Reflections on Moral Leadership| Part 3: Moral Leadership in the Workplace: Integrity at the top as a shining example

The quest for intrinsic morality

This is the third column in a series of moral leadership. My first column focused on Moral leaders in Society, my second on Professionally Moral Behaviour. Columns that follow are: Interpersonal morality and Moral Self-Control.

Moral Leadership in the Workplace: Integrity at the top as a shining example

The top leader. The face of the company to the outside world, the one that brings internal coherence and the initiator for innovation. The figurehead.

The company puts all the time, money and energy to attract the right top man or top woman. Talent management is used to get and retain key figures at strategic positions in an organization. Because the organization knows for itself which enormous influence leadership has on what is being led.

Tempting executives

Sky-high salaries, bonuses and special employment conditions are offered at the potential CEO to tempt him or her to take the job. We want to attract him or her to that specific top and preferably keep him or her there for a while. The majestic bird is lured in this way.

“It cannot be otherwise,” companies say. “Competition drives us. We want to attract the best top manager and if we offer less, he or she will be picked by other companies. The salaries are only in line with the market. ”

Only in line with market conditions for the market for top executives, I would say.

Determine a vision

Nestled at the top, the new leader oversees the whole downstairs and defines a vision for the future of the company. He or she, together with the Board of the Directors, determines a strategy to conquer new markets or to consolidate existing ones. And if necessary, introduces a cultural change within the organization. In most cases to be able to operate more flexibly in the modern market. He or she deposes business units, removes management layers, lays off employees and takes on others. This way the leader starts his headlong flight

Value and values

This is an era in which the power of shareholders within commercial companies has increased significantly. And non-profit organizations are also much more exposed to market forces. As a result, organizations in general are increasingly focusing on profit maximisation. And with that, it seems, have a short-term vision for the company.

Not so much aimed at retaining and increasing or enhancing the value of the organization. The value of the company itself, the value of the company for the employees who work there, the value of the company for the society. Not so much focused on the values that the company represents.

A long-term vision in most cases only relates to the financial results in an ever-changing market.

Moral leadership: Are the right birds being lured?

But is not the new top man or top woman also the moral leader of the company? What requirements are being placed by the organization on the integrity of the new leaders? And what about their ability to implement the desired ethical culture?

Do companies, with the above incentives, really send the right signal to attract moral leaders?

Regarding the influence of power, Ronald Reggio Professor of Leadership and Organizational Psychology says on Psychology Today (2009): “Leadership is a lot about power and influence. Leaders use their power to get things done. A simple distinction is between two forms of power. Socialized power is power used to benefit others. The other form of power is called personalized power and it is used for personal gain. Importantly, the two forms of power do not exclude each other. A leader can use his or her power to benefit others but can also gain personally by using it. The obvious problem is when personalized power dominates and the leader gains, often at the followers’ expense.”

Regarding a research about the unconscious link between money and unethical behaviour Mandi Woodruff on Business Insider (2013) quotes Associate Professor of Organizational Behaviour Kristin Smith-Crowe: “Across the board, participants who had been given money-related tasks had a greater likelihood of unethical intentions, decisions and behaviours. What was happening with our participants is that the exposure to the concept of money was actually affecting the way they were thinking. The money cues were triggering a business decision mind frame, which meant that they focused on a cost-benefit analysis as motivation to pursue their own self-interest, rather than thinking about things more broadly.

So, if you might say that money and power foster self-interest, are the emphasis on bonuses and a top salary than the right means to entice executive officers with integrity to take top positions?

Which company has recently appointed a top manager partly because of his proven fair and honest conduct?


As a society, we want pure professionals at high positions of companies with influence (profit and non-profit) who have a passion for their profession without cynicism. Professionals who find working on the highest level intrinsically motivating and the position themselves honourably enough.

If companies talk so much about sustainability, why is the focus no longer on preserving the value and protecting the values of a company? And is not moral leadership strongly associated with it?

Research shows that we are happier if we work in a genuine ethical climate. And the long-term results for the company itself and the society are also better.

The leader is crucial to implementing an ethical climate

Moral leadership by the manager is essential for the moral judgment of employees. It is clear that it can effectively help prevent and counter undesirable and unethical behaviour at work. The Dutch psychologist Leonie Heres writes about it in her PhD research from 2014 (De Psycholoog, March 2016): “Effective management of integrity by the managers also has a positive effect on the work climate: for example, employees are more willing to support each other and the organization and they also perform better in their work.”

How do you define moral leadership?

Heres defines moral leadership as follows:

Moral leadership is related to character traits, decision making and behaviour that a leader demonstrates to stimulate others to behave in accordance with the moral values and norms that apply in the broader social context in which one operates.” (Heres, 2014)

Based on the research of others she writes that a moral leader is someone:

With high ethical standards, who has deep-rooted principles and values and defends them, even when there is a lot at stake or others exert pressure to transgress his moral boundaries (Trevino et al., 2003).”

Exemplary conduct of the moral leader

As a moral manager, managers take measures to directly improve ethical behaviour. Measures such as ‘codes of conduct, audits, training courses and even specialized integrity bureaus and integrity officers to make their employees aware of the organization’s prevailing values and norms’(Heres, 2016): “This is how managers want to combat fraud, intimidation, harassing behaviour and improper declaration behaviour. Just like accepting large gifts and other violations of integrity standards.

However, regarding this point Heres states that these measures will only have a positive and lasting effect if the manager also supports and reinforces these measures with his or her own exemplary behaviour and leadership. Just like children in their upbringing pay close attention to what their parents demonstrate as exemplary behaviour, I would say.

How to promote honest and ethical conduct among employees?

If a moral leader is to be effective, he or she must ensure that his or her behaviour is visible, frequent and striking enough to serve as an example for employees. Consistent reward or punishment of behaviour by the management is also important to clearly express to employees what behaviour is and is not accepted.

It also appears that explicit communication about principles, values and standards is important. The moral leader does not have to instruct his employees about what they have to do, but he will start a discussion with them on ethics within the company. The manager clarifies the moral considerations when making certain decisions. Heres writes: ‘He for example talks about his own moral dilemmas and how he has reached a certain decision. He further encourages his staff through questions and critical comments to independently think about moral issues and solutions.

Employees will understand and feel what is expected from them by fully experiencing practical examples. And with all moral actions carried out by employees together, a tacit knowledge is built up. Knowledge that contributes further to the ethical culture within the organization. Knowledge that can also be seen as the company’s emotional capital.

What is exactly ethical behaviour of the moral leader?

It is tempting to have a precise picture in mind with respect to ethical behaviour of a manager. But that would be too simple. What constitutes honest behaviour depends on the moral norms and values that apply in the broader social context in which the leader finds himself, Heres writes. And ethical behaviour depends therefore on the judgment of the direct and indirect stakeholders from inside and outside the organization. And cross-cultural leadership research also shows that moral leadership – just like leadership in general – has various meanings and way of being expressed in different environments. It does have general characteristics, but it is certainly not a fixed concept.

Interaction and dynamics

To develop effective moral leadership at the workplace, interaction between the managers and staff is important. This certainly seems necessary in professions where the work has a major impact on colleagues, clients, the organization or the society. Then employees also want discussions about the moral values and principles that should be determinant regarding choices they make at work. Especially when individuals have a leading role and frequently experience more serious moral dilemmas. They expect their managers to adopt a proactive approach and a more explicit guidance regarding integrity comparing to employees who do not have management roles. The opportunities that employees are given to discuss and address difficult issues in a safe atmosphere and to learn from mistakes they have made, are also very important.

According to Heres, managers should more explicitly consult their employees on how they want moral leadership in their organization to take shape. By talking to employees about it, the moral leader and the employees develop a shared vision of what an ethical behaviour involves within the organization.

Yet again the integrity of the moral leader: the unruly practice

Everything concerning moral leadership, however, depends on the personal integrity of the leader of a company and on his consistent and visible exemplary behaviour. But now research shows that executives often overestimate themselves in this matter: they have a more positive view of their exemplary behaviour than their employees do.

This seems like the lack of insight into our own behaviour we as people have in general (Argyris, 1974). See also my previous column on professionally moral behaviour.

Together, it should make us start to think about the role of leaders in practice, when they want to implement and maintain a corporate culture in which ethical behaviour is the default.

What if the manager himself does not have ethical behaviour?

How can an organization actually promote ethical behaviour if the exemplary behaviour of the leader himself is not ethical? What are the effects of all these measures on employees? And the effects of codes of conduct, audits and integrity training?

Chris Argyris writes in On Organizational Learning (1992): “If it is a criterion of incompetence when one behaves in a way that discourages others, the actions of those who do that could be called the actions of an incompetent person.” The moral leader who does not comply with the ethical behaviour that he more or less imposes on his employees is therefore incompetent in this respect.

Argyris goes even further: “When people make statements about the way everyone should behave under certain circumstances, but do not act in accordance with those statements and nevertheless believe that they do, they create an unfair situation. ” The moral leader who does not act ethically and does not recognize this in himself, also creates injustice at work.

But, says Chris Argyris: “Injustice is a double-loop problem and in general people have difficulty with double-loop learning, because we are programmed in such a way that we are not so effective in it.” The double-loop learning that relates to re-examining one’s own assumptions and values and norms (by detecting and correcting errors), will never happen automatically within organizations. And certainly not when it comes to values that have to do with the way people interact.

The difficulty is that the deep double-loop learning seems a good idea for everyone when the information is not threatening. However, as soon as it becomes threatening to us, we seem to resist to it and our learning becomes superficial again. We fall quickly back on our usual thinking pattern.

Argyris also believes that interventions relating to double-loop learning, and I say, therefore also relating to learning to act morally, must start at the highest power level of the organization. Thus, with leaders sufficiently autonomous to put the new knowledge into practice. So, first work on an individual level and then penetrate the organizational levels.

But if those moral leaders are then unable themselves to apply the double-loop learning, they will undeniably create conditions within their organization to prevent double-loop learning. Then it is almost impossible that the employees of the organization are together engaged in deep learning regarding ethical behaviour, because this learning is unconsciously being obstructed.

For example, there could be integrity training courses, but they are not provided by the right trainers and the content is non-committal. There is an ethical code, but its application does not lead to deep learning about business ethics by employees. In theory, employees may criticize the ethics policy of the company and misconduct must be reported.

But, for example, the way in which companies deal with whistle-blowers in practice shows a completely different reality. In most cases groupthink and even a certain hypocrisy within the company, will result in the whistle-blower being marginalized. And it is the leader that ultimately lays off the whistle-blower or transfers him/her.

The bird at the top

This makes us think again about the leader at the top. Which bird do we actually want to gracefully settle at the top? Do we really want its sharp view to bring transparency and change to our company? That it is a strong bird?

And if we really want that special bird, will he or she not actually land on the top by him or herself?

Share this column ... Share on facebook
Share on google
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin