New Insights into Ethical Leadership: A Qualitative Investigation of the Experiences of Executive Ethical Leaders

Journal of Business Ethics 123 (1):23-43 (2014)
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Ethical leadership has become a thriving research field. However, on reviewing previous research, we argue that several fundamental questions remain unclear and need further investigation. Ethical leaders are defined as behaving ‘normatively appropriate[ly]’ :117–134, 2005), but it remains unclear what this entails. What specific behaviours does an ethical leader show? To date, ethical leadership has focused primarily on leader behaviour towards employees. Which stakeholders apart from employees are important to the ethical leader, and what kind of ethical behaviour does the ethical leader show towards them? What are further antecedents and consequences of ethical leadership? We addressed these questions by qualitatively analysing interviews with 17, mostly Swiss, executive ethical leaders. The results indicate that executive ethical leaders care not only about employees but also about other stakeholders, such as customers, suppliers, owners of companies, the natural environment and society. Additionally, this study identified a broad range of executive ethical leaders’ behaviours towards these stakeholders, and, therefore, may function as a useful resource for future quantitative studies. Furthermore, we identified several antecedents of executive ethical leadership, for example ethical role models, business strategy and owner’s values, and consequences such as effects on other stakeholders than employees. Finally, our results shed more light on the processes of ethical guidance of employees. Managerial implications and avenues for further research are discussed.



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