Does morality in leadership matter? It depends on your definition of right and wrong.

Many corporate superstars have been celebrated for their business acumen, innovation, and even edginess but rarely for their moral leadership. However, research shows that morality matters, regardless of industry, firm size, or the status and level of a leader in a company. The benefits range from individual and team performance, to financial measures, and perceptions of justice, trust, engagement and motivation. Dr Hannes Leroy, of Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM) raised the obvious question: Does morality in business matter? Absolutely yes, according to the research of Dr Leroy and his co-authors. However, they discovered you need to be careful and smart about it to gain these benefits.

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For the research the authors reviewed some 300 studies on moral leadership. “We discovered that morality is – generally speaking – a good thing for leadership effectiveness but it is also a double-edged sword about which you need to be careful and smart,” Dr Leroy says.

The review of the theoretical foundations underlying different approaches to moral leadership, and a supporting body of empirical research aligned with distinct moral philosophies:

First, followers can be inspired by a leader who advocates the highest common good for all and is motivated to contribute to that common good from an expectation of reciprocity (servant leadership; consequentialism).

Second, followers can also be inspired by a leader who advocates the adherence to a set of standards or rules and is motivated to contribute to the clarity and safety this structure imposes for an orderly society (ethical leadership; deontology).

Third and finally, followers can also be inspired by a leader who advocates for moral freedom and corresponding responsibility and is motivated to contribute to this system in the knowledge that others will afford them their own moral autonomy (authentic leadership; virtue ethics).

A caution for managers

Most of us consider ourselves moral and feel that all people necessarily think the way we do about morality. Managers should realise, however, that their form of morality may differ from that of their employees.

“The manager may be a servant leader,” Leroy says, “focused on the common goods, making sure that everybody gets along and reinforce this message to the team. But what if you run a team of very proactive individuals and their definition of morality actually is more aligned with people should get the freedom to do things their own way and be left alone to make their own ethical decisions. Well you can see now if you're a leader that emphasizes the common good for a team of people who actually are more predicated on those individual freedoms.”

Morality in organisations matters

The tensions between the multiple approaches to morality may mean that some benefits are reaped but others are lost, and that some followers are convinced (those adhering to the same moral philosophy) but others distance themselves. Although these tensions morality in organisations matters for leaders and those being led and a more nuanced and more careful approach to moral leadership is warranted.

Dr Leroy concludes that managers and leaders should realise that their form of morality may differ from that of their employees. Even if you are a great moral leader, if your morality doesn’t match that of your employees, you may not be as effective as you expect to be.

Read the article, Taking Stock of Moral Approaches to Leadership: An Integrative Review of Ethical, Authentic, and Servant Leadership in Academy of Management Annals. of G. James Lemoine of the University at Buffalo (State University of New York), Chad A. Hartnell of Georgia State University and Hannes Leroy .

RSM offers short and longer programmes about leadership, such as Essentials of Leadership and other open programmes, and it’s also part of the Personal Leadership Development sessions in the MBA programmes.

Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM) is one of Europe’s top-ranked business schools. RSM provides ground-breaking research and education furthering excellence in all aspects of management and is based in the international port city of Rotterdam – a vital nexus of business, logistics and trade. RSM’s primary focus is on developing business leaders with international careers who can become a force for positive change by carrying their innovative mindset into a sustainable future. Our first-class range of bachelor, master, MBA, PhD and executive programmes encourage them to become to become critical, creative, caring and collaborative thinkers and doers. Study information and activities for future students, executives and alumni are also organised from the RSM office in Chengdu, China. www.rsm.nl

For more information about RSM or this article, please contact Irene Bosman, Media Officer for RSM, on +31 10 408 2028 or by email at bosman@rsm.nl.

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