Who Will Step Up and Be a Moral Organizational Leader?

Topic(s): ethics, leadership, organizational development, selection
Publication: Academy of Management Review (2020)
Article: The Emergence of Moral Leadership
Authors: O.N. Solinger, P.G.W. Jansen, J.P. Cornelissen
Reviewed by: Mona Bapat, PhD

When thinking of organizational changes related to ethics and morality, it is easy to recall events in which employees come forward regarding an injustice, resulting in some sort of change. However, researchers (Solinger, et al., 2020) contend that in order to sustain meaningful change, leaders are the ones who need to be stewards for the change. Below is a summary of the key tenets of the authors’ proposed theory of moral leadership.


The authors suggest that the extent to which people are motivated to defy the status quo and evolve into moral leaders is dependent on two things: (1) their level of emotional investment in an issue and (2) how much conflict they experience between their values and the existing moral systems.

The authors’ second proposition is that leaders’ courage to defy the status quo increases as they become emotionally entangled with a sense of duty towards the well-being of others. Further, the authors note that leaders will be more willing to speak up about an issue if they are more courageous. 

The authors suggest that leaders who are more likely to have strong follower support regarding a new moral ideology are able to do several things more successfully. They are better able to accommodate the views of others, find a balance between views, and frame their stance in a way that demonstrates their vison. 

Lastly, the authors suggest the level to which leaders are able to secure their moral vision depends on how much they are able to execute it within organizational structures or policies. That is, the ability to translate the ideology into practices such as installing new compliance structures, incentive schemes, or behavioral guidelines is key to engraining the moral standard into the fabric of the organizational culture.


This new theory of moral leadership needs empirical support in the literature. Nevertheless, the authors appear to be suggesting a set of skills and characteristics of leaders that hiring committees can assess for in job interviews. For example, hiring managers may consider: (1) an applicant’s values and how the person goes about enacting those values, (2) examples of situations in which the applicant had to be courageous in the face of opposition, (3) or examples of how the applicant carried out a vision with concrete results. Using this framework might help organizations hire new leaders who are best prepared to assume the responsibility of moral leadership.


Solinger, O.N., Jansen, P.G.W., & Cornelissen, J.P. (2020). The emergence of moral leadership. Academy of Management Review, 45(3), 504-527.