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Journal of Business Ethics (2019) 160:765–781 https://doi.org/10.1007/s10551-018-3908-0
O R I G I N A L PA P E R
Self-control Puts Character into Action: Examining How Leader Character Strengths and Ethical Leadership Relate to Leader Outcomes
John J. Sosik1 · Jae Uk Chun2 · Ziya Ete3 · Fil J. Arenas4 · Joel A. Scherer4
Received: 6 December 2017 / Accepted: 1 May 2018 / Published online: 8 May 2018 © Springer Science+Business Media B.V., part of Springer Nature 2018
Abstract Evidence from a growing number of studies suggests leader character as a means to advance leadership knowledge and practice. Based on this evidence, we propose a process model depicting how leader character manifests in ethical leadership that has positive psychological and performance outcomes for leaders, along with the moderating effect of leaders’ self- control on the character strength–ethical leadership–outcomes relationships. We tested this model using multisource data from 218 U.S. Air Force officers (who rated their honesty/humility, empathy, moral courage, self-control, and psychological flourishing) and their subordinates (who rated their officer’s ethical leadership) and superiors (who rated the officers’ in-role performance). Findings provide initial support for leader character as a mechanism triggering positive outcomes such that only when officers reported a high level of self-control did their honesty/humility, empathy, and moral courage manifest in ethical leadership, associated with higher levels of psychological flourishing and in-role performance. We discuss the implications of these results for future theory development, research, and practice.
Keywords Character strengths · Ethical leadership · In-role performance · Psychological flourishing · Self-control
“Character is an integration of habits of conduct superimposed on temperament. It is the will exercised on disposition, thoughts, emotion and action. Will is character in action.” – Vince Lombardi
The sentiments of Vince Lombardi can be traced to tutelage by his ethics professor Father Ignatius W. Cox at Fordham University and General Douglas MacArthur at West Point, who along with philosophers, theologians, and psycholo- gists have noted the importance of character and ethics for motivating performance excellence and human flourishing (Maraniss 1999). With the advent of the positive psychol- ogy and positive organizational behavior fields (Luthans and Yussef-Morgan 2017; Peterson and Seligman 2004), schol- ars have identified many beneficial outcomes associated with character-based leadership including ethicality and organi- zational citizenship behavior (Wang and Hackett 2016), enhanced managerial performance (Gentry et al. 2013; Sosik et al. 2012), stress management, and wellbeing (Gavin et al. 2003; Krause and Hayward 2015). The topic is important to understand because of its role in interpersonal relationships, high value in business and society, and potential influences
* John J. Sosik [email protected]
Jae Uk Chun [email protected]
Ziya Ete [email protected]
Fil J. Arenas [email protected]
Joel A. Scherer [email protected]
1 Great Valley School of Graduate and Professional Studies, The Pennsylvania State University, 30 East Swedesford Road, Malvern, PA 19355, USA
2 Korea University Business School, Korea University, Anam-Dong, Seongbuk-Gu, Seoul 136-701, Republic of Korea
3 Durham University Business School, Durham University, Millhill Lane, Durham DH1 3LB, UK
4 United State Air Force Air University, Maxwell Air Force Base, Montgomery, AL 36112-6426, USA
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on leadership processes and outcomes (Sosik 2015; Wang and Hackett 2016).
Several studies have addressed the topic of character as the virtuous habits of conduct directed toward personal and societal good (Wright and Quick 2011) and sug- gest that ethical leadership may provide leaders with a mechanism for the behavioral manifestation of aspects of character, such as honesty/humility, empathy, moral cour- age, and self-control (Gentry et al. 2013; Sosik et al. in press; Wang and Hackett 2016). Ethical leaders are honest, humble and empathetic with subordinates, courageous in taking unpopular but virtuous stands on issues, and self- controlled when facing challenges and temptations (Brown et al. 2005). These character strengths represent individual characteristics or moderating influences on leader ethical behavior according to Brown and Treviño’s (2006) model of ethical leadership.
Despite the burgeoning literatures on character and ethi- cal leadership, several important gaps remain unaddressed. First, theories of social learning (Bandura 1977) and social exchange (Blau 1964) are two overarching theoretical frame- works that explain how ethical leadership promotes subor- dinates’ beneficial organizational behavior through ethical role-modeling and engendering feelings of trust and fairness (Brown and Treviño 2006). However, this conceptualiza- tion of ethical leadership has resulted in an almost exclusive emphasis on subordinates’ outcomes and their evaluation of leader effectiveness, thereby calling for additional research on the effects of ethical leadership on the attitudinal and performance outcomes for ethical leaders (Bedi et al. 2016; Brown and Mitchell 2010). Second, studies of the condi- tions under which ethical leadership may be limited are emerging with topics such as perceived ethical conviction of the leader (Babalola et al. 2017) and supervisor-induced hindrance stress (Quade et al. 2017). However, other top- ics such as leader personal resources for coping with stress by tapping self-control (Baumeister et al. 2007) have been theoretically identified as boundary conditions of ethical leadership (Sosik et al. 2018), but have not yet been tested. Third, there is a lack of research on leader well-being despite several calls for it based on the stressful nature of leadership, especially in contexts involving ethical compliance, change management, and extreme or dangerous missions (Bernerth and Hirschfeld 2016; Krause and Hayward 2015). Fourth, studies on leadership triads that highlight the importance of leaders accommodating the demands of both superiors and subordinates are extending research on leadership dyads, but this stream of research is nascent (Offstein et al. 2006). Finally, the few empirical examinations of character and ethical leadership have been conducted primarily in busi- ness and educational contexts (e.g., Bedi et al. 2016; Wang and Hackett 2016), while largely ignoring military con- texts, where character is valued for sustaining strong ethical
climates and often tested in extreme operational contexts (USAF 2015a).
The primary purpose of this study is to address these gaps in the literature by answering a research question that asks whether stronger ethical leadership is associated with the leader antecedent character strengths and leader outcomes for leaders with high versus low levels of self-control. We also test whether ethical leadership mediates those relation- ships. The findings from this research model explicate the nature of character strengths related to ethical leadership and associated leader outcomes, identify boundary condi- tions under which ethical leadership processes and leader outcomes are limited, contribute to the literatures on leader wellbeing and leadership triads, and extend ethical leader- ship research to a military context. While military contexts are more dangerous and extreme than business contexts, they promote professionalism, ethical conduct, and offer leaders similar functional areas to hone skills sought by businesses wishing to employ military veterans.
Building upon ethical leadership research (Brown and Treviño 2006) and theories of social cognition (Bandura 1991a, b), we present a model demonstrating how theoreti- cally-relevant and context-specific leader character strengths (honesty/humility, empathy, moral courage) manifest in ethi- cal leadership behavior associated with beneficial outcomes for leaders (psychological flourishing, in-role performance), via the moderating role of leader self-control. We test this model using multi-source triadic data collected from U.S. Air Force (USAF) officers, their subordinates, and superiors given the consistency between the focal character strengths and USAF core values of “integrity first, service before self, and excellence in all we do” in consideration of the USAF’s strong ethical climate and extreme operational context. This study provides evidence for the roles of four character strengths in helping leaders to perform well and flourish. Gaining such understanding is essential because military services are on the vanguard of leadership development, preparing officers and enlisted forces to protect national interests and provide security for citizens (USAF 2015a).
Theoretical Background, Research Model, and Hypotheses
Brown and Treviño’s (2006) model of ethical leadership serves as the conceptual framework for this study. Briefly, this framework proposes that a leader’s situational (e.g., ethical context) and individual characteristics (e.g., char- acter strengths) influence the display of ethical leadership which subsequently influences outcomes. The framework also posits that the relationships between a leader’s situ- ational and individual characteristics and the display of ethical leadership are moderated by other situational and
767Self-control Puts Character into Action: Examining How Leader Character Strengths and Ethical…
individual characteristics (e.g., self-control). Ethical lead- ership research has primarily been grounded in theories of social learning (Bandura 1977) and social exchange (Blau 1964) which explain inter-personal processes between ethi- cal leaders and subordinates. However, the processes exam- ined in this study are intra-personal since they occur within leaders. Accordingly, we use social cognitive theory (SCT) as it applies to moral thought and action (Bandura 1991a) and self-regulation (Bandura 1991b) as a primary base for our hypotheses because it explains intra-personal motiva- tional processes and how they are influenced by situational factors such as experienced stress. Building upon this theo- retical foundation, we propose and test a research model that produces a moderated mediation as shown in Fig. 1.
We selected honesty/humility, empathy, and moral courage as the focal leader character strengths for this study based on SCT of moral thought and action (Bandura 1991a) and prior research identifying them as core aspects of leader character required for high in-role performance (Gentry et al. 2013; Stephano and Wasylyshyn 2005). SCT posits that personal (traits, behavior, cognition, affect) and contextual (environmental) influences serve as interact- ing determinants of each other. Our study was conducted within the context of a strong USAF culture that espouses honesty/humility, empathy, and moral courage as core val- ues through doctrine, policy and training (USAF 2015a). We chose leader self-control as a moderator variable based on SCT of self-regulation and research identifying it as an important self-regulatory mechanism for other character strengths (Baumeister and Exline 1999). SCT suggests that self-control is integral to self-regulation of not only moral behavior (Bandura 1991a), but also performance effective- ness and wellbeing (Bandura 1991b).
We examined psychological flourishing and in-role per- formance as leader outcomes in this study. Psychological flourishing reflects aspects of psychological wellbeing that include having supportive relationships, personal meaning, self-esteem, and optimism (Diener et al. 2010). In-role per- formance represents the quality of task execution required as part of a leader’s formal job description (Williams and Anderson 1991). While in-role performance may differ
from performance as a leader (cf. Bass 2008), the USAF considers both task execution and effectiveness as a leader of subordinates under his or her command as task require- ments of all officers. Both of these leader outcome variables are considered important by USAF commanders for Airmen to achieve their missions while sustaining their wellbeing (USAF 2015b).
Ethical leadership is defined as “the demonstration of nor- matively appropriate conduct through personal actions and interpersonal relationships, and the promotion of such con- duct through two-way communication, reinforcement, and decision-making” (Brown et al. 2005, p. 120). This defini- tion indicates that ethical leaders act as both moral persons and moral managers as they model appropriate behavior for subordinates who gain greater moral awareness through social learning processes (Bandura 1977). As moral persons, ethical leaders are honest and trustworthy, humble in admit- ting when they are no longer effective, concerned about the development of subordinates, and fair and principled deci- sion-makers. They also behave in accordance with ethical standards. As moral managers, they show keen interest in their subordinates’ adherence to ethical standards. They fre- quently communicate the importance of ethical standards to their subordinates and hold them accountable for moral con- duct by enforcing codes of ethics (Brown and Treviño 2006).
Ethical leadership results in several beneficial outcomes. Leaders report more ethical issues to superiors and garner higher levels of trust, interactional fairness, honesty, leader- member exchange, satisfaction, and effectiveness. Sub- ordinates perceive workplace climates to be more ethical, engage in more frequent ethical behavior, exert extra effort, are more effective in their jobs, and report lower levels of work stress and higher levels of job satisfaction, job engage- ment, psychological wellbeing, organizational commitment, and organizational citizenship behavior. Subordinates also possess less turnover intentions and engage in less counter- productive work behaviors. These subordinate outcomes of
Fig. 1 A research model of leader character strengths, ethi- cal leadership and outcomes
Leader character strengths
Honesty/humility Leader outcomes
768 J. J. Sosik et al.
ethical leadership represent essential fulfillment of leaders’ in-role performance and are influenced by leader character (Bedi et al. 2016; Brown and Mitchell 2010; Brown et al. 2005).
Over the centuries, scholars have shown great interest in vir- tuous forms of leadership, driven by increasing research on ethical leadership and leader character (Wang and Hackett 2016). Character can be defined as “those interpenetrable and habitual qualities within individuals, and applicable to organizations that both constrain them to desire and pur- sue personal and societal good” (Wright and Quick 2011, p. 976). Both Western and Eastern classic perspectives on character have informed Peterson and Seligman’s (2004) Values in Action (VIA) classification framework, the most prominent and comprehensive contemporary considera- tion of character in the social sciences (Wright and Quick 2011). This framework identifies 24 character strengths theoretically sorted into six virtues: wisdom and knowledge (creativity, curiosity, love of learning, open-mindedness, perspective), courage (bravery, integrity, persistence, vital- ity), humanity (love, kindness, social intelligence), justice (citizenship, fairness, leadership), temperance (self-control, prudence, forgiveness, humility), and transcendence (spiritu- ality, hope, appreciation of beauty and excellence, gratitude, humor). Because the distillation of these character strengths spans many academic fields, Peterson and Seligman (2004) list several labels for each strength. Our goal in choosing labels for the focal character strengths was to select those with psychometrically-sound measures that tap the theoreti- cal essence of the strengths. To this end, we use honesty/ humility, empathy, moral courage, and self-control as labels of the character strengths of integrity, social intelligence, bravery, and self-control, respectively, in Peterson and Selig- man’s VIA classification framework.
Character Strengths, Ethical Leadership, and Outcomes
The research model shown in Fig. 1 positions ethical leader- ship as a mediator of relationships between leader character strengths and leader psychological flourishing and in-role performance. We first discuss the outcome variables because they are common to our six mediation hypotheses presented below. Ethical leadership is expected to be associated with leader psychological flourishing because ethical leaders show concern for subordinates, model ethical practices, and lead an ethical life (Brown and Treviño 2006). SCT suggests that showing concern and modeling ethical practices for oth- ers are socially approvable acts that serve as a source of self- pride and elicit positive affect from leaders (Bandura 1991a).
A meta-analysis of the trait affect literature (Joseph et al. 2015) reported a positive relationship between leader posi- tive affect and transformational leadership, which is highly correlated with ethical leadership (Bedi et al. 2016; Brown et al. 2005). Leading an ethical life alleviates the stress of hiding one’s ethical lapses from being discovered and the shame that comes with it (Owens and Hekman 2012). Con- sistent with these arguments, Gavin et al. (2003) presented case studies linking aspects of good moral character with the wellbeing of executives.
Ethical leadership also is expected to be positively associ- ated with leader in-role performance. Ethical leaders foster high levels of trust and positive relationships with superiors and subordinates, who view ethical leaders as competent performers. Ethical leaders share this perception as they pos- sess high levels of confidence in their leadership and per- formance abilities (Brown and Treviño 2006). In support of these arguments, prior research demonstrates positive rela- tionships between ethical leadership and leader effectiveness (e.g., Bedi et al. 2016; Brown et al. 2005) and managerial performance (Williams and Seaman 2016).
Figure 1 positions this study’s focal character strengths as antecedents of ethical leadership and the aforementioned leader outcomes. From an SCT perspective, these charac- ter strengths reflect moral standards in the self-system that officers compare against their thoughts, beliefs, and behav- iors as a means to guide their ethical leadership behavior (Bandura 1991a).
Being honest requires straightforwardness of conduct, adher- ence to the facts (Ashton and Lee 2009), and an understand- ing of what is morally right or wrong (Six et al. 2007). Hon- esty is associated with word-deed consistency and sincerity, that often require the humility to accept the truth (Six et al. 2007; Sosik 2015). The USAF’s “integrity first” core value requires the honesty of Airmen whose words and reports must be unquestionable and accurate. Given that integrity is related to a preference for being respected (Schlenker 2008), the USAF’s principle of “respect as the lifeblood of our profession” challenges Airmen to a “heightened personal sense of humility” required to “respect the humbling mis- sion placed in our hands by the American people” (USAF 2015a, p. 4).
As suggested by SCT (Bandura 1991a), honesty is an attractive trait for an ethical role model to possess because truth-telling adds to the leader’s credibility and likeability associated with the moral person aspect of ethical leader- ship. As a prototypical leader characteristic, honesty is an expectation by which subordinates judge whether leaders are worthy of emulation (Brown and Treviño 2006), thereby providing a moral standard required for ethical leadership
769Self-control Puts Character into Action: Examining How Leader Character Strengths and Ethical…
behavior (Bandura 1991a). Humility may also be an attrac- tive trait because it allows for nonegocentric and sincere interactions required to support ethical leadership behav- iors such as listening to subordinates’ opinions and keep- ing their best interests in mind (Owens and Hekman 2012). Meta-analytic results linking leader honesty and subordinate perceptions of ethical leadership support these arguments (Bedi et al. 2016).
Leaders whose honesty/humility manifests in their ethical leadership are likely to experience psychological flourish- ing and perform well. SCT (Bandura 1991a) suggests that honesty and humility are sources of self-respect and positive affect that alleviate stress, facilitate supporting and reward- ing relationships, and elicit respect from others (Gavin et al. 2003). Honesty is a highly-valued trait associated with the avoidance of counterproductive workplace behaviors that often result in subsequent experienced stress (Johnson et al. 2011). Humility may enhance in-role performance by pro- viding the ability to acknowledge one’s limitations, and be open to advice (Johnson et al. 2011), which “takes the pres- sure off” and results in psychological wellbeing (Owens and Hekman 2012, p. 795). Prior research has identified honesty/ humility as a predictor of superiors’ ratings of managerial performance (Johnson et al. 2011). Thus, we posit:
Hypothesis 1 Ethical leadership mediates the relationships between leader honesty/humility and the leader outcomes, (a) psychological flourishing and (b) in-role performance.
Empathy involves being socially intelligent, confident and even-tempered in social settings, and sensitive to the thoughts and feelings of others (Hogan 1969; Johnson et al. 1983). Sensitivity is an implicit leader prototype that sub- ordinates expect in leaders (Bass 2008). The USAF’s core value of “service beyond self” alludes to empathy in its requirement of “treating others with dignity and valuing them as individuals.” Empathy allows for greater under- standing of diverse Airmen and their unique personal char- acteristics gained through more compassionate interactions (USAF 2015a, p. 7).
SCT (Bandura 1991a) suggests that empathy is an attrac- tive trait for an ethical role model to possess because it is a moral standard that reflects concern for the welfare of others. As the self evaluates itself against social and moral standards, positive affect associated with empathy provides feedback to the self that motivates ethical behavior (Bandura 1991a). Empathy enables leaders to commit to the moral development of their subordinates (Wright and Quick 2011). Thus, empathy is likely to manifest in ethical leadership behaviors such as listening to subordinates’ opinions and advocating for them (Brown and Mitchell 2010). Mahsud
et al. (2010) reported a positive association between leader empathy and ethical leadership.
Leaders whose empathy manifests in their ethical lead- ership are likely to experience psychological flourishing and perform well. Empathy may promote ethical leadership behaviors that show interest in subordinates’ concerns and understanding of their needs. SCT suggests that experienc- ing positive affect and having supporting and rewarding relationships with subordinates enable ethical leaders to cope with stressful conditions and perform well (Bandura 1991a). Effective leaders are highly considerate, sensitive to the needs of their subordinates, and perform their complex tasks well (Kellett et al. 2002). Thus, we posit:
Hypothesis 2 Ethical leadership mediates the relationships between leader empathy and the leader outcomes, (a) psy- chological flourishing and (b) in-role performance.
Courage is often considered in its physical, psychological, and moral forms, but more practical forms of courage have been conceptualized in business and military contexts. In the USAF’s profession of arms, a relevant type of courage is professional moral courage, which Sekerka et al. (2009) describe as an attribute that motivates and enables indi- viduals to address moral issues, consider multiple values, endure threats, go beyond compliance, and pursue moral goals. In terms of the USAF’s core value of “integrity first,” such forms of moral courage are required to take “necessary personal or professional risks, make decisions that may be unpopular, and admit our mistakes” (USAF 2015a, p. 6).
Moral courage provides a moral standard that promotes ethical leadership behavior (Bandura 1991a). When leaders possess moral courage, they are inclined towards values- driven achievements (rather than achievements attained through any means), moral ideals, and enforcement of ethics codes (Sekerka et al. 2009). These inclinations parallel the moral person and moral manager aspects of ethical leader- ship such as living an ethical life, defining success by both the ends and means to attain them, discussing ethical values with subordinates, and disciplining them for ethics viola- tions. In support of this argument, Riggio et al.’s (2010) virtue-based measure of ethical leadership contains items tapping fortitude (i.e., courage) that are highly correlated with Brown et al.’s (2005) measure of ethical leadership.
Leaders whose moral courage manifests in their ethical leadership are likely to experience psychological flourish- ing and perform well. SCT (Bandura 1991b) suggests that the integration of personal and professional values and pur- suit of moral goals associated with moral courage may pro- vide aspects of self-motivation such as personal meaning and positive self-regard that are elements of psychological
770 J. J. Sosik et al.
flourishing (Diener et al. 2010). Regarding in-role perfor- mance, moral courage provides leaders with the volition to actively promote ethics despite pushback from others (Sekerka et al. 2009). Several studies demonstrate that lead- ers who take such brave actions are rated as effective per- formers (Gentry et al. 2013; Palanski et al. 2015; Sosik et al. 2012). Thus, we posit:
Hypothesis 3 Ethical leadership mediates the relationships between leader moral courage and the leader outcomes, (a) psychological flourishing and (b) in-role performance.
Leader Self‑control as a Moderator
Often called “willpower” by philosophers and laypeople (Kugelmann 2013), self-control is defined by psychologists as “the capacity to alter or override dominant response ten- dencies and to regulate behavior, thoughts, and emotions” (de Ridder et al. 2012, p. 77). Self-control is a trait underly- ing the self-regulation of cognition and behavior according to the SCT of moral thought and action (Bandura 1991a), and also serves as an important personal resource that “may magnify or diminish resource loss” in stressful contexts according to conservation of resources (COR) theory (Hag- ger 2015, p. 91). COR theory posits that individuals strive to accumulate personal resources, such as character strengths, that enable them to cope with experienced stress and pro- tect their wellbeing (Hobfoll 1989). As such, self-control is essential to the demonstration of all three USAF core values. Putting “integrity first” requires Airmen to control their impulses and act ethically. Modeling “service beyond self” requires Airmen to have the discipline to follow regula- tions and be self-controlled regarding the beliefs, authority and diversity of others. Enacting “excellence in all we do” requires commitment to a disciplined life of restraint and continual growth (USAF 2015a).
The strength model of self-control (Baumeister et al. 2007) proposes that self-regulation requires exertion of energy or willpower that becomes exhausted and results in ego depletion, a state of diminished self-control strength. Both the strength model of self-control and COR theory posit that stress arises and performance diminishes when there is a mismatch between situational demands and the availability of personal resources as individuals use up their reserve of self-control (Hagger 2015). While self-control can be replenished through rest, conservation, good habits, and glucose supplementation, individuals with high trait self- control have a larger pool of willpower resources to draw …
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