether participant gender had any effect on the perceived importance of the different character dimensions. The results in Table 4 indicate that female participants chose accountability, integrity, drive, and collaboration as the most important dimensions. Male participants chose accountability, integrity, and judgment as the most important dimensions. These rankings are highly similar to those obtained in Study 1. Further, and consistent with Study 1, women (M = 6.11, SD = 0.56) reported a significantly higher overall mean than did men for the perceived importance of the character dimensions in achieving success in a leadership role in business (M = 5.87, SD = 0.65); t(151) = 2.45, p < 0.05. The effect size (d = 0.40) was medium (Cohen, 1988). Again, these results are similar to those reported in Study 1.
An inspection of the means in Table 4 showed significant participant gender differences in ratings for the dimensions of collaboration [Female (M = 6.29, SD = 0.71), Male (M = 5.94, SD = 1.15)]; humanity [Female (M = 6.01, SD = 0.95), Male (M = 5.64, SD = 1.09)]; humility [Female (M = 5.92, SD = 0.96), Male (M = 5.52, SD = 1.07)]; justice [Female (M = 5.89, SD = 1.07), Male (M = 5.53, SD = 1.11)]; and temperance [Female (M = 6.05, SD = 0.95), Male (M = 5.71, SD = 1.09)]. Women rated these dimensions as more important to achieve success in a leadership role than did men. Men did not score significantly higher than women on any of the dimensions.
The ratings for perceived leader effectiveness are shown in Table 5 and reveal interesting results. First, there were no significant main or interaction effects for participant and leader gender on the effectiveness ratings for humanity, integrity, judgment, justice, and temperance. Second, an inspection of the means for the experimental conditions shows an interesting trend: the lowest ratings for almost every dimension of character can be found in the male participant × Jane condition. Third, we found significant main or interaction effects for participant and leader gender on the effectiveness ratings for accountability, collaboration, courage, drive, humility, and transcendence. A striking observation embedded in Table 5 is that, generally, the ratings for Jane were affected to a greater extent by participant gender than the ratings for Jonathan.
There was both a main effect for participant gender [F(1156) = 15.45, p < 0.001] and a participant gender × leader gender interaction effect [F(1156) = 4.55, p < 0.05] on accountability. Male participants rated Jane lower on accountability (M = 4.36, SD = 1.48) than Jonathan at the midpoint of the scale, whereas female participants rated Jane higher on accountability (M = 5.75, SD = 1.26) than Jonathan.
There were main effects for participant gender [F(1155) = 24.95, p < 0.001] and leader gender [F(1155) = 5.29, p < 0.05] on collaboration. A significant participant gender × leader gender interaction effect [F(1155) = 26.28, p < 0.001] revealed that male participants rated Jane lower on collaboration (M = 3.26, SD = 1.33) than Jonathan, below the midpoint of the scale, and female participants rated Jane higher on collaboration (M = 5.74, SD = 1.53) than Jonathan.
The main effect for leader gender on courage indicated that regardless of participant gender, Jonathan (M = 5.94, SD = 1.12) was seen as more courageous than Jane (M = 5.21, SD = 1.46); F(1155) = 12.36, p < 0.001.
There were main effects for participant gender [F(1154) = 8.77, p < 0.05] and leader gender [F(1154) = 26.83, p < 0.001] on drive. A significant participant gender × leader gender interaction effect [F(1154) = 10.05, p < 0.001] revealed that female participants rated Jane lower on drive (M = 4.67, SD = 1.82) than Jonathan, and both male and female participants rated Jonathan higher on drive (between 6.40 and 6.44) than Jane.
The significant participant gender × leader gender interaction effect [F(1156) = 4.87, p < 0.05] on humility revealed that male participants rated Jane below the midpoint of the scale (M = 3.08, SD = 1.46), and female participants rated Jane higher on humility (M = 4.05, SD = 1.72) than Jonathan, at the midpoint of the scale.
And, last, we found a significant participant gender × leader gender interaction effect [F(1155) = 6.60, p < 0.05] on transcendence. Female participants did not really differentiate between Jane and Jonathan when rating transcendence; their ratings were fairly close. In contrast, male participants rated Jonathan higher (M = 5.22, SD = 1.31) than Jane, who was rated at the midpoint of scale (M = 4.36, SD = 1.60).
Together, these results suggest the existence of a same-sex bias on several of the dimensions of character. First, an inspection of the means reveals that male participants generally rated Jane lower than Jonathan on the dimensions of character. Second, male participants, unlike their female counterparts, reported scores below the midpoint for Jane for collaboration, humanity, humility, justice, and temperance. There was not a single instance where female participants rated Jane below a 4.00, the midpoint. In contrast, female participants rated Jonathan below a 4.00 on collaboration, humanity, and humility, yet they still rated Jonathan more positively than male participants rated Jane on these dimensions. All things considered, and as mentioned previously, participant gender more strongly affected the ratings for Jane than the ratings for Jonathan and allows for the conclusion that the assessment of character is affected by participant gender bias.
The purpose of our study was to explore whether men and women view the role of character similarly in achieving success in a leadership role in business. Further, we examined the possibility that the character dimensions and their concomitant elements are evaluated differently by observers depending on the gender of the leader displaying leadership behaviors in a challenging performance episode. We examined these questions through a series of surveys and laboratory studies. These studies targeted a narrowly defined sample: individuals of working age who have had opportunities to reflect on business leadership and the character-related behaviors they consider important to success. We believe our results add to our understanding of the expectations individuals hold about leaders and the role of gender in shaping perceptions of leadership qualities, including character. Our study is unique in that no prior systematic research has explored the effect of gender on the perceived importance of character and its constituent dimensions.
Our results show that, overall, women, more so than men, tend to see character as an important factor to achieve success in a leadership role. This effect was largely driven by significant differences in accountability, collaboration, drive, humanity, humility, justice, and temperance. Also, and contrary to our expectations, men did not rate any of the dimensions of character—including the dimensions that have a more agentic focus, such as accountability, courage, and drive—as more important to achieve success than women. Accordingly, it is somewhat ironic that the communal-oriented dimensions of character including humanity, humility, justice, and transcendence were rated as less important in achieving success in a leadership role by male participants. One explanation for these results is that individuals do not normally equate these dimensions with good leadership. Yet, empirical evidence reveals that each of the dimensions and their supporting elements are related to elevated performance metrics. For example, studies have shown that leader humility has a positive effect on employee creative performance and team performance (e.g., Owens & Hekman, 2016; Ye et al., 2020). Thus, it appears that the positive implications of these character dimensions have not yet been translated into the notion of what truly constitutes effective leadership.
Our results also revealed that the perceived importance of the dimensions of character as well as the ratings regarding the effectiveness in demonstrating the behaviors associated with the dimensions were affected by participant and leader gender. Notably, the gender of the research participant affected character ratings such that male respondents viewed a female leader who exhibited agentic behaviors in a professionally challenging situation less positively than a male leader who displayed the same agentic behaviors. This finding is in line with the broader leadership literature that shows that women tend to experience a backlash for agentic behaviors (e.g., Eagly & Carli, 2007; Kark & Eagly, 2010; Rosette et al., 2016). Contrary to prior research that has suggested that both men and women react equally negatively to women violating gender stereotypic norms (e.g., Heilman et al., 2004; Rudman et al., 2012), our results show that female respondents reacted more favorably to women leaders showing agentic character-related behaviors. Thus, the findings we obtained may suggest the existence of a same-sex bias in the adjudication of leader character, which is intriguing because of the universally positive behaviors or traits character is thought to reflect.
The character-related differences we obtained across the four studies were small to medium. Consequently, there may be real, meaningful implications for selection, performance management, and promotion including associated outcomes, such as the provision of developmental opportunities that facilitate growth and development. We outline both the theoretical and practical contributions of our results next.
Our research makes several important contributions to the research on gender, leadership perceptions, and leader character. Researchers have begun to take a keen interest in character in business leadership because it is seen as an indispensable component of sustained excellence. The various dimensions of character have been shown to contribute to leadership effectiveness as well as positive follower and organizational outcomes (e.g., Monzani et al., 2021; Seijts et al., 2021; Sosik et al., 2019). Yet despite these advances and calls for a deeper understanding of the role of character in leadership, the effect of individual differences such as gender in the enactment and evaluation of leader character has received scant attention (e.g., Sarros et al., 2006; Wilson & Newstead, 2022). This omission in the leader character literature is significant, given the growing representation of women in leadership roles (e.g., Eagly, 2020; Matsa & Miller, 2011) as well as the expansion of leadership prototypes to include more communal traits (e.g., Braun et al., 2018; Koenig et al., 2011).
Our results bring to light subtle yet consistent gender differences in the importance attributed to character in a business leadership role. This finding challenges the conventional belief that virtues and character strengths are considered equally important to (or valued among) individuals across cultures, religions, racial-ethnic groups, and genders. The existing literature on the distinct socialization processes for men and women (e.g., Eagly, 2013; Eagly & Karau, 2002; Paris et al., 2009) may help to explain the gender differences. For example, men tend to be socialized to perform more competitive roles and focus on achievement and self-advancement. Women, on the other hand, tend to be socialized to a gender role that emphasizes relationship building, communality, cooperation, and serving others.
A strong emphasis on virtues and character strengths aligned with the communal leadership prototype may be an important contribution that female leaders bring to contemporary institutions in the public, private, and not-for-profit sectors. For example, Wilson and Newstead (2022) reported that female heads of state on average performed extremely well—as measured by fewer cases and deaths—than male heads of state during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. They found that female heads of state effectively deployed virtue-based practices into their crisis leadership behaviors. For example, the five most emphasized virtues—humanity, justice, prudence, courage, and temperance—accounted for close to 90% of the virtue-based communications identified in their analysis. These findings led Wilson and Newstead to conclude that: “Adopting virtue-based strategies cannot alone guarantee success, nor ward off future crises, but at the very least adopting such approaches helps us all to refine and develop our character such that we may cope more ethically and wisely with such challenges.” Our results therefore reinforce the idea that character is a critical or foundational personal resource that leaders can draw on to work through a particular personal or work-related challenge (e.g., Crossan et al., 2017; Seijts et al., 2022). Thus, to advance leadership theories, the ongoing research on character should (continue to) be integrated with existing leadership theories to make them more robust and informative as to how one becomes more effective as a leader and achieves sustained organizational performance.
Our results also show that a female leader who displayed agentic-oriented character-related behavior was the victim of a backlash for such behaviors, but primarily from male evaluators. This result is consistent with research that shows that male observers tend to respond more harshly to women using agentic styles of communication (e.g., Carli, 1990, 2001). These findings have their roots in role congruity theory where leader evaluations are higher when leadership behavior aligns with the stereotypical leader role (e.g., Eagly & Diekman, 2005; Eagly & Karau, 2002; Rudman & Phelan, 2008). Our study shows that female participants tend to view agentic character-related behaviors by other women more favorably than do male participants. This phenomenon was not previously reported in the literature. A potential explanation for this finding might be that the female participants—who had significant work and supervisory experience—understood the demands on women in a leadership role and were less attached to stereotypical beliefs that women should always be communal even when the situation may demand more agentic actions. The deployment of agentic behaviors may be necessary both to achieve organizational results (e.g., through strategic decision-making or leading comprehensive change) and for women to advance in leadership roles. This interpretation is consistent with Eagly and Carli (2003), who suggested that women may become more masculine, particularly in agentic attributes, although not decreasing in feminine qualities in their leadership. In contrast, the male participants in our studies may have remained more prone to subject women to gender role expectations and associated behaviors. This result is arguably part of a frustrating yet familiar pattern in the behavioral sciences and reaffirms the idea that female leaders often find themselves in a double bind. As explained by Eagly and Carli (2007), if women are highly communal, they may be criticized for not being agentic enough; and if they demonstrate agentic behaviors, they may be criticized for lacking communion. As a result, individuals—males in particular—often downplay their competence as well as their potential for leadership. Beyond the aforementioned theoretical contributions, our research also has tangible implications for business in practice, as discussed below.
Our work offers several practical implications for both leaders and managers in organizational settings. First, our results show that the assessment of character may be affected by observer gender bias. Individuals signal virtues and character strengths through their interactions with colleagues. However, colleagues may interpret such character-related behaviors quite differently, despite the fact that virtues and character strengths reflect positive behaviors (e.g., Crossan et al., 2017; Peterson & Seligman, 2004). Female leaders who engage in the same type of agentic behaviors associated with character as men may be perceived as being too ambitious or demanding, and lacking humility or temperance. For example, it was surprising to see in our results that a female leader who displayed agentic character-related behaviors in challenging a negative evaluation from her supervisor was perceived by male respondents as showing less integrity than a male leader who engaged in the identical behaviors. Predictably, in real-world settings, women may hold back from demonstrating agentic behaviors to avoid being seen as difficult to work with. They may also refrain from voicing their opinions for fear that doing so may cost them further opportunities for personal growth and development. Such silence only perpetuates unfair practices and does not help the organization to understand how it can bridge persistent inequalities between men and women (e.g., Eagly, 2007; Ely et al., 2011). Our findings show that these fears to engage in agentic character-related behaviors are not unfounded; hence, researchers should continue to investigate strategies to disrupt biases in the evaluation of behavior demonstrated by female leaders (e.g., Anderson et al., 2015; Williamson & Foley, 2018).
Second, and related to the first point, Ladkin (2021) argued that expressing one’s true self when performing the role of leader is a luxury women can often ill afford. This is problematic because there is a direct and positive relationship between authentic leadership and well-being of both the leader and their followers (e.g., Avolio & Gardner, 2005; Sutton, 2020). Further, organizations may miss out on critically important character-related behaviors that promote effectiveness in individual, team, and organizational functioning. For example, the suppression of courage and/or accountability on the part of organizational leaders—male or female—because of social pressures or a fear of experiencing negative personal consequences may lead to groupthink and willful blindness: situations where contemporaneous information was available but ignored, resulting in disastrous outcomes (e.g., Bénabou, 2013; Heffernan, 2012).
Third, organizational leadership may be familiar with dimensions of character such as integrity, accountability, and courage, but may have given little thought to other, more communal dimensions such as humanity, humility, justice, and temperance. Maybe business leaders—and male executives in particular—believe these dimensions are nice to have, but not really a core concern for effective leadership. Consider, however, the alternative: situations where leaders have difficulties in activating these dimensions of character. The result is very often personal and professional failure (e.g., Furnham, 2018; Hogan et al., 2011). Further, as the findings obtained by Wilson and Newstead (2022) showed, the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic by political leaders should be an important case study with thoughtful lessons as they relate to character and business leadership. Organizations should therefore find ways to elevate the importance of character alongside competence in the practice of leadership. Programmatic research on leader character encompassing subsequent conversations on the merits of including all, not just a subset of dimensions of character in leadership profiles would help to ensure that character and its myriad dimensions become a legitimate topic of conversation in organizations.
Limitations and Future Research
Despite the strengths of our research design, namely, the use of four independent studies to control for survey fatigue, priming effects, and response tendencies, it is important to note limitations associated with our studies which suggest interesting lines of inquiry for future research. We used MTurk data to explore our research questions. The use of MTurk data is not without controversy. However, we were guided by the recommendations of Aguinis et al. (2021) for the use of MTurk data that should facilitate robust, reproducible, and trustworthy MTurk-based research in management. The sampling and data collection procedures were consistent across the studies we conducted. The great degree of demographic similarity between each of the four samples suggests we accurately sampled our population of interest. We used four highly powered studies which yielded similar yet distinct findings, thereby enhancing the external validity of our results. Nevertheless, as with all studies, our data need to be replicated in different settings, using different research methods, to establish its robustness and generalizability to and across work settings, people, and times.
We employed between-participants research designs using vignettes based on real-world experience in Studies 3 and 4. A strength of our design in Study 4 is that performance or behavior was held constant. Field studies may introduce nuances and noise. For example, Koch et al. (2015) explained that a main drawback of field studies is the inability to unambiguously attribute gender differences to any particular cause, including gender bias or true gender differences in performance and behavior. They also noted that “because of the inherent ambiguity in explaining gender differences in field studies, laboratory studies are critical for isolating gender bias as a cause of gender differences in evaluations” (p. 141). The findings we reported lead to the question: To what extent may contextual variables other than gender bias the assessment of character and its associated behaviors? For example, the socio-cultural, ethnic, and organizational context that individuals—leaders, managers, and employees—experience is likely to shape their philosophical views and approaches toward leadership, including leadership-related behaviors. Therefore, research examining gender differences in leadership behaviors misses key impactful factors when excluding such contextual variables (e.g., Eagly et al., 2003; Van Engen et al., 2001). Future studies are needed to investigate how leaders’ social background and the work context they face or faced throughout their careers affect the evaluation of character-related behaviors. Further, Newstead et al. (2018) explained that “specific enactments of virtues are contextual, experienced in and responsive to culture and time” (p. 451). Hence, future research studies should consider leadership, leader character, and context in tandem as well as consider whether the dimensions and elements captured in frameworks of character truly generalize across countries, national cultures, religions, racial-ethnic groups, time, and intellectual tradition.
Finally, we used vignettes to explore our research questions. We did not evaluate the magnitude to which perceptions of character translated into formal performance evaluations or promotional opportunities. Thus, we urge researchers to investigate the interplay between gender, leader character, performance assessments, and measures of success in formal organizational settings.
Our research sheds light on the gendered nature of leader character in organizations and shows that context matters for how dimensions of character are valued. Specifically, our results show that men and women value the dimensions of character differently and are evaluated differently in their display of character. Therefore, we bring to light the importance of gender as an important contextual variable in the research and practice of leader character.
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Mohan, G., Seijts, G. & Miller, R. Does Leader Character Have a Gender?. J Bus Ethics (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10551-022-05313-9
- Leader character
- Character strengths