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Ethical Leadership and Its Variations Research Paper

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Updated: Jun 26th, 2019


Researchers have concentrated efforts to uncovering aspects and conceptions of ethical leadership models that could be used in contemporary organizations to not only ensure leadership effectiveness, but also enhance follower development and realization of organizational goals.

In this light, the present analysis contributes to our understanding of one such leadership model known as ethical leadership and its variations, which include servant, spiritual and authentic leadership.

The careful and exhaustive comparisons done between these leadership theories and other conventional leadership models such as transformational and charismatic leadership give credence to the fact that leader emphasis on ethical dimensions of leadership generates beneficial personal and organizational outcomes.

It has also been demonstrated that value-based leadership projected in servant, spiritual and authentic leadership is predicated on shared, robustly internalized values that are promoted and acted upon by the leader, but which goes a long way to ensure leadership effectiveness, positive organizational outcomes in terms of competencies development and productivity, and follower development.

Research into the servant, spiritual and authentic leadership models have demonstrated some shared, common features as well as broad differences.

Although these theories may represent a paradigm shift of leadership approaches into the future, more systematic and quantitative research is needed to harmonize the varying conceptions and other grey areas of the theories discussed comprehensively in this paper. Indeed, it has been noted that the popular appeal of these evolving leadership approaches is yet to translate into credible academic respectability.


Despite sustained attention by scholars and practitioners to the wide discipline of leadership, discussions of ethical leadership in public, private and even nonprofit organizations still remains largely anecdotal and highly normative. However, as noted by Rubin, Doedorff & Brown (2010), this is not to imply that the study of ethical leadership has been disregarded in its entirety.

To the contrary, scholars, driven by ethics scandals and subsequent demise of companies like Enron, World-Com, Lehman Brothers and Tyco (Millar, Delves & Harris, 2010; Sendjaya et al, 2008), have concentrated efforts to uncovering aspects and conceptions of ethical leadership, contributing to rich, descriptive information on the field (Rubin et al, 2010).

The present paper purposes to examine different conceptions of ethical leadership, including servant, spiritual and authentic theories, and to compare and contrast them with the transformational and charismatic theories with a view to bring into light how these conceptions could be employed to occasion important organizational outcomes.

Ethical Leadership: Background & Definition

Although practitioners and scholars are of the opinion that ethics is the core of leadership (Xiayong, Fen & Jiannong, 2011), and while the fundamental importance of leadership – particularly top management – in promoting and sustaining ethical conduct in organizations has long been understood (Brown & Mitchell, 2010), it is only in the past decade that ethical leadership has been methodically studied from a descriptive and predictive social scientific perspective (Millar et al, 2010).

Earlier studies as noted by Brown & Mitchell (2010) looked into the effects of leadership behaviors without developing formalized theoretical conceptions.

However, it was not until early 2000s when Treviño and colleagues cited in Brown & Mitchell (2010) engaged in the first formal explorations focused on developing an all-encompassing definition of what ethical leadership entails. Their qualitative studies, as demonstrated by these authors, revealed that ethical leaders were best depicted along two interrelated continuums: moral person and moral manager.

Later, Brown et al (2005) cited in Xiaoyong et al (2011) further illuminated the conceptualization to develop a formal definition of ethical leadership as “…the demonstration of normatively appropriate conduct through personal actions and interpersonal relationships, and the promotion of such conduct to followers through two-way communication, reinforcement, and decision making” (p. 362).

Below, this paper narrows its focus to critically examine three variants of ethical leadership, namely: servant leadership, spiritual leadership, and authentic leadership.

Servant Leadership

Definition &Conceptions

Robinson (2009) cited in Waterman (2011) suggests that the phrase ‘servant leadership’ in its contemporary perspective “…was developed by Robert Greenleaf (1977), but the idea can be traced to antiquity and is associated with a range of religious beliefs” (p. 24).

Due to modernization of societies, however, the concept of service has evolved from just representing the religious connotation of ‘service to others’ to a leadership approach based on not only showing care and concern for other people (Waterman, 2011), but also demonstrating the desire to build and develop them personally and professionally (Taylor et al, 2007).

Holistically, therefore, servant leadership entails “…helping others to accomplish shared objectives by facilitating individual development, empowerment, and collective work that is consistent with the health and long-term welfare of followers” (Yukl, 2009, p. 420).

From the systematic review of literature (e.g., Yukl, 2009; Taylor et al, 2007; Sendjaya et al, 2008), several conceptions of servant leadership have crystallized, namely: integrity; altruism; humility; empathy and healing; personal growth; fairness and justice, and; empowerment.

Ebener & O’Connell (2010) suggest that “…a servant leader begins by acting with integrity, creating supportive relationships, and helping others to grow” (p. 320). As demonstrated by Page & Wong (2005), servant leadership is associated with such inner qualities as humility, integrity, fairness, altruism and a servant’s attitude, which are reinforced by the development of a highly moral and spiritual character.

Effects of Servant Leadership

Available literature demonstrates that organizations are increasingly searching for ethical and effective leadership that not only serve others, but invests in their development and executes a shared vision (Sendjaya et al, 2008; Page & Wong, 2005).

According to Ebener & O’Connell (2010), “…servant leaders encourage people to go above and beyond their own immediate interests by performing organizational citizenship behaviors [which] are defined as altruistic, prosocial activities that have been shown to enhance organizational performance” (p. 315).

Irving (2005) postulates that servant leadership behaviors are intrinsically correlated to the effectiveness of teams in the realization of shared objectives or goals. Extant research on leadership demonstrates that when team members acknowledge servant leadership, they are bound to appear as whole people and trustworthy professional co-leaders – fundamental ingredients in building effective teams (Ebener & O’Connell, 2010).

Greenleaf (1977) cited in Sendjaya et al (2008) was of the opinion that “…servant leadership is demonstrated whenever those served by servant leaders are positively transformed in multiple dimensions (e.g. emotionally, intellectually, socially, and spiritually) into servant leaders themselves” (p. 408).

This transformation takes place collectively and repeatedly, and in turn, inspires positive changes in individuals, organizations and communities.

Research on Servant Leadership

Researchers and practitioners have reported a shift in the leadership paradigm for the 21st century (Taylor et al, 2007) from the traditional leadership approaches to an emerging leadership approach that appears more relevant and timely in the present context (Sendjaya et al, 2008).

Greenleaf’s (1977) seminal work on servant leadership not only brought the construct to the public discourse in the mid 1970s (Irving, 2005), but also stimulated interest from other researchers who have continued to expand on the topic and to shed light on various conceptions that surround servant leadership (Yukl, 2009).

According to Irving (2005), “…the work surrounding servant leadership from the early 1990s through 2003 focused on identifying themes that could help to operationalize the concept of servant leadership” (p. 2).

To quote a few of these works, Graham (1991) cited in Irving (2005) stressed the inspirational and moral dimensions of servant leadership, while Buchen (1998) suggested that self-identity, capability for reciprocity, relationship building, and obsession with the future were fundamental themes of servant leadership.

Spears (1998) also cited in Irving (2005) “…emphasized the dimensions of listening, empathy, healing, awareness, persuasion, conceptualization, foresight, stewardship, commitment, and community building” (p. 2).

Farling et al (1999) cited in Sendjaya et al (2008) argued for the importance of servant leaders to demonstrate vision, influence, service to others, integrity, and trust, while Laub (1999) cited in Irving (2005) put forward the concepts of valuing people, developing people, participating in building community, exhibiting authenticity, providing leadership, and sharing leadership as essential for servant leaders.

Limitations of Servant Leadership

It has been suggested that although the literature “…on servant leadership have increased in the past few years, there has still been limited research conducted in a systematic, quantitative manner” (Taylor et al, 2007 p. 415).

Indeed, the popular appeal of servant leadership as an evolving leadership approach has not translated into academic respectability, in large part due to the under-representation of the theory in major textbooks on management, leadership and organizational behavior.

Due to the lack of a significant research base on servant leadership, Sendjaya et al (2008) postulate that the model is still been faced with vague psychometric properties, which are fundamentally important for further development and validation of the approach.

It is also generally felt that many organizations that are perceived to practice servant leadership are hierarchical in nature and, consequently, the power distance between the servant leaders and their followers or other team members may not be conducive to the elements or themes of servant leadership discussed in this paper (Ebener & O’Connell, 2010).

Spiritual Leadership

Definition & Conceptions

Fry (2003) argues that “…the purpose of spiritual leadership is to create vision and value congruence across the strategic, empowered team, and individual levels and, ultimately, to foster higher levels of organizational commitment and productivity” (p. 693).

Unlike classic organizational, administrative and leadership theories, spiritual leadership can be defined as encompassing the values, attitudes, and behaviors that are perceived as essential to fundamentally motivate people so that they are able to develop a sense of spiritual survival at work through calling and membership (Karadog, 2009).

Extant research demonstrates that although the conceptions of spiritual leadership are many and varied (Carter, 2009), they revolve around the issues of spiritual beliefs (e.g., hope and faith in God); transcendence of self, manifesting in an active sense of calling or destiny; engagement in spiritual practices (e.g., praying, meditating, and reading scripture), and; conviction that an individual’s activities have meaning and value beyond the immediate economic benefits or self-gratification (Ferguson & Miliman, 2008).

Consequently, this paper will utilize one construct proposed by Fry (2003) cited in Freeman (2011), which “…explains spirituality in leadership within an intrinsic motivation model that incorporates vision, altruistic love/faith; theories of workplace spirituality and spiritual survival; and the organizational outcomes of commitment and productivity” (p. 122).

Research on Spiritual Leadership

Fry & Matherly (n.d.) are in agreement that “…issues regarding workplace spirituality have been receiving increased attention in the organizational sciences and the implications of workplace spirituality for leadership theory, research, and practice make this a fast growing area of new research and inquiry by scholars” (p. 3).

Research has demonstrated that spiritual leadership not only lead to valuable personal results such as enhanced positive human health and psychological happiness but that it also conveys improved employee satisfaction, loyalty and commitment while reducing instances of absenteeism and turnover (Carter, 2009).

Indeed, Kaplan & Norton (2004) cited in Fry & Matherly (n.d.) argue that “…a high degree of workplace spirituality and spiritual leadership, as a driver of organizational commitment and productivity, is essential to optimizing organizational performance” (p. 3).

Consequently, many research studies (e.g., Ferguson & Miliman, 2008; Freeman, 2011; Fry & Cohen, 2009; Fry & Matherly, n.d.) conclude that spiritual leadership basically entails motivating and inspiring employees through a transcendent vision and a culture that is intrinsically grounded on altruistic values to produce a more inspired, satisfied, committed and productive workforce.

Limitations of Spiritual Leadership

Researchers have identified several major weaknesses that must be addressed for spiritual leadership to gain acceptance within the scientific community as a newly emerging paradigm.

Ferguson & Miliman (2008) note that there exist a lack of accepted conceptual definition of what spirituality actually entails, while Fry & Cohen (2008) note that there are inadequate measurement tools to evaluate the thematic conceptions of spirituality.

Limited theoretical development and legal concerns have also been identified as genuine challenges for the development of a leadership paradigm that is rooted in spirituality (Fry & Matherly, n.d.).

Authentic Leadership

Definition and Conceptions

The term authenticity “…implies that one acts in accord with the true self, expressing oneself in ways that are consistent with inner thoughts and feelings” (Avolio & Gardner, 2005, p. 320). The recognition of the self-referential nature of authenticity, therefore, is fundamental to comprehending the construct of authentic leadership.

Avolio et al (2004) cited in Avolio & Gardner (2005) describe authentic leaders as individuals who are profoundly conscious “…of how they think and behave and are perceived by others as being aware of their own and others’ values/moral perspectives, knowledge, and strengths; aware of the context in which they operate; and who are confident, hopeful, optimistic, resilient, and of high moral character” (p. 321).

The related conception of authentic leadership is defined by academics as a process that draws from both positive psychological capabilities and a well matured organizational context, which results in both superior self-awareness and self-regulated positive behaviors and actions on the part of leaders and their followers (Avolio & Garner, 2005), fostering positive modeling, self-development, and the attainment of sustainable and veritable performance (Rowe & Guerrero, 2011; Blausten, 2009).

Effects of Authentic Leadership

The effects of authentic leadership are many and varied (Blausten, 2009), and include: development of positive psychological capital and positive moral perspective (Rowe & Guerrero, 2011);

development of leader and follower self-awareness in terms of values, cognitions, and emotions; development of leader and follower self-regulation in terms of internalized behavior, balanced processing, and authentic behavior (Avolio & Gardner, 2005);

development of leadership processes and behaviors such as positive modeling, personal and social identification, emotional contagion, self determination and positive social exchanges (Sendjaya et al, 2008); follower development, and; veritable and sustainable organizational performance (Rubin et al, 2010).

It is also generally felt that authentic leadership institutes open, transparent, trusting and genuine relationships between the leaders and followers.

Research on Authentic Leadership

A number of scholars have undertaken research on authentic leadership. One of the pioneers of these studies was Bill George, who posited “…that being yourself; being the person you were created to be rather than developing an image or persona of a leader is the way to restore confidence in business organizations after Enron and Arthur Andersen” (Sparrowe, 2005, p. 420).

When formulating their model of authentic leadership development, Luthans & Avolio (2003) cited in Sparrowe (2005) argue that the kind of leadership that can reinstate confidence from the challenge of declining hope in organizational leaders and their associates is by engaging individuals who are true to themselves, and whose transparency and accountability in either public or private discourse positively transforms or develops the followers into leaders themselves.

Limitations of Authentic Leadership

While Walumbwa et al (2008) report that it is often difficult to measure some aspects of authentic leadership, Avolio & Garner (2005) argue that more research is needed “…on the relationship between authentic leadership and the levels of self-awareness of leaders and followers” (p. 334).

These authors also report a dearth in research relating to evaluating the direct consequence of the leader’s positive psychological capital on associates and their mediating outcomes on sustained organizational productivity and performance.

Similarities & Differences of Servant, Spiritual & Authentic Approaches of Leadership

Research into the three approaches of leadership has demonstrated some shared, common features of the approaches as well as broad differences. Among the similarities, Avolio & Gardener (2005) argue that leaders in the three approaches must exhibit positive moral perspective and demonstrate self-awareness in terms of values, cognitions, and emotions.

Similarly, all approaches advocate for self-determination, follower self-awareness and follower development (Sendjaya et al, 2008), not mentioning that they share a strong emphasis on the ethical dimension of leadership (Brown & Mitchell, 2010).

Sendjaya et al (2008) argue that both the “…servant leadership and Fry’s (2003) spiritual leadership models appeal to virtuous leadership practices and intrinsic motivating factors to cultivate a sense of meaning, purpose, and interconnectedness in the workplace” (p. 404).

These authors suggest that both leadership paradigms endeavor to facilitate a holistic, integrated workplace where people engage in significant, meaningful and intrinsically motivating work, and where leadership orientation finds its expression or meaning and purpose of life through service.

Indeed, available literature demonstrates that the spiritual leadership’s conceptions of vision, altruistic love, and hope/faith (Fry & Matherly, n.d.) are also embedded in the conceptions of servant leadership (Sendjaya et al, 2008; Freeman, 2011).

Given the discussed similarities, it would be conceivable to assert that “…servant leadership is embedded in spiritual leadership in that servant leadership is a manifestation of altruistic love in the action of pursuing transcendent vision and being driven to satisfy needs for calling and membership” (Sendjaya et al, 2008, p. 404).

Conversely, it would be equally conceivable to argue that spiritual leadership is grounded on the motivational basis for servant leaders to engage followers in authentic and thoughtful ways that transform their behavioral orientation to be what they are competent of becoming (Freeman, 2011).

Sendjaya et al (2008) posit that servant leaders have the capacity to lead authentically since their leadership originates from the ‘being’ as evidenced in their unswerving display of humility, integrity, accountability, security and vulnerability.

It is important to note that the causal spiritual leadership model developed by Fry (2003) cited in Sendjaya et al (2008) “…identifies follower needs for spiritual survival as expressed through calling and membership as outcome variables, whereas calling and membership are inherent in servant leadership behaviors” (p. 405).

Consequently, it can be argued that spirituality is one of the many facets of servant leadership, but there exist other equally fundamental facets such as self-sacrificial servant-hood behavior, empowerment, collective work, and moral values that are not evidently expressed in many spiritual leadership models (Sendjaya et al, 2008).

It has been observed that a critical aspect of spiritual leadership is the need to be authentic, hence the relationship between spiritual leadership and authentic leadership. Spiritual leadership is also related to servant leadership in that it intrinsically focuses on “…serving others and emphasizing the development of people” (Ferguson & Milliman, 2008, p. 448).

Among the differences, Avolio & Garner (2005) notes that internalized self regulation is demonstrated in both spiritual and authentic leadership, while authentic behavior is demonstrated in servant as well as authentic leadership, but not in spiritual leadership.

Equally, it can be argued that spirituality is a significant source of motivation for servant leaders but is not highlighted in the authentic leadership model (Sendjaya et al, 2008). Personal and social identification on the part of the leader is present in authentic leadership but vaguely demonstrated in both servant and spiritual leadership.

Equally, positive social exchange is clearly outlined as a conception of authentic leadership but not for spiritual and servant leadership (Avolio & Gardner, 2005). The conception of follower self-awareness in terms of cognitions and emotions is clearly outlined in both authentic and spiritual leadership, but is not considered in the servant leadership.

Lastly, it has been noted in the literature that the conception of relational transparency is carried with much weight in authentic leadership but not in the other two leadership approaches (Avolio & Gardner, 2005)

Comparing the Approaches with Transformational & Charismatic Theories

Defining Transformational Leadership

Burns (1978) cited in Sagnak (2010) defined transformational leadership as moral leadership, where “…leaders and followers further take each other’s motivation and morality to higher levels” (p. 1137).

Bass (1985) also cited in Sagnak (2010) further advanced the transformational leadership approach to include the aspects of idealized influence (charisma) on the part of the leader, inspirational motivation, self-fulfillment, intellectual simulation, self-actualization, and personalized consideration. A transformational leader, according to Engelbrecht et al (2005), aims to fundamentally alter the values, beliefs and attitudes of followers.

Defining Charismatic Leadership

Weber (1947) cited in Fry (2003) defined charismatic leadership as any approach that demonstrates: strong desire to influence others; ability to act as a role model for the beliefs and values that followers need to adopt;

ability to articulate ideological goals with moral overtones; ability to communicate high expectations and demonstrate confidence in followers’ abilities to meet and surpass these expectations;

ability to arouse task-relevant motivation by tapping followers’ needs for esteem, power, and affiliation, and; ability to link the identity of followers (employees) to the collective identity of the organization.

A Discussion of the Similarities & Differences

Leadership scholars have often asserted that servant leadership is somewhat similar to transformational leadership in that “…both approaches encourage leaders and followers to raise one another to higher levels of motivation and morality” (Sendjaya et al, 2008, p. 403).

However, these authors note that servant leaders are theoretically different from Bass’s (1985) transformational leaders in that not only are servant leaders more likely than transformational leaders to exhibit the natural inclination to serve disadvantaged and marginalized people, but the outcomes of enhanced motivation and commitment demonstrated by transformational leaders “…may not necessarily benefit followers as there is nothing in the transformational leadership model that says that leaders should serve followers for the good of followers” (p. 403).

However, it should be noted that as is the case with servant leadership, the transformational leadership model outlined by Burns (1978) cited in Sendjaya et al (2008) required leaders to lead the followers for their own ultimate good.

While the role of servant leaders may be seen in the light of serving followers; that of a transformational leader may be perceived in the light of encouraging followers to pursue organizational goals and objectives (Sendjaya et al, 2008).

Another distinction closely related to this is that while transformational leadership deals primarily with ‘performance beyond expectations’, servant leadership is fundamentally concerned with entrenching the followers’ holistic moral and ethical development (Taylor et al, 2005).

Whetstone (2002) observes that whereas a transformational leader may be instrumental and manipulative in nature, a servant leader is bound to be manipulated by the followers.

Taylor et al (2007) suggest that although servant leadership may be perceived as an extension of transformational leadership, it ends up valuing people and treating them as ends rather than means while many transformational theories treats people as means to achieve organizational objectives.

However, the authors note that the followers’ emotional attachment to the leader in servant leadership, along with the motivational arousal of followers as an outcome of the leader’s behavior and actions, is fundamentally considered a consequence of transformational leadership.

Carter (2009) argues that spiritual leadership shares some convergent elements with transformational leadership in that it is not only linked to social responsibility, integrity and stability, but it shapes the values, beliefs and practices of followers, and provides overall meaning to their own existence.

Some central components of both spiritual and transformational leadership theories, according to Sagnak (2010), include the commitment of the manager to a higher cause or purpose and the articulation of meaningful values on a deeper level to organizational members.

Additionally, Avolio & Gardner (2005) posit that the conception of follower development is a focal component in servant, spiritual, and authentic leadership but is vaguely outlined in transformational and charismatic leadership models.

As observed by Avolio & Gardner (2005), transformational and authentic leadership are related in that authenticity serves as a moral compass by which the objectives and intentions of transformational leaders can be holistically determined.

However, these authors note that although authentic leadership can encompass all the other leadership approaches (e.g., transformational, charismatic, servant, and spiritual), it may not be charismatic to the extent demonstrated by transformational leadership as authentic leaders must work hard and lead with purpose, meaning and values to build lasting relationship with followers.

To the contrary, Sagnak (2010) observes that transformational leaders “…may be charismatic in their opinion of the followers and thereby inspire them; they meet emotional needs of each employee and/or provide intellectual simulation” (p. 1137). This distinction demonstrates that being an authentic leader does not automatically imply that the leader is transformational.

Brown & Mitchell (2010) posit that “…transformational and charismatic leadership have been studied extensively and the cumulative findings suggest that [they] are positively associated with important ethics-related outcomes such as follower’s perceptions of trust in fairness of their leader and organizational citizenship behaviors” (p. 586).

This therefore implies that these leadership approaches projects similar elements with servant, spiritual and authentic leadership in terms of followers’ trust and organizational citizenship behaviors.

Internalized self regulation and personal and social identification are focal components shared by authentic, spiritual, transformational, and charismatic leadership approaches, but are largely absent in servant leadership (Avolio & Gardner, 2005).


This analysis contributes to our understanding of ethical leadership and its different variations, namely servant, spiritual and authentic leadership.

The careful comparisons between these leadership theories and other conventional leadership models such as transformational and charismatic leadership give credence to the fact that leader emphasis on ethical dimensions of leadership generates beneficial personal and organizational outcomes.

It has also been demonstrated that value-based leadership projected in servant, spiritual and authentic leadership is predicated on shared, robustly internalized values that are promoted and acted upon by the leader, but which goes a long way to ensure leadership effectiveness, positive organizational outcomes in terms of competencies development and productivity, and follower development (Fry, 2003).

The task, therefore, is for the management of contemporary organizations to select a leadership approach that will articulate a better vision of a better future.

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