Journal of Business Ethics

, Volume 123, Issue 1, pp 23–43 | Cite as

New Insights into Ethical Leadership: A Qualitative Investigation of the Experiences of Executive Ethical Leaders



Ethical leadership has become a thriving research field. However, on reviewing previous research, we argue that several fundamental questions remain unclear and need further investigation. (1) Ethical leaders are defined as behaving ‘normatively appropriate[ly]’ (Brown et al., Organ Behav Hum Decis Process 97(2):117–134, 2005), but it remains unclear what this entails. What specific behaviours does an ethical leader show? (2) To date, ethical leadership has focused primarily on leader behaviour towards employees. Which stakeholders apart from employees are important to the ethical leader, and what kind of ethical behaviour does the ethical leader show towards them? (3) What are further antecedents and consequences of ethical leadership? We addressed these questions by qualitatively analysing interviews with 17, mostly Swiss, executive ethical leaders. The results indicate that executive ethical leaders care not only about employees but also about other stakeholders, such as customers, suppliers, owners of companies, the natural environment and society. Additionally, this study identified a broad range of executive ethical leaders’ behaviours towards these stakeholders, and, therefore, may function as a useful resource for future quantitative studies. Furthermore, we identified several antecedents of executive ethical leadership, for example ethical role models, business strategy and owner’s values, and consequences such as effects on other stakeholders than employees. Finally, our results shed more light on the processes of ethical guidance of employees. Managerial implications and avenues for further research are discussed.


Business ethics Ethical behavior Ethical leadership Executive leadership Stakeholder management 



Ethical Leadership Scale


Ethical Leadership Behavior Scale


Ethical Leadership at Work Questionnaire



This research was supported by the URPP for Ethics and Forschungskredit of the University of Zurich. We wish to thank Klaus Jonas and two anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.URPP Ethics, Research Priority Programme in EthicsUniversity of ZurichZurichSwitzerland

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