Senior executives are thought to provide the organization’s ethical ‘tone at the top’. We conducted an inductive interview-based study aimed at defining the perceived content domain of executive ethical leadership. We interviewed two types of key informants – corporate ethics officers and senior executives – about executive ethical leadership and then a contrasting category we labeled ‘ethically neutral’ leadership. Systematic analysis of the data identified multiple dimensions of ethical and ethically neutral leadership. The findings suggest that ethical leadership is more than traits such as integrity and more than values-based inspirational leadership. It includes an overlooked transactional component that involves using communication and the reward system to guide ethical behavior. Similarities and differences between ethics officers’ and senior executives’ perceptions also led to insights about the importance of vantage point and social salience in perceptions of executive ethical leadership. In order to be perceived as an ethical leader by those outside the executive suite, the executive must engage in socially salient behaviors that make the executive stand out as an ethical figure against an ethically neutral ground.
Treviño, L. K., Brown, M., & Hartman, L. P. (2003). A qualitative investigation of perceived executive ethical leadership: Perceptions from inside and outside the executive suite. Human relations, 56(1), 5-37.