Moral leaders perform better — but what’s ‘moral’ is up for debate
New research from the University at Buffalo School of Management is clear: Leaders who value morality outperform their unethical peers, regardless of industry, company size or role. However, because we all define a “moral leader” differently, leaders who try to do good may face unexpected difficulties.
Led by Jim Lemoine, PhD, assistant professor of organization and human resources, the research team examined more than 300 books, essays and studies on moral leadership from 1970-2018. They discovered that leaders who prioritized morality had higher performing organizations with less turnover, and that their employees were more creative, proactive, engaged and satisfied.
A pre-press version of the study appeared online this month ahead of publication in the Academy of Management Annals in January 2019.
“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,” Lemoine says. “The problem is, though, that when we talk about an ‘ethical business leader,’ we’re often not talking about the same person.”
Contrasting views of morality
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 organizations,” Lemoine says.