Virtuous Leadership is a Critical Source for Employee Well-Being and Trust — Research

There has never been a more important time for us to focus on leadership that is virtuous and practiced by people of good character. Recent research has zeroed in on this topic and also prompted me to write my new book, Virtuous Leadership: The Character Secrets of Great Leaders.

But beyond simple platitudes of needing leaders of good character, there should be compelling reasons and evidence supporting the proposition.

Researchers Martijn Hendriks and colleagues examined how a manager’s virtuous leadership as perceived by subordinates influenced their well-being and trust, published in Management Research Review.

The authors state “A leader’s character shapes his or her goals and behavior, which can have a profound impact on organizational outcomes, including the outcomes and behaviors of subordinates.”

S.T. Hannah and B.J. Avolio argue in their research published in The Leadership Quarterly argue that leader character is an indispensable component of leadership performance in the contemporary business world.

T. Newstead and colleagues, writing in The Journal of Business Ethics, say “ Virtue words, such as justice, fairness, care, and integrity, frequently feature in organizational codes of conduct and theories of ethical leadership. And yet our modern organizations remain blemished by examples lacking virtue. The philosophy of virtue ethics and numerous extant theories of leadership cites virtues as essential to good leadership. But we seem to lack understanding of how to develop or embed these virtues and notions of good leadership in practice.”

The authors contend that given their importance, character and the related virtues play roles in various leadership styles, such as ethical leadership, servant leadership and transformational leadership.

Mary M. Crossan et al. in their article in the Journal of Management Studies, contend that “Despite the role of leader virtues in various leadership styles, limited evidence exists on the isolated influence of virtuous leadership within organizations as assessed by a coherent measure of a leader’s virtuousness that centers on character. This longstanding lack of attention to and knowledge regarding virtuous character may explain why many managers attempt to get ahead by “doing wrong” and why virtuous character traits often do not play a prominent role in the training and evaluation of managers.”

Researchers Gordon Wang and Rick D. Hackett argue these concerns have been convincingly dispelled by the emerging literature on virtuous leadership and leader character with the development of more parsimonious, coherent and philosophically grounded conceptual frameworks of virtuous leadership and leader character and the development of sound measures of virtuous leadership that are empirically distinct from other leadership concepts such as ethical leadership and charismatic leadership.

Wang and Hackett demonstrate in their research that subordinates’ perceptions of a supervisor’s virtuous leadership relate positively to their overall happiness and life satisfaction, even after accounting for the supervisor’s charismatic leadership. The work-related well-being of employees or components thereof is also positively associated with organizational virtuousness.

Because trust is specially developed when moral action is intrinsically driven, intentional, and regularly demonstrated in context-relevant events, leader character is regarded as the fundamental source of trust in leaders. These factors are crucial for fostering trust because they send the message to workers that a leader will act morally going forward, especially when that leader prioritizes moral action over maximizing personal benefit.

On the other hand, when moral action is extrinsically motivated, unplanned, or inconsistent, less confidence is developed because it is less clear that the leader would act morally in the future. According to this viewpoint, the character-based idea of virtuous leadership may increase trust even more than similar leadership techniques traditionally associated with trust, such as ethical leadership and transformational leadership, because those leadership styles do not fully center on character but also focus on behaviors that may generate less trust, such as conforming to rules or moral duties and goal-oriented behavior.

Henricks and colleagues conclude in their research: “Leadership styles in which leader virtues play a significant role, such as ethical, servant, and transformational leadership, do not comprehensively address the core defining characteristics of a virtuous leader, as they do not consider a coherent set of core leader virtues and do not center on character . . . . The current study reveals that subordinates who perceive they have more virtuous immediate supervisors have higher work-related well-being across a wide variety of contexts in Western societies. This positive influence holds for all three considered dimensions of work-related well-being — job satisfaction, work-related effect and work engagement. These findings are consistent with previous research findings showing that virtuous leadership positively influences various positive follower outcomes that are antecedents and consequences of work-related well-being, such as subordinates’ overall happiness, life satisfaction, psychological empowerment, organizational identification and moral identity.”

In my book, Virtuous Leadership: The Character Secrets of Great Leaders, I describe in detail a list with definitions of leadership virtues that when embraced and implemented contribute greatly to good character and have beneficial effects on employees and organizations.

In addition to identifying the kinds of leadership virtues that lead to good character, I describe what needs to be done in the organization with details about leadership training programs and recruitment and selection processes for identifying and developing virtuous leaders.



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Ray Williams

Author/Retired Executive Coach-Helping People Live Better Lives and Serve Others