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REVIEWS Further Ethical Leadership

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Deanne N. Den Hartog
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Annu. Rev. Organ. Psychol. Organ. Behav. 2015. Keywords

ethical leadership, unethical leadership, leader morality, leadership
First published online as a Review in Advance on
December 24, 2014 styles, leader behavior, follower perceptions
The Annual Review of Organizational Psychology Abstract
and Organizational Behavior is online at High-profile cases of leaders’ ethical failure in different settings and
This article’s doi: sectors have led to increased attention to ethical leadership in
10.1146/annurev-orgpsych-032414-111237 organizations. In this review, I discuss the rapidly developing field
Copyright © 2015 by Annual Reviews. of ethical leadership from an organizational behavior/psychology
All rights reserved perspective, taking a behavioral and perceptual angle. After address-
ing the background of ethical leadership in this field, I discuss how
ethical leadership has been defined, which behaviors and character-
istics contribute to a leader being seen as ethical by followers, and
how ethical leadership relates to other leadership styles. I also contrast
ethical with unethical leader behaviors. Next, I address what the
research to date tells us about the effects of perceived ethical leader
behavior, the mechanisms through which this form of leadership
affects followers, and what the role of the context is. Finally, I sum-
marize the challenges the field currently faces, outline several future
research directions, and discuss some practical implications of the work
to date.

The many scandals involving ethical lapses of high-level leaders that occurred over the past decade
and a half have placed the moral and ethical aspects of leadership at the forefront of public
attention and have increased the pressure on firms and their leaders to behave ethically. Ethical
behavior is now critical to leaders’ credibility and their potential to meaningfully influence fol-
lowers at all levels in an organization (e.g., Brown et al. 2005, Piccolo et al. 2010). Also, research
suggests that ethical leadership may affect managerial careers. For example, in a recent study,
although showing more ethical leadership toward employees did not affect managers’ near-term
promotability, it did enhance their being rated as having high potential for senior leadership roles,
especially in firms with more ethical cultures (Rubin et al. 2010).
Morality has become an important topic in organizational behavior/psychology, and in line
Annu. Rev. Organ. Psychol. Organ. Behav. 2015.2:409-434. Downloaded from

with that, the attention of researchers for moral and ethical issues in leadership has increased, too.
Much of this recent work focuses—as does this review—on perceived ethical leader behavior in the
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workplace. Although this work has yielded important insights into perceptions and effects of
ethical leaders, there are still many unknowns when it comes to ethical leader behavior and what its
antecedents, outcomes, and contingencies are. For example, current work does not yet fully
explain why some in a leadership situation choose to behave in a principled and ethical manner,
whereas others (at times) do not.
Although issues of morality and power have been addressed in the extensive work on the
philosophy of ethics, this broader, more philosophical work is beyond the scope of the current
review. This review takes an organizational behavior/psychology perspective and focuses on
a behavioral and perceptual view of ethical leadership. For example, which behaviors and char-
acteristics contribute to a leader being seen as ethical and why? How does ethical leadership relate
to other styles? What kinds of effects does this form of leading have on others and why, and what is
the role of the context? After providing some background on the ethical leader behavior construct,
I discuss different ways in which ethical leadership has been conceptualized/operationalized and
how it relates to other constructs. I then address salient research findings on outcomes, ante-
cedents, and context effects. Finally, I summarize the challenges the field faces, future research
directions, and practical implications.


Ethics and morality received relatively little attention in mainstream behaviorally focused lead-
ership research and theorizing until authors started to address morality issues in charismatic/
transformational leadership research (Treviño et al. 2003). Early empirical work on transfor-
mational leadership usually portrayed it as positive, moral, and values based. For example, Burns
(1978, p. 20) described transforming leadership as a process whereby “leaders and followers raise
one another to higher levels of motivation and morality” and “transforming leadership ultimately
becomes moral in that it raises the level of human conduct and ethical aspiration of both leader and
led, and thus it has a transforming effect on both” (emphasis in original). Bass (1985), however,
noted that transformational leaders could use their transforming influence toward pursuing moral
ends or immoral ones.
In response, researchers differentiated between authentic and pseudo-transformational leader-
ship (e.g., Bass & Steidlmeier 1999) or personalized (unethical) and socialized (ethical) charismatic
leadership (e.g., Howell 1988, Howell & Shamir 2005). Such approaches focus on the social versus
self-oriented use of power and the morality of the means and ends to differentiate between ethical and
unethical leaders (De Hoogh & Den Hartog 2009a). For example, Bass & Steidlmeier (1999) argued

410 Den Hartog

that authentic transformational leadership has an ethical/moral foundation and is a positive form
of leadership that emphasizes serving the collective rather than oneself. By contrast, pseudo-
transformational leaders behave immorally and focus on self-serving rather than collective goals.
Barling et al. (2008) found that pseudo-transformational leadership (operationalized as low idealized
influence/high inspirational motivation) was associated with higher follower fear, obedience, job
insecurity, and dependence and with perceptions of abusive supervision, whereas transformational
leadership (high idealized influence/high inspirational motivation) related to lower follower obe-
dience, dependence, and job insecurity.
A complicating factor is that it is not always easy for those being led to distinguish the good
from the bad, as this requires knowledge of the leader’s true intentions. For example, as pseudo-
and authentic transformational leaders show similar behaviors, Dasborough & Ashkanasy (2002)
Annu. Rev. Organ. Psychol. Organ. Behav. 2015.2:409-434. Downloaded from

noted that pseudo-transformational manipulative behaviors may not be obvious and may be hard
to recognize. The authors proposed that followers’ attribution of leader intentionality plays
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a central role, and they argued that both leaders’ ability to hide intentions and followers’ ability to
distinguish intentions and read the related cues may affect followers’ ability to distinguish pseudo-
from authentic transformational leadership.
Price (2003, p. 75) notes that “while transformational leaders can ‘wear the black hats of
villains or the white hats of heroes’ (Bass & Steidlmeier 1999, p. 187), the problem is that leaders
and followers sometimes fail to see all the colors of their own hats.” He warns that in the leadership
process, threats to morality cannot be reduced to egoism. Authentic transformational leadership
assumes that people act on altruistic values for the good of their group, organization, or society,
yet altruistic values and a concern for the group’s collective outcomes can compete with morality.
Leaders could be pursuing goals that are in the interest of the group but that deny legitimate moral
demands of outsiders. Such rights of others beyond the group are often not reflected in leaders’
values and decisions: “So, if leaders are to avoid ethical failure, they will sometimes have to defy
normative pressures to privilege group interests” (Price 2003, p. 78). As Gini (1998) notes, to be
ethical, the leader must intend no harm and respect the rights of all affected parties, not just those of
the (in)group.
Alongside the morality of transformational leaders, a more general increased attention for
ethical leadership in organizations emerged, fueled by the high-profile cases of leaders’ ethical
failure. Early descriptive work focusing on ethical leadership as a separate style was done by
Treviño and colleagues (2000, 2003). They described ethical leadership along two related
dimensions: being a moral person and being a moral manager. The first refers to qualities of the
ethical leader as a person at work and beyond, such as honesty, trustworthiness, fairness, and
concern for others. A moral person considers the consequences of his or her actions. Others know
that when they go to a moral person, they will be heard. The moral manager concept revolves
around how leaders use managerial roles and leadership positions to promote ethics in the
workplace—for example, through role modeling ethical conduct, setting and communicating
ethical standards, and using reward/punishment to ensure that ethical standards are followed.
Following this, others also started considering ethical leadership as a behavioral style in itself (e.g.,
Brown et al. 2005, De Hoogh & Den Hartog 2008, Khuntia & Suar 2004, Mayer et al. 2009,
Resick et al. 2006).

Definitions of and Major Approaches to Ethical Leadership

Brown and colleagues (2005) take a social learning approach to ethical leadership and propose
that followers will come to behave similarly to their leader through imitation and observational
learning (cf. Bandura 1986). Leaders are thought to have a strong influence on ethical standards,  Ethical Leadership 411

and followers see them as role models of the “right” ethical behaviors in the firm (e.g., Mayer et al.
2009, 2013). Leaders serve as role models and also use reward and punishment to stimulate desired
behavior and ethical conduct (Treviño et al. 2003).
Brown and colleagues (2005, p. 120) define ethical leadership as “the demonstration of
normatively appropriate conduct through personal actions and interpersonal relationships, and
the promotion of such conduct to followers through two-way communication, reinforcement, and
decision-making.” This emphasizes ethical leadership as perceived ethical leader behavior
and operationalizes it in terms of behavior intended to benefit employees; other stakeholders, such
as customers or society, are not explicitly included. Also, this definition focuses on normatively
appropriate conduct, a term which Brown et al. (2005) made deliberately vague, because norms
vary across organizations, industries, and cultures. The definition does not specify who sets norms
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and whether norms take anyone outside the group into account, as some such norms may not fit
with others or may even be harmful for others (De Hoogh & Den Hartog 2009a). Eisenbeiss (2012,
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p. 793) questions whether it is “sufficient to define ethical leadership as ‘normatively appropriate

conduct’ without having a minimum set of normative reference points that help evaluate the
ethicality of conduct and its underlying values.” As noted above, questions that remain include,
ethical for whom, what constitutes ethical failure, and does this include out-group members’ moral
In addition, often combined with social learning, ethical leadership is studied in social exchange
terms, which suggest that followers will reciprocate when treated ethically by leaders (e.g., Hansen
et al. 2013, Hassan et al. 2013). Exchange relationships develop through a series of mutual
exchanges that yield a pattern of reciprocal obligation (e.g., Masterson et al. 2000). Over time, the
norm for reciprocity leads to followers reciprocating the fair and caring treatment of ethical leaders
through showing desired behaviors (e.g., Walumbwa et al. 2011). This reciprocation does not need
to focus solely on leaders personally, for example, in the form of performance or supervisor
focused citizenship, but could also involve showing wider constructive behaviors aimed to
contribute to the work group or the broader organization (e.g., Kalshoven et al. 2013b).
Others see ethical leadership in more general terms by taking into account the intention or
purpose of leaders’ behavior and its effects rather than its perceived normative appropriateness or
the exchange involved (e.g., Turner et al. 2002). The effect of leader’s actions on others (in a broad
sense) then forms a major concern (Aronson 2001). For example, Resick et al. (2006) focus on how
leaders use their power in decisions, actions, and ways to influence others. De Hoogh & Den
Hartog (2009a) take a social influence perspective and define ethical leadership as the process of
influencing the activities of a group toward goal achievement in a socially responsible way. They
focus both on the means through which leaders attempt to achieve goals and on the ends. In this
approach, ethical leaders are driven by moral beliefs and caring values, and they aim for their
actions and judgments to be beneficial for followers, organizations, and society (Kalshoven et al.
Gini (1998) holds that to be considered ethical, leaders should not intend harm and should
respect the rights of all affected parties. Similarly, according to Kanungo (2001), in order to be
ethical, leaders must engage in virtuous acts and refrain from those that harm others, and acts must
stem from altruistic rather than egotistic motives. However, this is difficult to evaluate, as motives
underlying behavior may be mixed. Acts could benefit many but not all, and leaders often face hard
choices there (e.g., Price 2003). Altruism does not always lead to more ethical choices, and Ciulla
(2012) observes that altruism forms a highly personalized standard and a motive for action, but
not necessarily a normative principle. Thus, given the basic tension that can exist between the
effectiveness, rights, and goal attainment of a group and the moral rights of individuals within as

412 Den Hartog

well as beyond that group, the morality and the potential for ethical failure of all leadership styles,
even when labeled ethical, remain an issue.

Ethical Leader Behaviors and Their Measurement

Different leader behaviors have been proposed as components of ethical leadership. For ex-
ample, Resick et al. (2006) identified character/integrity; ethical awareness; community/people-
orientation; motivating, encouraging, and empowering; and managing ethical accountability.
Similarly, other studies found acting fairly and honestly, demonstrating consistency and in-
tegrity, promoting ethical conduct in others, being concerned for people, allowing voice, and
sharing power to be ethical leader behaviors (Brown et al. 2005, De Hoogh & Den Hartog 2008,
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Eisenbeiss & Brodbeck 2014, Kalshoven et al. 2011b). Concern for sustainability and society or
broader rights issues are sometimes taken into account (e.g., Kalshoven et al. 2011b), but this
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element is usually ignored and needs further development (Eisenbeiss & Brodbeck 2014).
Several scales measure ethical leader behavior. Brown et al. (2005) combined the behaviors they
saw as core components (acting fairly, allowing voice, and rewarding ethical conduct) in their 10-item
ethical leadership scale (ELS). This is the scale used most to date. Yukl and colleagues (2013) developed
a similar 15-item scale. Short scales such as these are useful in field studies where many other variables
are measured or the number of items needs to be limited. Theoretically, however, the involved
behaviors may have different effects or antecedents, and thus combining them into a single syndrome
may make it harder to fully understand the role of ethical leadership (De Hoogh & Den Hartog 2008).
Multidimensional measures also exist, and these assume that ethical leadership forms an
overarching construct composed of multiple distinct, yet related, leader behaviors (see, e.g., De
Hoogh & Den Hartog 2008, Den Hartog & De Hoogh 2009, Kalshoven et al. 2011b, Khuntia &
Suar 2004, Resick et al. 2006 for different measures). A potential drawback of multidimensional
measures may be that not all included behaviors are conceptually uniquely ethically focused (Yukl
et al. 2013). Scales tend to be rooted in qualitative work on what perceivers (usually followers)
think of as being part of ethical leadership (e.g., Eisenbeiss & Brodbeck 2014, Treviño et al. 2003).
For example, Khuntia & Suar (2004) measured two dimensions: labeled empowerment and
motive/character. A broader multidimensional measure is Kalshoven and colleagues’ (2011b)
38-item ethical leadership at work (ELW) measure. The seven ELW dimensions that were based on
both literature and interviews are leader integrity, fairness, caring behavior, power sharing,
concern for sustainability, role clarification, and ethical guidance.1
De Hoogh & Den Hartog (2009a) linked ethical leader behaviors to their definition of ethical
leadership, stressing socially responsible power use. For example, one connotation of social re-
sponsibility is responsibility as an obligation. In other words, the leader feels an inner obligation to
do what is known to be right and truthful, and he or she can be counted upon to act in alignment
with moral values (Winter 1991). This implies that ethical leaders act with fairness, respect, and
integrity; make principled choices; are trustworthy; and do not practice favoritism. Kalshoven
et al. (2011b) operationalized this in the dimensions of integrity and leader fairness. Other authors
also see demonstrating fairness and leader integrity as core elements of ethical leadership (e.g.,
Treviño et al. 2000, 2003). Related terms used for these dimensions include leaders’ personal
integrity, character, honesty, and principled decision making (Avolio 1999, Brown et al. 2005,
Craig & Gustafson 1998, Eisenbeiss & Brodbeck 2014, Resick et al. 2006).

In their initial validation, Kalshoven et al. (2011b) show that all seven ELW scales correlate positively and significantly with
each other and with Brown et al.’s (2005) ELS measure.  Ethical Leadership 413

De Hoogh & Den Hartog (2009a) note that responsible power use also connotes being aware of
the consequences of actions, as in feeling responsible for something or someone (Winter 1991).
Ethical leaders take responsibility for their own and followers’ actions as well as the ensuing
consequences. These leaders guide employees and clarify responsibilities so that employees un-
derstand what is expected from them. They stress ethical norms and communicate expectations
around ethical behavior. Kalshoven et al. (2011b) labeled these dimensions role clarification and
ethical guidance. Similarly, Treviño et al. (2000, 2003) found that setting ethical expectations and
holding oneself and others accountable were associated with perceptions of ethical leadership.
Also, Brown et al. (2005) discussed the importance of ethical leaders’ transparency and promoting
and rewarding of ethical conduct among followers.
Social responsibility also relates to altruism and prosocial motivation (Winter 1991). This
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suggests that ethical leaders are caring and concerned about employees (Kalshoven et al. 2011b,
Resick et al. 2006). Brown et al. (2005) describe ethical leaders as people focused, and Treviño et al.
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(2003) highlight the concern these leaders have for people. Ethical leaders also engage in open
communication and encourage voice (Brown et al. 2005). These leaders allow follower partici-
pation in decision making and listen to their followers’ ideas, which some label power sharing (De
Hoogh & Den Hartog 2009a, Kalshoven et al. 2011b). Such inclusive behaviors help employees
see their work as more meaningful (e.g., Feldman & Khademian 2003). Finally, ethical leadership
is sometimes seen to incorporate broader values and to direct organizational members toward
ethical goals beyond the organization. For example, some scholars include care about the impact of
actions on society or the environment as an aspect of ethical leadership. However, as noted, this
element is not often found in measures of ethical leadership (for an exception, see the concern for
sustainability scale of Kalshoven et al. 2011b).


Several leadership styles share some characteristics with ethical leadership but are conceptually
different: transformational, transactional, spiritual, and authentic leadership (Brown & Treviño
2006). Chen et al. (2014) add paternalistic leadership to that list. Also, the fairness element of
ethical leadership relates to interactional justice (e.g., Mayer et al. 2012), and the people ori-
entation aspect relates to support or leader–member exchange (LMX) (e.g., Kalshoven et al.
Transformational leadership revolves around communicating an inspiring and idealized vision
of the collective future with which followers can identify (Bass 1985). Brown & Treviño (2006)
note that transformational and ethical leadership have similarities. For example, both ethical and
(authentic) transformational leaders care about others, are role models, and act consistently with
their principles. However, the constructs also differ: Although engaging in fair, moral, and ethical
behavior as a means of influencing followers is key to ethical leadership, this is not emphasized in
transformational leadership. Ethical leadership also more explicitly includes transactional modes
of influence than transformational leadership does. Conversely, ethical leadership does not revolve
around articulating future or change visions or intellectually stimulating employees, both of which
are central to transformational leadership. Also, although ethical leaders are seen as both moral
managers and moral people, transformational leaders can exhibit either more altruistic (authentic)
or more self-centered (pseudo) forms. Due to its explicit focus on morality, the authentic form of
transformational leadership shares more with ethical leadership than the pseudo form does;
however, several abovementioned differences hold for both forms.
Transactional leadership, and especially the subdimension of contingent rewarding, revolves
around leaders providing followers with desired rewards in exchange for each follower’s input at

414 Den Hartog

work (Bass 1985). As noted above, ethical leaders also use transactional principles as they clarify
ethical expectations and use reward and punishment to shape follower behavior (Brown &
Treviño 2006). Transactional leadership also includes performance monitoring (often labeled
active management-by-exception). Overall, transactional leaders focus on getting followers to
perform as expected and on how they can facilitate such performance (Bass 1985). This focus
differs from ethical leadership, which goes beyond merely focusing on performance or effec-
tiveness and explicitly also aims to affect follower ethical awareness, norms, and behaviors (e.g.,
Resick et al. 2013).
Brown & Treviño (2006) argue that ethical leadership also differs from spiritual leadership,
which is focused on motivating followers to have a sense of spiritual survival through calling and
membership (Fry 2003). Spiritual leaders are visionary, which is a characteristic not associated
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with ethical leadership, and ethical leaders use transactional mechanisms that are not associated
with spiritual leadership. Also, the calling to serve and the religious element of spiritual leadership
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are not the focus of ethical leadership. Although the motive to serve others (also found in servant
leadership; Greenleaf 2002) may contribute to becoming a more ethical leader, Brown & Treviño
explain that ethical leadership can also be driven by more pragmatic motives. Similarly, Brown &
Treviño (2006) describe ethical leadership’s similarities with and differences from authentic
leadership: Whereas authentic and ethical leaders share a social motivation and people orientation
and both are ethically principled, the authenticity and self-awareness that are key to authentic
leadership are not part of ethical leadership. Rather than self-awareness, care and concern for
ethics and morality and for others are central to ethical leadership.
A related construct studied mostly in Asia is paternalistic leadership (e.g., Chen et al. 2014),
a leadership style combining discipline and concentrated authority (authoritarianism) with fa-
therly benevolence and morality. Authoritarianism refers to controlling subordinates and de-
manding unquestioned obedience. Benevolence implies a holistic concern for followers’ personal
and familial well-being. Morality is the demonstration of integrity through acting unselfishly and
leading by example. Ethical leadership relates to this morality element of paternalistic leadership.
However, Chen et al. (2014) note that although exhibiting integrity and moral standards is
important for paternalistic leadership, social learning and the idea of leaders as role models whose
ethical behavior is emulated are not. Also, decision making and communication styles differ
between these types of leadership. Whereas ethical leadership implies that leaders and followers
engage in two-way communication and power sharing, paternalistic leadership emphasizes one-
way communication and centralized decision making. Under the latter style, followers expect
leaders to make the decisions, and followers obey leaders’ directives without question (Chen et al.
Interactional justice originally referred to the quality of the interpersonal treatment individuals
receive when procedures are implemented (Bies & Moag 1986). It is now seen as consisting of two
types: interpersonal justice, which reflects whether people are treated politely and respectfully by
those executing procedures or determining outcomes, and informational justice, which focuses on
the explanations provided about why procedures were used or outcomes distributed in a given
manner (Colquitt et al. 2001). Similar to ethical leadership, interactional justice includes fair and
respectful treatment and open communication, such as providing clarity about decisions (e.g.,
Brown et al. 2005, Kalshoven et al. 2011b). However, ethical leadership involves more than fair
treatment and is focused on setting an ethical agenda and influencing followers’ ethical awareness
and behaviors in a much broader sense. Also, interactional justice does not focus on the social
learning principles of role modeling and reward and punishment that are central to ethical
leadership.  Ethical Leadership 415

Supportive/considerate leadership as well as LMX (i.e., the degree to which leaders develop
high-quality relationships with followers; cf. Graen & Uhl-Bien 1995) are related to the people
orientation of ethical leadership. Yet, although ethical leaders are caring and people oriented, they
aim to promote ethical norms and the moral and ethical behaviors of employees rather than
focusing on having a good relationship with followers as an end in itself. High-quality rela-
tionships are likely to ensue from ethical leadership, which may translate into more distal out-
comes; thus, some argue that LMX is a mediator in the ethical leadership–outcome relationship
(e.g., Walumbwa et al. 2011).
Many studies do not incorporate both ethical leadership scales and scales to measure related
leadership styles; however, those that do suggest that correlations with related scales are relatively
high and that more work on discriminant and incremental validity of ethical leadership scales is
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needed (see also the Challenges and Implications section, below).2

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Brown & Mitchell (2010, p. 588) define unethical leadership as “behaviors conducted and
decisions made by organizational leaders that are illegal and/or violate moral standards, and those
that impose processes and structures that promote unethical conduct by followers.” Although
direct research on unethical leadership is relatively scarce (Eisenbeiss & Brodbeck 2014), Brown &
Mitchell (2010) suggest that various forms of destructive leadership, such as abusive leadership
(Tepper 2000, 2007), petty tyranny (Ashforth 1994), and undermining leadership (Duffy et al.
2002) overlap with unethical leadership, as these are forms of destructive leader behavior that
harm others. The same is true for leader intimidation, belittling, and bullying. The above unethical
leadership definition also includes leader behavior that encourages unethical follower behavior
even if leaders do not directly engage in it themselves, which has not yet received much attention
(Eisenbeiss & Brodbeck 2014).
Kalshoven & Den Hartog (2013) note that many destructive leadership behaviors directly
contrast with those described for ethical leadership. For example, a lack of consideration reflects
being unapproachable, uncaring, or unfriendly, which contrasts with the ethical leadership people
orientation. Also, many destructive behaviors reflect unfairness and harsh treatment as opposed to
fair and respectful treatment. Despotic leadership (Aronson 2001, De Hoogh & Den Hartog 2008)
and petty tyranny (Ashforth 1994) are based on personal dominance and oppressive power use
that is self-aggrandizing and exploitative. Similarly, abusive supervision (Tepper 2000) occurs
when supervisors engage in the sustained display of hostile verbal and nonverbal behaviors. Less
extreme is autocratic leadership, in which no power is shared and decisions are made by the leader
without considering follower opinions (e.g., De Hoogh & Den Hartog 2009b). Similar to au-
thoritarianism in paternalistic leadership (Chen et al. 2014), this behavior contrasts with the

For example, Barling et al. (2008) report correlations of the ELS and subscales for transformational leadership ranging from
.62 to .72; Mayer et al. (2012) report a correlation of .78 for idealized influence. Kalshoven et al. (2011b) report that the ELS
correlates .72 with transformational leadership, and for the seven ELW subscales, this ranges from .25 to .68; the ELS
correlates .72 with transactional leadership, and for the seven subscales, this ranges from .26 to .82. In Singapore, Toor &
Ofori (2009) find lower correlations with the ELS: .58 for overall transformational and .46–.53 for the subscales. In their data,
ethical leadership is unrelated to transactional leadership. For interactional justice, Neubert et al. (2009) report a correlation of
.71, and Mayer et al. (2012) report correlations of .62 for interpersonal and .68 for informational justice. For procedural
justice, using Chinese data, Walumbwa et al. (2011) report a correlation of .50, and for LMX, they report a correlation of .48.
Kalshoven et al. (2011b) reports a .76 correlation of the ELS and LMX as well as three subscale ethical leadership correlations
with LMX ranging from .42 to .59.

416 Den Hartog

empowerment and encouraging of voice seen as part of ethical leadership (e.g., Brown et al. 2005,
Kalshoven et al. 2011b).
Einarsen et al. (2007) propose that passive or laissez-faire leaders can also be viewed as unethical
in that they violate legitimate involvement in the organization by not taking the responsibility that is
part of their role, being unmotivated for goals, showing no care for others, and failing to support or
guide their followers. As passive leaders avoid problems, are not dependable, and show minimal
effort or involvement, followers likely view them as more unethical. Skogstad et al. (2007) em-
pirically addressed the assumption that passive leadership is destructive, by showing its positive
relationships with workplace stressors, bullying at work, and psychological distress.
Some work suggests that ethical and unethical leadership form polar opposites—for example,
when such behaviors are portrayed in terms of a tension between leaders acting on altruistic versus
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egoistic motives or engaging in beneficial versus harmful behaviors (e.g., Kanungo 2001). But if
this were true, leaders would then be either one or the other. However, low ethical leadership is not
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necessarily the same as high unethical leadership, as the absence of ethical leadership can imply
either unethical leadership or the lack of a proactive ethics-related agenda (Brown & Treviño
2006, Treviño et al. 2000). In other words, merely refraining from unethical behavior does not
make leaders ethical. Ethical leaders actively pursue instilling and communicating about ethical
norms; they model ethical behaviors and actively monitor and reward to influence ethical
awareness and behavior. Also, seeing the overall constructs as polar opposites precludes looking at
mixes of (un)ethical behaviors. Leaders could, for example, show both ethical and unethical acts
toward some or all followers, and research suggests that such inconsistency can be problematic (I
return to this below).
In sum, although ethical and unethical leadership are generally likely to be negatively related,
they are also conceptually different and unlikely to form polar opposites. The limited available
empirical evidence suggests mostly moderate negative relationships.3 More research including
both ethical and unethical leader behaviors is needed to better establish these relationships and
understand when and why they occur.


Below, I review research on outcomes of ethical leadership. It should be noted that although ethical
leadership has been related to different outcomes, usually the term correlates would be more
appropriate due to the predominantly cross-sectional designs used. Another issue is that whereas
some studies do measure both ethical and related styles (e.g., Mayer et al. 2012, Kalshoven et al.
2013a, Walumbwa et al. 2011), many do not. Doing so more often could help determine the
discriminant and incremental validity of ethical leadership, show which effects are unique to
ethical leadership as compared to other styles, and reveal how different leader behaviors might
interact in affecting outcomes.
Ethical leadership has to date been linked to attitudinal, motivational, well-being, and
performance-related outcomes; ethical norms and decisions; and the (ethical) behaviors stemming
from these. The social learning and social exchange–based explanations for such effects include
that followers come to display ethical norms, positive job attitudes, and constructive and ethical

For example, ethical leadership was found to be significantly negatively related to autocratic leadership ( .26; Kalshoven et al.
2011b), despotic leadership ( .56; De Hoogh & Den Hartog 2008), and abusive supervision ( .51; Detert et al. 2007). However,
Barling et al. (2008) report a low, nonsignificant correlation between ethical leadership and abusive supervision. Toor & Ofori
(2009) and Kalshoven et al. (2011b) also both report negative correlations with passive leadership ( .27 and .40, respectively).  Ethical Leadership 417

behaviors similar to those of ethical leaders who act as their role models (e.g., Mayer et al. 2010)
and that followers reciprocate ethical leadership by showing desired work behaviors (e.g., Hansen
et al. 2013).

Growing empirical evidence suggests a positive relationship between ethical leadership and many
outcomes. Ethical leaders are expected to promote altruistic attitudes among followers, such
leadership is likely to enhance commitment and motivation, and employees who feel supported
and respected are more likely to develop trust, satisfaction, and a sense of well-being. Positive
attitudinal effects are indeed found in research. For example, ethical leadership was found to relate
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positively to satisfaction with the leader, perceived leader effectiveness, followers’ job dedication,
willingness to report problems to management, affective well-being, LMX, normative and af-
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fective commitment, and trust; it was found to relate negatively to cynicism (e.g., Brown et al.
2005, Den Hartog & De Hoogh 2009, Hassan et al. 2013, Kalshoven & Boon 2012, Kalshoven
et al. 2011b, Neubert et al. 2009). Unit/group level effects have also been observed; for example,
Mayer et al. (2012) found a negative relationship with relationship conflict.
Relationships with employee attitudes have been observed in a number of countries, including
non-Western ones. For example, Khuntia & Suar (2004) found that the ethical leadership of Indian
private and public sector managers was positively related to follower job performance, affective
commitment, and job involvement. Also, in China, ethical leadership was found to be positively
related to LMX, self-efficacy, and organizational identification and, in turn, to employee per-
formance (Walumbwa et al. 2011). The positive attitudinal effects found lower in the hierarchy
also appeared to occur at higher levels. For example, CEO ethical leadership related positively to
top management team members’ optimism about the future and perceived top management team
effectiveness (De Hoogh & Den Hartog 2008).

Behavioral, Ethical, and Performance Outcomes

The outcomes that are perhaps conceptually most strongly specific to ethical rather than other
forms of leadership are those related to others’ ethical norms and decision making as well as
increased ethical and prosocial behavior and decreased counterproductive behavior, deviance, or
unethical conduct of followers (e.g., Brown & Treviño 2006). Indeed, available evidence suggests
that ethical leadership is negatively related to individual- and group-level deviance and positively
related to both individual- and group-level citizenship behaviors, including both affiliative
(helping) and challenging (voice/initiative) citizenship behaviors (e.g., Avey et al. 2011; Den
Hartog & Belschak 2012; Kalshoven & Boon 2012; Kalshoven et al. 2011b, 2013a,b; Mayer et al.
2009, 2012; Neves & Story 2013; Walumbwa et al. 2012; Walumbwa & Schaubroeck 2009). In
addition, research suggests positive relationships with effort, performance, and effectiveness of
both individuals and groups (e.g., Piccolo et al. 2010; Walumbwa et al. 2011, 2012).
Ethical climate involves “the prevailing perceptions of typical organizational practices and
procedures that have ethical content” (Victor & Cullen 1988, p. 101), and several authors focus on
the importance of ethical leaders at different levels for creating an ethical climate and affecting
ethical behaviors at work (e.g., Dickson et al. 2001, Neubert et al. 2009). This process of
influencing ethical norms and behaviors is likely to start at the top of organizations and cascade
down through middle management and supervisory levels. Mayer et al. (2009) found a direct
negative relationship of both top management and supervisory ethical leadership with group-level
deviance and a positive relationship of these forms of leadership with group-level organizational

418 Den Hartog

citizenship behavior (OCB). Consistent with their trickle-down model proposing that ethical
leadership flows from the top to supervisors and then to employees, Mayer and colleagues found
that effects of top management ethical leadership on outcomes are mediated by supervisory
leadership. Thus, top managers serve as role models for lower-level managers, who in turn serve as
role models for employees (Mayer et al. 2009). Similarly, Schaubroeck et al. (2012) found support
for a multilevel model of how leaders at different levels affect unit ethical culture, which in turn
affects followers’ ethical cognitions and behavior. They also noted that influences of ethical
leadership not only are related to immediate followers within units but also occur across hier-
archical levels, through the cascading of ethical organizational culture and the influence of senior
leaders on leader behavior at lower levels.
Work by Mayer et al. (2013) highlights the importance of multiple sources of social influence at
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different hierarchical levels. The authors examined the relationship between supervisory ethical
leadership and employees’ reporting of unethical conduct within the organization (internal
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whistle-blowing) and proposed that positive effects of ethical leaders would be enhanced by
coworkers’ ethical behavior. Indeed, they found that employees’ internal whistle-blowing
depended on the ethical tone relating to social influence at both supervisory and coworker levels.

Suggested Mediational Mechanisms

Below I discuss several examples of potential mechanisms through which ethical leaders affect
outcomes (see also Figure 1). For most proposed mechanisms, only a few studies are available to
date, and as many studies are cross-sectional, the direction of causality needs further attention.
One psychological mechanism proposed as linking ethical leadership to employee be-
haviors relates to enhanced ethical cognition, decisions, norms, or awareness of followers (e.g.,
Schaubroeck et al. 2012). For example, Resick et al. (2013) propose moral equity judgments as
an ethical cognition linking ethical leadership with employee discretionary workplace behaviors.
Individuals can use different philosophical bases in ethical judgment (e.g., justice, utilitarianism,
deontology), and Reidenbach & Robin (1990) developed a measure assessing ethical judgments
from three perspectives, including moral equity, contractualism, and relativistic judgments. The
moral equity perspective focuses on evaluations of decisions or actions in terms of their moral
rightness, justice, and fairness. Contractualism focuses on unspoken duties or obligations; the
relativistic perspective on acceptability based on norms of the larger society. Of these, moral equity
judgments have the greatest relative impact and should relate most to ethical leadership (Resick
et al. 2013). The findings suggested that when employees have ethical leaders, they tend to
judge acts of deviance as morally inequitable and citizenship acts as morally equitable. In turn,
these judgments related to engaging in prosocial and avoiding antisocial behavior.
Ethical leaders send clear messages about ethical values and hold subordinates accountable
(Treviño et al. 2003). Ethical leadership is a value-driven form of leadership that affects the self-
concept and beliefs of followers (e.g., Den Hartog & Belschak 2012, Eisenbeiss & Brodbeck 2014).
In line with this, identification-based motivational processes are proposed as a potential mediator.
Followers emulate ethical leaders and adopt their emphasis on integrity, trust, and shared values by
integrating these into their identity. Indeed, Kalshoven & Den Hartog (2009) found that followers
see ethical leaders as an ideal representation of the group’s identity (i.e., as group prototypical;
Hogg 2001). For followers, showing effort toward accomplishing the value-laden goals shared
with the ethical leader may form an intrinsically motivating way of expressing their self-concept
(cf. Shamir et al. 1993). Piccolo et al. (2010) found that ethical leadership helps followers see their
job as more meaningful, which translates into increased effort and productive behavior. Followers
of ethical leaders thus tend to be more intrinsically motivated. Den Hartog & Belschak (2012)  Ethical Leadership 419

Contextual and other moderators
(e.g., ethical culture/climate, job characteristics,
follower characteristics)

Ethical cognitions,
norms, decisions, and
(e.g., moral judgment)

Further outcomes
antecedents Identification-based Attitudes
(e.g., traits, moral motivation (e.g., less cynicism,
Annu. Rev. Organ. Psychol. Organ. Behav. 2015.2:409-434. Downloaded from

identity, CMD) (e.g., meaningfulness, more commitment)

(Perceived) Behaviors
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Ethical leader (e.g., more ethical

behaviors behaviors,
Relational and more reporting of
Contextual social information problems, more OCB,
antecedents (e.g., trust, psychological less deviance)
(e.g., culture, follower safety, LMX)
characteristics) Effort and

(e.g., duty,

Figure 1
A summary of ethical leadership research to date. Abbreviations: CMD, cognitive moral development; LMX, leader–member exchange;
OCB, organizational citizenship behavior.

suggested that ethical leaders stimulate the dedication (meaning, significance) and vigor (energy,
resilience) elements of employee engagement and found that such leadership related positively to
follower engagement and, subsequently, to more initiative and less deviance.
Also, a heightened sense of duty, moral obligation, conscientious behavior, or responsibility
may form a potential mediating mechanism. Hannah et al. (2014) addressed followers’ duty
orientation, a concept focusing on felt obligations to a workgroup. Duty orientation is the
“volitional orientation to loyally serve and faithfully support other members of the group, to strive
and sacrifice to accomplish the tasks and missions of the group, and to honor its codes and
principles” (pp. 234–35). They found that ethical leadership was positively related to follower duty
orientation, which was subsequently negatively related to deviance and positively related to ethical
behavior. Also, Kalshoven et al. (2013b) found that follower responsibility mediates the re-
lationship between ethical leadership and follower initiative and helping. At the group level,
Walumbwa et al. (2011) found that group conscientiousness and voice mediated the relationship
between ethical leadership and group performance.
Relationship-oriented or social information processing–related variables such as trust form
another proposed mechanism (De Hoogh & Den Hartog 2009a, Eisenbeiss 2012). Both cognitive
and affective trust have been empirically tested as mediators, and some support for this has been
found (e.g., Lu 2013, Newman et al. 2014). Ethical leaders create a work environment that is
psychologically safe and build trusting relationships with followers, which makes the followers

420 Den Hartog

more willing to engage in risky interpersonal behaviors, such as voicing ideas and concerns and
taking initiative (Kalshoven et al. 2013b, Walumbwa & Schaubroeck 2009). Using such re-
lationship quality arguments, several studies have also tested and found support for LMX as
a potential mediator of the effects of ethical leadership on employees (e.g., Hassan et al. 2013,
Walumbwa et al. 2011).
Social information–related processes in ethical leadership can also be linked to reducing
negative feelings (for example, lowering followers fear of being punished for speaking up). In their
whistle-blowing study, Mayer et al. (2013) tested the role of employees’ fears of retaliation and
perceptions of futility as mediators. Fear and futility are seen as key reasons that employees often
do not tell authorities about concerns they have. If they do not fear retaliation from supervisors or
coworkers and anticipate a supportive rather than a dismissive response, they are more likely to
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speak up. If reporting is likely to be deemed unable to effect change or be futile, they are less likely to
speak up. The findings suggest that supervisory ethical leaders’ influence on reporting is enhanced
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if ethical behavior is also displayed by coworkers and that a lower fear of retaliation mediates this.
No support was found for the hypothesized role of perceptions of futility.
Stouten et al. (2013) addressed an unintended negative effect of ethical leadership through the
mediating mechanism of perceptions of moral reproach. They argued that like leaders who are seen
as less ethical, leaders who are seen as too strongly ethical may form less attractive role models
because employees feel morally reproached by these leaders. In line with expectations, the authors
showed that ethical leadership had a linear relationship with deviance but an inverted U-shaped
relationship with OCB. In other words, at lower levels of ethical leadership, OCB increases,
whereas at higher levels, OCB decreases. Perceptions of moral reproach underlie this curvilinear
relation. More research on such unintended negative effects of ethical leadership is needed.

Unethical Leadership, Observer Effects, and Leader Inconsistency

A full review of the effects of unethical leadership is beyond the scope of my article; however, the
findings of a recent meta-analysis indicate that outcomes of destructive leadership seem mostly
opposite of those for ethical leadership (Schyns & Schilling 2013). For example, followers of
destructive leaders tend to have negative attitudes and show resistance toward them. Such
leadership is negatively related to positive attitudes toward the job and the organization and
positively related to deviance. Well-being implications of destructive leadership include more
negative affectivity and stress for followers.
Attesting to the aforementioned importance of including both ethical and unethical leader
behaviors in research to better understand their relationships with each other and outcomes is the
work by Detert et al. (2007). These authors theorized that ethical leadership would relate neg-
atively and unethical leadership (abusive supervision) positively to employee deviance. However,
they found that only abusive supervision, not ethical leadership, was significantly related to
Much of the work on (un)ethical leadership focuses only on direct effects on the target of the
leader behavior. However, social learning would also suggest observer effects—that is, (un)ethical
leadership affects not only the target subordinate but also others who observe it (Kalshoven & Den
Hartog 2013). Although this has not yet explicitly been studied much for ethical leadership, there is
some empirical work on observer effects of unethical leadership. For example, followers who
witnessed leader bullying of other followers experienced less job satisfaction and higher levels of
stress and turnover than those who did not observe this (e.g., Rayner et al. 2002). Also, Hoel et al.
(2010) found that self-perceived and observed bullying were in part predicted by different leader
behaviors. Although laissez-faire leadership related to both self-reported and observed bullying,  Ethical Leadership 421

targets associated bullying more with noncontingent punishment, and observers associated it more
with autocratic or tyrannical leader behavior. In other words, targets felt worst when leaders were
unpredictable and when they might be punished at any time at their leader’s whims, independent of
their own behavior. Thus, observer effects as well as inconsistency and unpredictability may be
important for (un)ethical leadership.
In addition, unequal and differential treatment is a factor. Duffy et al. (2002) found that an
inconsistent mix of leader behaviors—namely, being both unethical and supportive toward
followers—had a negative impact on outcomes. This mix of ethical and unethical behavior was
related to higher levels of insecurity and lower levels of trust than consistently unethical leader
behavior. Duffy et al. (2006) argue that when leaders treat all employees unethically, the impact of
this is likely to be attenuated in comparison to leaders who treat a single employee differently.
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Similar research on differential treatment is lacking for ethical leadership, but equality of fair
treatment is also likely to be important (Kalshoven & Den Hartog 2013). This is in line with the
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work on how justice climate level and strength interact to predict outcomes (e.g., Colquitt et al.
2002). Future work needs to consider different behaviors simultaneously, including both ethical
and unethical ones, to assess how they jointly affect different parties.


Researchers have begun to explore what makes leaders ethical. For example, research is starting to
be done relating leader traits, cognitive moral development, and moral identity to follower per-
ceptions of ethical leadership. However, the knowledge on individual-level antecedents is limited
to date.

Big Five Traits

The five-factor view of personality describes the structure of personality in five main factors, which
are often labeled extroversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, emotional stability, and open-
ness to experience (e.g., Goldberg 1990, McCrae & Costa 1997). Conceptually, Brown & Treviño
(2006) suggested links of ethical leadership with three of the five personality factors: conscien-
tiousness, agreeableness, and emotional stability. Research on related constructs supports a link
with these three traits as well. For example, these were also the three most important leader traits
for creating a justice climate (Mayer et al. 2007).
Agreeable individuals are kind, trusting, honest, altruistic, empathetic, and warm (McCrae &
Costa 1987). Similarly, ethical leaders are described as altruistic, honest, and caring. Thus,
agreeableness relates positively to ethical leadership (Brown & Treviño 2006). Conscientiousness
consists of being both achievement oriented and dependable (dutiful, thorough, responsible, and
organized). Conscientious individuals tend to think before they act and adhere closely to moral
obligations and perceived responsibilities (Costa & McCrae 1992, McCrae & Costa 1987), which
is relevant for being perceived as ethical. Having a sense of duty may make individuals more likely
to try to do the right thing, and by acting dutifully, conscientious leaders can role model. Ethical
leaders behave consistently, set clear guidelines, and clarify what is expected of employees, and
thus conscientiousness should be positively related to ethical leadership (Kalshoven et al. 2011a).
Emotional stability forms the opposite of neuroticism, which is being anxious, unstable, stressed,
and impulsive. Neurotic individuals are less likely to be seen as role models (Bono & Judge 2004)
or as leaders in general (Judge et al. 2002); Brown & Treviño (2006) thus propose a negative
relation with ethical leadership.

422 Den Hartog

Several studies found (partial) support for Brown & Treviño’s (2006) propositions. For ex-
ample, Walumbwa & Schaubroeck (2009) found that agreeableness and conscientiousness (but
not emotional stability) were positively related to ethical leadership. Kalshoven et al. (2011a)
looked at all five personality traits, controlled for LMX, and included both the ELS measure of
Brown et al. (2005) to measure overall ethical leadership and three separate ethical leader
behaviors (fairness, power sharing, and ethical role clarification) in their study. They found low
but significant relations between traits and perceptions of ethical leadership. Conscientiousness
and agreeableness were most relevant for overall ethical leadership. For the specific behaviors,
conscientiousness seemed most important for ethical role clarification, and agreeableness was
more important for fairness and power sharing. After LMX was controlled for, emotional stability
also affected overall ethical leadership and role clarification. Future research might also address
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traits at the facet level or look at interactions between traits.

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Cognitive Moral Development and Moral identity

Several studies looked more specifically at ethical or morally focused individual antecedents. For
example, Jordan et al. (2013) proposed that follower perceptions of ethical leadership depend on
the leader’s cognitive moral development and on the relationship between leader and follower
cognitive moral development. They suggested that leaders who are more advanced ethical rea-
soners than their followers are likely to stand out for these followers and serve as salient ethical role
models whose ethics-related behavior and communication attract followers’ attention. The
authors found a direct positive relationship between leader cognitive moral development and
ethical leadership and showed that ethical leadership is indeed maximized when leaders’ cognitive
moral development is greater than that of followers.
Mayer et al. (2012) addressed the role of moral identity in ethical leadership. Moral identity is
defined as a self-schema organized around a set of moral trait associations (e.g., being honest, being
compassionate), and people differ in the degree to which they experience moral identity as central
to their overall self-conception and in how readily available this is for processing information and
regulating conduct (Aquino & Reed 2002, Mayer et al. 2012). Moral identity has motivational
impact and affects moral behavior by acting as a self-regulatory mechanism. Based on this
regulation, Mayer et al. (2012) proposed that leaders whose moral identity has high self-
importance would strive to act in ways that are consistent with what it means to be a moral
person, which should in turn result in their being perceived as ethical leaders. Aquino & Reed’s
(2002) conception of moral identity has two dimensions: the public aspect, which is labeled
symbolization, and the private expression, which is labeled internalization. In the two studies they
reported, Mayer et al. (2012) found positive relationships of ethical leadership with both aspects
and concluded that moral identity can act as a source of motivation for leaders to act in ways that
are consistent with a self-schema of traits associated with a moral prototype (e.g., honest, com-
passionate, caring, and hardworking). Aquino & Reed (2002) suggested that symbolization is
likely to be a stronger predictor of acts that have a public component; in line with this, Mayer et al.
(2012) found that symbolization predicts ethical leadership in the eyes of subordinates more
strongly than does internalization.
In Mayer and colleagues’ (2012) study, both ethical leadership and internalization (but not sym-
bolization) were related to unit outcomes, which is in agreement with previous work and suggests that
internalization may be more reliable than symbolization in predicting actual (unethical) behaviors. The
authors speculated that behaviors related to internalization (not symbolization) may include nonvisible
leader ethical acts of cooperativeness, facilitation, or generosity, which may not catch anyone’s at-
tention but do affect the unit’s climate and outcomes. This deserves attention in future research.  Ethical Leadership 423

The Dark Triad: Machiavellianism, Narcissism, and Psychopathy
Machiavellianism, psychopathy, and narcissism form the so-called dark triad of personality (e.g.,
Paulhus & Williams 2002). Although research on psychopathy in leadership is limited to date,
there is some work on the other two traits. Machiavellianism is a strategy of social conduct
involving manipulating others for personal gain (Paulhus & Williams 2002, Wilson et al. 1996).
Brown & Treviño (2006, p. 604) state, “In contrast to ethical leaders, Machiavellian leaders are
motivated to manipulate others in order to accomplish their own goals. They have little trust in
people and, in turn, tend not to be trusted by others.” Those authors thus propose a negative
relationship between ethical leadership and Machiavellianism. However, Den Hartog & Belschak
(2012) questioned this. First, followers may not always know when they are being manipulated or
lied to. As measures of ethical leadership tend to rely on follower perceptions of leader behavior,
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they reflect a measure of perceived ethicality; yet whether such perceived behaviors are always an
authentic expression of leader morality is not clear. Research suggests that Machiavellians are
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good liars and skilled at impression management. They use both prosocial and coercive strategies
to attain goals. Machiavellians do not always engage in deception and manipulation; they are self-
interested but adaptable and may also invest in cooperative or pro-organizational activities if this
motivates them or they see doing so as beneficial to themselves (e.g., Becker & O’Hair 2007,
Belschak et al. 2013).
Many firms now have explicit integrity or ethics norms and implement codes of conduct, and
outwardly acting ethically may increasingly contribute to having a successful management career
(Rubin et al. 2010). Machiavellians may respond to this. Den Hartog & Belschak (2012) found
a nonsignificant correlation between leader Machiavellianism and perceived ethical leadership,
and Sendjaya et al. (2014) found this nonsignificant link for authentic leadership. When these
results are considered alongside those of the study by Mayer et al. (2012), it appears possible that
Machiavellians act upon the public moral identity element (symbolization) even when there is no
internalization element of the moral identity present. In other words, displays of ethical leader
behavior may not always be an authentic expression of an internalized moral identity or true
ethical traits. Den Hartog & Belschak (2012) also found that the motivating effects of ethical
leadership when displayed by Machiavellian leaders were attenuated, thus followers may react
differently to authentic versus inauthentic displays of ethical leadership. The literature on
emotional work similarly notes that authentic expression of emotions is perceived differently and
more positively by others than is faking emotions (i.e., surface acting, or expressing emotions that
differ from inner feelings) (e.g., Zapf 2002). This is in need of further research.
Narcissism is a trait consisting of grandiosity, self-love, and inflated self-views and is often
linked to leadership (for a review, see Campbell et al. 2011). Hoffman and colleagues (2013) found
that the main effect of leader narcissism on follower perceptions of both ethical and effective
leadership was not significant (similar to the aforementioned findings for Machiavellianism).
However, these authors also observed that when ethical climate was strong, narcissistic leaders
were perceived as ineffective and unethical. The context may thus play a role as well. It would be of
interest to further assess whether and when the dark side of personality (Machiavellianism,
narcissism, psychopathy) might preclude or impede ethical leadership perceptions.


The context in which ethical leadership takes place also plays an important role either as an
antecedent in shaping what is seen as ethical or as a moderator of its effects. For example,
Eisenbeiss & Giessner (2012) conceptually suggest three embedded influences that jointly impact

424 Den Hartog

the emergence and maintenance of ethical leadership in organizations: first, societal character-
istics, especially ethical cultural values and the spirit and implementation of human rights in
a society; second, industry characteristics, such as environmental complexity and the ethical
interests of stakeholders; and, third, intraorganizational characteristics, such as ethical leadership
of top management and peer groups. Here, I discuss the (still somewhat scarce) research on societal
culture and within-firm context.
Cross-cultural leadership research, such as the GLOBE study (House et al. 2004), shows that
although some aspects of leadership are universally endorsed, many leadership practices and
expectations vary systematically and considerably across societal cultures. Some of the universally
desired characteristics relate to ethical leadership. For instance, outstanding leaders are universally
seen as trustworthy, just, and honest (Den Hartog et al. 1999). Using GLOBE data, Resick et al.
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(2006) showed that ethical leadership dimensions of character/integrity, altruism, collective

motivation, and encouragement were endorsed across cultures but that the degree of endorsement
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significantly varied across societal clusters. In addition, Resick et al. (2009) found that societal as
well as organizational culture (in terms of institutional collectivism, performance orientation, or
uncertainty avoidance) can provide contextual cues shaping beliefs about the importance of ethical
leadership for being effective as a leader.
In related qualitative research, Resick et al. (2011) examined the meaning of ethical leadership
for managers in six societies. Results indicated convergence around the importance of character.
Respondents from the People’s Republic of China, Hong Kong, and Germany also regarded
consideration, respect for others, and collective orientation as crucial to ethical leadership, which
diverged somewhat from how respondents in Ireland, the United States, and Taiwan felt. The
authors concluded that the overall meaning of ethical leadership is likely to be represented by
similar categories of characteristics and behaviors across cultures; however, the emphasis on
specific categories varies between cultures.
An example of such variation is reflected in work on paternalism: In some countries (likely with
higher power distance), the morality and character element of ethical leadership is combined with
highly directive and authoritarian behavior, whereas in others (likely more egalitarian), morality
may need to come with two-way communication and power sharing to create ethical leadership.
However, qualitative work by Eisenbeiss & Brodbeck (2014) contrasts with this idea in some
respects. For example, the importance of leader modesty, openness to others’ ideas, and an
empowering and participative management style for ethical leadership were emphasized more in
the interviews with executives from Eastern than Western cultures. These findings question
the paternalistic emphasis in authoritarianism (Chen et al. 2014) and may reflect a preference
for deviation from currently predominant styles in certain cultures. Also, although many
characteristics were mentioned equally in different cultures, ethical leadership in Eastern as
opposed to Western cultures was associated with a serving role, nonmaterialism, following
an inner calling, and feeling deeply spiritually connected with others (Eisenbeiss & Brodbeck
Although these studies seem to indicate that some characteristics are universally valued, more
cross-cultural work is clearly needed to better understand differences in ethical leadership across
cultures. Besides societal culture, within-firm context can also affect ethical leadership (e.g., Mayer
et al. 2009, Resick et al. 2009, Schaubroeck et al. 2012). However, so far, research on potential
within-firm contextual drivers and moderators is limited. Available work does suggest an in-
fluential moderating role. For example, Kacmar et al. (2011) examined the moderating role of
employee gender and politics perceptions in the relationship between ethical leadership and
citizenship. In this study, perceptions of organizational politics reflected employees’ perceptions
that coworkers’ behaviors are motivated by self-interest without being interested in others’  Ethical Leadership 425

well-being. The authors tested whether male and female employees would respond to ethical
leadership differently, depending on their politics perceptions. Although in line with social ex-
change both men and women were found to repay ethical leadership with OCB, political per-
ceptions differentially affected these relationships for men and women. Specifically, for female
employees, a strong positive relationship between ethical leadership and OCB was found when
politics perceptions were low, and this decreased when such perceptions were high. For male
employees, relations between ethical leadership and OCB were positive when politics perceptions
were high, and this relationship disappeared when these perceptions were low.
Other contextual elements such as certain job features may also form moderators. For example,
Kalshoven et al. (2013b) found that job autonomy moderated the relationship between ethical
leadership and employee responsibility. In addition, the aforementioned study by Hoffman et al.
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(2013) on narcissism and ethical climate shows that ethical climate may form a contextual
moderator affecting when leaders are seen as ethical and effective. Kalshoven et al. (2013a) studied
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whether ethical climate forms a substitute for ethical leadership. They proposed a substituting role
for both moral awareness and empathic concern climates in the relationship between ethical
leadership and follower OCB. They found different moderating effects for the two ethical climate
facets. The pattern for moral awareness was partly in line with substitution. Ethical leadership was
more strongly related to followers’ OCB when moral awareness climate was low than when it was
high. Similar to the abovementioned work by Jordan et al. (2013), who showed greater effects of
ethical leadership on followers when leaders were more advanced than followers in terms of
cognitive moral development, the findings of Kalshoven et al. (2013) suggest that salience of ethical
leader behavior may be extra high in a context low on moral awareness where such leaders may
contrast or stand out positively as ethical role models in the eyes of followers.
Kalshoven et al. (2013a) found no direct effect of moral awareness on follower citizenship
behaviors; thus, moral awareness alone may not be enough to affect employee behavior. Other
work also suggests that although an ethical violation may be recognized, this recognition does not
automatically mean that the violation will be acted upon (Tenbrunsel & Smith-Crowe 2008). The
effects Kalshoven et al. (2013a) found for empathic concern as a moderator were less strong. It
acted as an enhancer, but only in relation to courtesy, not to helping. When both ethical leadership
and empathic concern were high, followers showed more courtesy, but when empathic concern
was low, no relationship was found (Kalshoven et al. 2013a). These studies suggest that ethical
leadership and ethical climate as well as other contextual moderators and antecedents form fruitful
avenues for future work.


I have mentioned many areas in need of research in the previous sections. Below, I summarize some
problems and challenges that the ethical leadership field currently faces and the types of research
that may help resolve these. I also address some practical implications.

Challenges and Future Work

Although research on ethical leader behavior is rapidly progressing, there is still some confusion
about the nature of ethical leadership. In some definitions, leaders’ intentions are central
(i.e., ethical leaders do not intend harm); other work focuses on ethical leader behaviors or follower
perceptions of these. As noted, measures of ethical leadership typically rely on follower perceptions
of leader behavior. Although followers seem the most appropriate rating source for measuring
leadership, we do not know whether follower perceptions always correspond with (intended)

426 Den Hartog

leader behavior. Also, perceptions may be biased, for example, by previous experience or pref-
erences. This ambiguity around whether we are measuring leader behavior itself or follower
perceptions of it, and around what the difference between these two is, is endemic to the entire
leadership literature, and the field of ethical leadership is no exception. However, here this is
further complicated by the role of intentions. Not only do these often remain unmeasured, but to
qualify intentions as (purely) ethical or unethical is often not easy.
As noted, Brown & Treviño (2006) describe ethical leaders as both moral people (who intend to
do the right thing) and moral managers (who show ethical behavior). However, some findings call
into question whether one must always be a moral person to be seen as an ethical leader (e.g., Den
Hartog & Belschak 2012). Can ethical leader behaviors be displayed by people who cannot be
considered moral people? When do we, or should we, speak of ethical leadership? Is it necessary to
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have the right intentions show ethical leader behavior and be perceived as ethical by followers? Or
can less than all three of these be sufficient? And, if leader intentions are important, how can they be
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better incorporated into measurement? Much of the knowledge in the field today is based on
follower perceptions of ethical leader behavior rather than actual behavior or intentions. Thus, we
currently probably know more about the ethical leader as a (perceived) moral manager than as
a moral person. In moral identity terms, perhaps symbolization and internalization are not
necessarily both needed for someone to be seen as an ethical leader by others, at least not for how
ethical leadership is currently measured. Given the conceptual centrality of the idea of integrity and
the moral person for ethical leadership, what does this mean for the construct? Should we dis-
tinguish more between symbolization and internalization elements of ethical leadership and
address their potentially different roles?
Also, as discussed above, there are several related leadership constructs, and although they are
conceptually distinct from ethical leadership, more empirical evidence about whether ethical
leadership has sufficient discriminant and incremental validity is needed. Reported correlations
of ethical leadership with related constructs are often high; thus, establishing discriminant
validity is a key challenge for the field. To reduce the risk of reinventing the wheel, more work is
also urgently needed on the incremental validity of ethical leadership in predicting outcomes
over and above what other leadership constructs have already been shown to predict. Relatedly,
it is not yet sufficiently clear which outcomes and correlates are more generally related to good
or effective leadership and which are more uniquely or strongly related specifically to leader
ethical behavior. For example, follower ethical cognitions and responsibility may be more
uniquely linked to ethical leadership, whereas relationship-oriented mechanisms such as psy-
chological safety or LMX may also occur for several other (people-oriented) leadership styles.
More work that incorporates multiple leadership styles and outcomes simultaneously can help
clarify this point.
There are also additional methodological challenges. A general challenge is that although there
is some experimental work, much of the current work is cross-sectional field work, leaving us with
too little knowledge to date on how the process unfolds over time and on the direction of causality.
Although much of the (un)ethical leadership research to date is correlational, longitudinal research
on the related construct of bullying shows that bullying lowers job satisfaction, rather than sat-
isfaction causing bullying (Rodriguez-Munoz et al. 2009). Studies with a similar longitudinal
design on (un)ethical leadership could develop more insight in how these (un)ethical leadership
processes unfold over time.
An example of a more specific methodological challenge relates to measurement of trust:
Several authors propose that the proximal outcome of trust might act as an important mediator
through which ethical leadership affects follower behaviors (e.g., Eisenbeiss 2012). However, trust
in the leader is also used as part of the construct and measurement of ethical leadership. Thus, some  Ethical Leadership 427

findings on the relationship with trust may be inflated because the wording of some items for
measuring ethical leadership includes the term trust.4 In general, measures need further refinement.
Also, despite the strong and normatively positive connotations of the term ethical, perceived
ethical leader behavior as currently operationalized may have some unintended negative effects
(e.g., perceptions of moral reproach) that need to be understood. As noted, Stouten et al. (2013) as
well as Miao et al. (2013) observed nonlinearity of effects of ethical leadership on some outcomes,
which suggests that at very high levels, some such effects are less positive. Also, highly ethical
leaders might serve to increase the cost of adhering to ethical standards (for example, employees
may feel they need to spend more effort avoiding deviance), perhaps to such an extent that
employees find it hard to then also expend effort on positive extrarole behaviors. Thus, there may
be times when avoiding doing harm comes at the cost of fewer beneficial acts (Stouten et al. 2013).
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Additionally, these leaders may at times come across to followers as too rigid. More research in this
area is needed.
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The field also does not know enough about the effects of mixing ethical and unethical
behaviors, about indirect effects on observers, or about how differences between followers affect
the leadership process. Work by Mayer and colleagues (2013) suggests that future research should
consider the role of simultaneous social cues around ethical behavior sent by multiple social actors,
as employees are influenced by different parties. Also, it is important more generally to develop
insight in the active role of followers in shaping the ethical leadership process and its outcomes. In
addition, we do not yet know enough about cross-cultural differences or, more generally, about
how context affects the emergence, development, and effectiveness of ethical leadership.

Practical Implications
The research to date has several practical implications. Importantly, the available literature
strongly suggests that ethical leadership matters for organizations. For example, the research quite
consistently shows that if employees indicate that their leaders are ethical and fair role models who
communicate and reward ethical behavior, there is less deviance and more cooperative behavior,
and employees perform better and are more willing to both expend effort and report problems to
management. Thus, investing in ethical leader behavior may “pay off” in different ways. Of
course, this assumes that investments in behavioral training or leadership development are ap-
parent to followers and influence their perceptions accordingly. However, this may not auto-
matically be the case, as changing impressions is not easy. This again signals the importance of
studying both the behavior of the leader and the perceptions of followers in the ethical leadership
process. If followers do not perceive the changes in behavior, they will not react to them. Thus, as
with any leadership training, finding ways of embedding newly learned behavior into the context
and making it salient to followers may help effectiveness. Research on the effectiveness of different
forms of ethical leadership training could help our understanding in this area.
Another way in which one may invest in enhancing ethical leadership may be to select for the
traits and ethical characteristics that are found to be linked to displaying such leadership, such as
cognitive moral development, conscientiousness, and agreeableness or moral identity. Related
work suggests that investing in general ethical reasoning training for leaders may be another way

For example, the ELS of Brown et al. (2005) includes an item asking literally whether the respondent’s leader “can be trusted,”
which clearly overlaps with the respondent’s trust in the leader. Similarly, Yukl et al. (2013) measure ethical leadership with
items asking whether the respondent’s leader “can be trusted to carry out promises and commitment” and “is honest and can
be trusted to tell the truth.” Also, Kalshoven et al. (2011b) use the item the leader “can be trusted to do the things he/she says.”

428 Den Hartog

(Skarlicki & Latham 1997). If ethical (leader) behavior is appropriately measured it may be
possible to take it on board in performance appraisals and promotion decisions. However, at
present if such perceptions are taken into account they firstly may well be used more as a tool to
screen out “bad apples” than as something rewarded or given positive weight in such decisions,
and secondly, the perceptions taken into account are likely of those making promotion such
decisions, which is not necessarily an appropriate way to measure ethical leader behavior. Work on
360 degree feedback suggests perceptions of leader behavior from different sources tend to differ,
with followers (who are the ones subjected to leadership) often providing the least positive ratings.
Trying to use outcomes of 360 degree feedback in leader development has its challenges as negative
feedback is often not accepted as accurate. For example, Brett & Atwater (2001) showed that
ratings that were less favorable than expected were related to negative reactions and beliefs that
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feedback was less accurate and less useful. Research on this for ethical leadership is needed.
Also, as ethical leadership seems to cascade or trickle down the hierarchy (Mayer et al. 2009,
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Schaubroeck et al. 2012), top managers should be made aware of their own roles in setting ethical
cultural values and in role modeling ethical behavior. One way to explicitly emphasize this im-
portant role is to set up coaching systems in which senior managers work with lower-level
managers and explicitly focus on enhancing ethical behavior. Mayer et al. (2013) suggest focusing
on ethical messages that are sent to employees from a broader set of actors—for example, not only
leaders, but also coworkers—and gearing the ethics training toward different groups, as this may
help everyone better understand how they in their own job roles can help safeguard and champion
ethics. Also, although the research on inconsistent leader behavior is still scarce, the first indi-
cations are that consistency in behavior is important. Thus, consistency may be another element to
cover in ethics training for leaders.

The ethical aspects of leadership in organizations currently receive a lot of attention. This rich field
of inquiry focuses on how leaders promote ethical conduct among followers and what the effects
of leaders’ fair, transparent, and socially responsible use of power are. Although progress is rapid,
challenges remain. Further theory development is needed—for example, around what is unique to
ethical leadership, the role of intentions, and the role of the context. Also, methodological
challenges around measurement, validity, and research designs need tackling. By working on all of
these, researchers can accelerate progress in our understanding of how ethical leadership can
stimulate ethical behavior throughout organizations.

The author is not aware of any affiliations, memberships, funding, or financial holdings that might
be perceived as affecting the objectivity of this review.

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434 Den Hartog

Annual Review of
Psychology and
Organizational Behavior

Volume 2, 2015 Contents

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Organizational Psychology Then and Now: Some Observations

Edgar H. Schein . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1
Group Affect
Sigal G. Barsade and Andrew P. Knight . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 21
The Modeling and Assessment of Work Performance
John P. Campbell and Brenton M. Wiernik . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 47
Justice, Fairness, and Employee Reactions
Jason A. Colquitt and Kate P. Zipay . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 75
Methodological and Substantive Issues in Conducting Multinational and
Cross-Cultural Research
Paul E. Spector, Cong Liu, and Juan I. Sanchez . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 101
Leadership Development: An Outcome-Oriented Review Based on Time and
Levels of Analyses
David V. Day and Lisa Dragoni . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 133
Beyond Lewin: Toward a Temporal Approximation of Organization
Development and Change
Jean M. Bartunek and Richard W. Woodman . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 157
Beyond the Big Five: New Directions for Personality Research and Practice in
Leaetta M. Hough, Frederick L. Oswald, and Jisoo Ock . . . . . . . . . . . . . 183
Corporate Social Responsibility: Psychological, Person-Centric, and
Deborah E. Rupp and Drew B. Mallory . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 211
Time in Individual-Level Organizational Studies: What Is It, How Is It Used,
and Why Isn’t It Exploited More Often?
Abbie J. Shipp and Michael S. Cole . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 237

Dynamics of Well-Being
Sabine Sonnentag . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 261
Low-Fidelity Simulations
Jeff A. Weekley, Ben Hawkes, Nigel Guenole, and Robert E. Ployhart . . . 295
Emotional Labor at a Crossroads: Where Do We Go from Here?
Alicia A. Grandey and Allison S. Gabriel . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 323
Supporting the Aging Workforce: A Review and Recommendations for
Workplace Intervention Research
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Donald M. Truxillo, David M. Cadiz, and Leslie B. Hammer . . . . . . . . . 351

ESM 2.0: State of the Art and Future Potential of Experience Sampling
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Methods in Organizational Research

Daniel J. Beal . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 383
Ethical Leadership
Deanne N. Den Hartog . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 409
Differential Validity and Differential Prediction of Cognitive Ability Tests:
Understanding Test Bias in the Employment Context
Christopher M. Berry . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 435
Organizational Routines as Patterns of Action: Implications for Organizational
Brian T. Pentland and Thorvald Hærem . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 465
Pay, Intrinsic Motivation, Extrinsic Motivation, Performance, and Creativity
in the Workplace: Revisiting Long-Held Beliefs
Barry Gerhart and Meiyu Fang . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 489
Stereotype Threat in Organizations: Implications for Equity and Performance
Gregory M. Walton, Mary C. Murphy, and Ann Marie Ryan . . . . . . . . . . 523
Technology and Assessment in Selection
Nancy T. Tippins . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 551
Workplace Stress Management Interventions and Health Promotion
Lois E. Tetrick and Carolyn J. Winslow . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 583

An online log of corrections to Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and
Organizational Behavior articles may be found at

Contents vii
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