Multi‐source research designs on ethical leadership: A literature review

Date01 September 2019
AuthorLeonor Pais,Nuno Rebelo Santos,Anabela Magalhães
Published date01 September 2019
Bus Soc Rev. 2019;124:345–364.
At the turn of the millennium, the world was impacted by major accounting scandals such as Enron
(2001), WorldCom (2002), and AIG (2005) followed by the financial crisis in 2008/2009. These
events have been considered the expression of an ethical crisis (Otken & Cenkci, 2012) and some
DOI: 10.1111/basr.12179
Multi‐source research designs on ethical leadership:
A literature review
Nuno Rebelodos Santos2
© 2019 W. Michael Hoffman Center for Business Ethics at Bentley University. Published by Wiley Periodicals, Inc., 350 Main Street, Malden,
MA 02148, USA, and 9600 Garsington Road, Oxford OX4 2DQ, UK.
1Faculty of Psychology and Educational
Sciences,University of Coimbra, Coimbra,
2Departamento de Psicologia, Escola de
Ciências Sociais,Universidade de Évora,
Évora, Portugal
Anabela Magalhães, Faculty of Psychology
and Educational Sciences, University of
Coimbra, FPCE, Rua do Colégio Novo,
S/N, Coimbra 3000‐115, Portugal.
The aim of this article is to undertake a systematic literature
review (SLR) of empirical research that uses multi‐source
methods for collecting data about Ethical Leadership (EL).
Research on this sensitive subject benefits from the inclu-
sion of data from more than one source, in order to be bet-
ter supported, and thus contribute to a deeper understanding
of leadership and business ethics issues. The search strat-
egy retrieved a total of 50 multi‐source empirical studies
on the topic of EL, published until December 2017. This
SLR shows that (a) research on EL has focused mostly on
the perceptions of followers, possibly because they are the
most accessible target of its outcomes, thus restricting the
scope of this body of research; (b) EL is studied mainly
through consideration of its consequences, a restriction that
hinders explanation of the causal processes involved in ethi-
cal leadership, which remains a research arena in need of
development. The systematic inclusion of other stakehold-
ers in multi‐source methods is advanced as a way to further
develop the field.
authors have pointed out that “the growing complexity of the businesses, escalating amount and speed
of information flow, and greater pressure for performance have increased the probability” of these
events (Toor & Ofori, 2009, p. 533). Concerns about ethical issues in leadership brought about by this
ethical crisis are frequently expressed by the scientific community in academic research and publica-
tions (e.g., Brown & Treviño, 2006; McClaren, 2013; Suhonen, Stolt, Virtanen, & Leino‐Kilpi, 2011).
What are these ethical concerns and how are they defined? Can this body of research contribute to
minimizing the occurrence or the effects of these ethical crises?
The ethical concern in leadership studies has become prominent since the late twentieth century
and encompasses both virtuous and counter‐virtuous leadership models. In the scientific literature,
various examples can be found, for example, Authentic leadership (Avolio & Gardner, 2005; Cervo,
Mónico, dos Santos, Hutz, & Pais, 2016; Gardner, Cogliser, Davis, & Dickens, 2011); Servant leader-
ship (Anderson & Sun, 2017; Jaramillo, Bande, & Varela, 2015; Parris & Peachey, 2013) and Ethical
leadership (Brown & Treviño, 2006; Brown, Treviño, & Harrison, 2005). The underlying definitions
of these models embrace various ethical issues. For example, Authentic Leadership implies concepts
such as the moral character, ethical values, and ethical choices of leaders (Bass & Steidlmeier, 1999;
Kanungo, 2001; Keeley, 1995); Servant leadership theory considers that “Servant leaders act in the
best interest of the employee and prioritize their individual growth and development” (Jaramillo et
al., 2015, p. 108) and, EL emphasizes the role of leaders as a source of ethical guidance (Brown &
Treviño, 2006; Brown et al., 2005).
Other models, focusing on the negative side of leadership, complement the general movement
that highlights the virtuousness of leadership while considering the negative side of the phenomenon.
Concepts such as Abusive supervision (Pundt, 2014; Tepper, 2000), Toxic (Lipman‐Blumen, 2005) or
Destructive Leadership (Aasland, Skogstad, Notelaers, Nielsen, & Einarsen, 2010) express the “dark
side of leadership” (Conger, 1990) and its influence on others. These approaches to wicked leader-
ship highlight its counter‐virtuousness, trying to show it has undermining effects which organizations
should avoid and prevent.
The EL conceptualization defined in 2005 by Brown and colleagues is of recognized importance in
this research field. EL is defined as “the demonstration of normatively appropriate conduct through per-
sonal actions and interpersonal relationships, and the promotion of such conduct to followers through
two‐way communication, reinforcement, and decision‐making” (Brown et al., 2005, p. 120). This con-
ceptualization, widely adopted among researchers (e.g., Bhal & Dadhich, 2011; Bouckenooghe, Zafar,
& Raja, 2015; Hansen, Alge, Brown, Jackson, & Dunford, 2013; Kalshoven & Boon, 2012) encom-
passes two dimensions of an ethical leader, suggested by Treviño, Hartman, and Brown (2000): the
moral person and the moral manager. The first, relates to personal characteristics such as honesty or
trustworthiness, concern for people, and society, behaving in a normatively appropriate way and hold-
ing to values in his/her decisions; the second relates to visible and proactive actions toward employees,
communicating and using rewards and discipline in order to promote ethical conduct among them.
As an influent model in EL research, the frequent links of the current literature to deontological
and ethical perspectives is not surprising (Letwin et al., 2016; Mitchell, 2012), although the study of
effects of EL are the most prevalent aim of studies. To avoid repetitions of unethical practices we need
to understand the processes that contribute to them. Since principled leadership is relevant we need
to understand how ethical leadership can be fostered. According to Brown and Treviño (Brown &
Treviño, 2006; Brown et al., 2005; Treviño, Brown, & Hartman, 2003) this depends to a large extent,
on the social learning modeled by principled leaders, which suggests more generally that the ethical
principles and how they become enacted in organizations, are the critical factors to be studied.
At the operational level, the measure of EL (Brown et al., 2005) relies on the perception by fol-
lowers, of leaders' behaviors and actions. However, followers are only one of the groups influenced

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