New Delhi: Leaders who value morality outperform their unethical peers, regardless of industry, company size, or role, according to new research. But because we all define a “moral leader” differently, leaders who try to do good may face unexpected difficulties. The research team examined more than 300 books, essays, and studies on moral leadership from 1970 to 2018.
They discovered that leaders who prioritised morality had higher performing organisations with less turnover and that their employees were more creative, proactive, engaged, and satisfied. “Over and over again, our research found that followers perceived ethical leaders as more effective and trusted, and those leaders enjoyed greater personal well-being than managers with questionable morality,” says study co-author Jim Lemoine, assistant professor of organisation and human resources at the University at Buffalo. Lemoine says prior research often treats all forms of moral leadership the same, missing their unique attributes and consequences.
Consider, for example, a company with an opportunity to sell cigarettes in a developing country. One executive would argue the sale is ethical because no norms or rules prohibit it. A servant leader might turn down the deal because of its negative health and environmental impacts. And a third leader, guided by his or her own internal convictions, might choose another course of action entirely. All three of these leaders are acting morally, Lemoine says, even though they disagree with one another and might even view the others as immoral.
“Morality can be subjective, and how leaders put their own ethics into practice can have massive implications for the effectiveness of their leadership, teams, and organisations,” Lemoine says. The researchers found a strong sense of morality is positive for leaders and their organisations, increasing performance, engagement, motivation, and other factors — but each specific approach to ethics had slightly different outcomes.
Leaders focused on matching norms and standards are often politically skilled and avoid legal scandals, but may exploit the rules to their own ends, the study showed. Servant leaders had the strongest results for customer service, community impact, and employees’ work-life balance, but may struggle to manage competing priorities from their stakeholders.