Cognitive moral development is a concept originally devised by Lawrence Kohlberg that concerns our moral horizons: is 'right and wrong' merely about how we fare in life, or can it mean more? Kohlberg suggested our moral cognition begins at a 'pre-conventional' stage where all we value is self-interest, then potentially develops to a law- and norm-centred 'conventional' stage, and finally can climb to a 'post-conventional' perspective, that is driven by universal principles of right and wrong. In a recent article, Jennifer Jordan and colleagues recognised that this quality could have something to say about perceptions of ethical leadership.
Their research recruited 28 executives and 129 of their direct reports, who all completed a standard test of moral development. The direct report also gave their opinion of the executive's ethical leadership. The data was then combined into all possible pairs, where each pair comprised an executive and one of their reports.
How did those executives seen as ethical do on the moral reasoning test? They scored highly; specifically they scored higher than their direct reports. That is, when leaders thought with somewhat bigger moral horizons than their followers, they were seen as most ethical. Jordan's team had predicted just this, based on an observation from social learning theory that the best way to model behaviours to others is to stand out from the crowd: sophisticated, novel moral reasoning can grab attention in a way that dutiful consistency will not.
How do the followers appreciate these perspectives if they don't make sense to them? Well, the leader has to find a way to make them sensible. Luckily, post-Kohlberg researchers agree that individuals at higher levels can choose to speak 'the same ethical language' as others when necessary, offering a bridge between the two ways of thinking.
So should leaders be distinct from their employees to be effective? It depends what outcomes you are after. If you want employees to have higher job satisfaction, evidence suggests it's actually better for the leader to closely share their values, meaning everyone is comfortably on the same page. Yet as the authors note, “divergence leads to better outcomes when it is important for leaders to stand out and be noticed”.
To close, here's a telling detail from the study: in over half the pairs, the executive actually had the lower score in moral development. While we can debate whether it's better for a leader to be part of the moral mainstream or forging ahead, either is surely preferable to bringing up the rear.
Jordan, J., Brown, M., Trevino, L., & Finkelstein, S. (2011). Someone to Look Up To: Executive-Follower Ethical Reasoning and Perceptions of Ethical Leadership Journal of Management DOI: 10.1177/0149206311398136