Not All Followers Socially Learn from Ethical Leaders: The Roles of Followers’ Moral Identity and Leader Identification in the Ethical Leadership Process
Recent literature suggests that ethical leadership helps to inhibit followers’ unethical behavior, largely built on the premise that followers view ethical leaders as ethical role models and socially learn from them, thereby engaging in more (less) (un)ethical conduct. This premise, however, has not been adequately tested, leaving insufficient understanding concerning the conditions under which this social learning process occurs. In this study, we revisit this premise, theorizing that not all followers will equally regard the same ethical leader as being a personal ethical role model, thereby bounding the leader’s effects in reducing followers’ unethical behavior. We integrate the role of follower self-concepts into social learning theory, hypothesizing that the extent followers emulate their ethical leaders is contingent on how they identify with ethics (i.e., moral identity) as well as the particular leader (i.e., leader identification). We test our hypotheses with three-wave survey data collected from 214 employees, finding that ethical leaders are viewed as being role models only amongst followers higher in moral identity and leader identification, and that followers’ perceptions that the leader is an ethical role model mediated the effect of ethical leadership on followers’ unethical behavior. Interestingly, results for the full-model tests show that ethical leadership evokes unethical behavior amongst followers lower in both moral identity and leader identification. These results suggest that ethical leadership is not a universally useful practice to decrease unethical behavior and that a more nuanced understanding of its contingent effects needs to be better understood.
KeywordsEthical leadership Ethical role model Moral identity Leader identification Unethical behavior Social learning theory
This study was funded by the National Natural Science Foundation of China (Grant Number 71772193)
Compliance with Ethical Standards
Conflict of interest
All the authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.
All procedures performed in this study were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.
Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in this study.
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