How important is it to have a moral leader?

There’s been a lot of debate about how relevant a leader’s personal morality and behaviour is, in the current run up to the current Tory party leadership election. What does the evidence on leadership say?  

Theories of ethical leadership refer to leaders who behave in a moral way and also prioritise this as something which their teams and organisations need to do too. These leaders model and reward moral behaviour and they make decisions based on what they think is ethically right. Of course what they think is right may not be what someone else thinks is right, but from their perspective they’re not hurting anyone and they are furthering the greater good.

Ethical leadership has been associated with a range of positive effects for the people these leaders are leading, and the organisations they are operating in, including less work stress for their followers, less likelihood to leave, better psychological wellbeing and better job performance and work satisfaction.

So ethical leadership is a good thing for the people following the leader, as well as arguably just being good in itself.

Destructive leadership, in contrast, refers to leaders who act in a way that is negative for their team and organisation. In particular these leaders engage in behaviours which are damaging to their followers, such as abusive supervision where the employee is belittled, gaslit, or undermined.

The leader may not be aware that they are doing this, but the overall result is bad for everyone (except perhaps the leader themselves, who tends to act in a self-serving way).

Practices such as abusive supervision, unsurprisingly result in a worse relationship between leader and follower and a knock on negative effect on performance. It’s one thing working hard, it’s another thing working hard while someone actively makes you feel bad at your job. That’s not what anyone signs up for and so it results in people feeling that the psychological contract they have with the leader is null and void: they identify less with this sort of leader and are more likely to leave, given the choice.

So if it’s so much better to have an ethical leader and so much worse to have a destructive one, how do we end up with them in the first place?

The traits and characteristics associated with destructive leadership sometimes get referred to as dark traits. They include narcissistic, Machiavellian and psychopathic tendencies (in a non-clinical sense). So, a lack of emotion, a grandiose sense of self and a bent for manipulation. But every dark trait has a bright side. Some of those traits make leaders effective in some contexts, and they can also overlap with charisma, which we know tends to be a popular leadership style in times of unrest.

It’s not just about the leader. It’s also about the context. And about the followers.

Padilla et al’s toxic triangle illustrates the elements related to destructive leadership.

This is in equal measures horrifying and encouraging. Horrifying because if we have a leader who we think is unethical and destructive it is partly our fault for following them. And encouraging because perhaps there are parts of that triangle that we can at least try to do something about.

What can we do?

  • Call out destructive and unethical leadership when we see it at all levels, naming it for what it is.
  • Seek out and share good quality information to reduce the likelihood of susceptible followers.
  • Actively connect with people who are different from us so we change the polarized dynamic of the current environment ad make it less conducive.
  • Check ourselves – some of the behaviours on the measures of destructive leaders and abusive supervision are things that arise from stress: not listening to others, being rude or irritable… If we model better behaviours we might spread them around.

And if it doesn’t work? I guess we just keep trying. We’re all leaders to some extent and in some situations, and we can all make sure that we’re holding ourselves to an ethical standard, even if those in positions of power aren’t.

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