With unethical climates popping up in what can seem like every industry and field, todays leaders, at least some, are scrambling to understand their organization’s climates and help them evolve into sustainable and ethical organizations. Rampant individualism and narrow self-focused perspectives are leading to company climates with inadvertently, “Look out for number one,” cultures leading to the breakdown of workplace community, productivity, and profit. One possible solution: a dose of servant leadership.
To understand the impact servant leadership could have on the ethical climate of an organization, one must first understand a little about organizational climates (and culture) in general, how to define or understand ethical climate, and just what a servant leader is. Simply, organizational climate is the principles and ideas in the company which spur organizational behavior and organizational climate is how people in the company react to the company based on their personal experiences (Bass, 1990, Kozlowski & Doherty, 1989).
Victor and Cullen’s (1987) ethical climate framework will help explain the dimensions and constructs that contribute to an ethical climate. The framework includes two dimensions: ethical criteria and loci of analysis (Victor & Cullen, 1987). Egoism, or only looking out for oneself, benevolence, or generally doing what’s best for the situation, and principle, or specifically adhering to the rules, make up the ethical criteria dimension (Victor & Cullen, 1987). Individual, or taking only the individual perspective, local, or taking only the perspective of the parties involved in the present situation, and cosmopolitan, or taking the global perspective, make up the loci of analysis dimension (Victor & Cullen, 1987). These create nine possible types of climate which are, in name, self-explanatory: egoism and individual locus produce self-interest, egoism and local locus produce company profit, egoism and cosmopolitan produce efficiency, benevolence and individual locus produce friendship, benevolence and local locus produce team interest, benevolence and cosmopolitan locus produce social responsibility, principle and individual locus produce personal morality, principle and local locus produce, and principle and cosmopolitan locus produce laws and professional codes (Victor & Cullen, 1988).
At the heart of servant leadership, as described by the father of the theory, Robert Greenleaf (1970), is the desire to serve and benefit others. Subsequent research has produced ten characteristics of a servant leader including commitment to the growth of others, building community, stewardship, foresight, conceptualization, persuasion, awareness, healing, listening, and empathy (Speers, 2002). A desire to serve and help meet the needs of others and understanding and cultivating a set of characteristics in oneself and other is aspirational, but how do ethical climates and ethical decision-making tie into this? One need not look further than the first principle of the APA code of ethics (2010): beneficence and nonmaleficence. Simply put, this means promoting the most benefit and least harm to all (APA, 2010). The APA code of ethics is arguably the most referenced, utilized, and emulated code of ethics in today’s society and the first line of the first principle,“Psychologists strive to benefit those with whom they work and take care to do no harm,” (APA, 2010) reads like it could have come from the speech of a successful servant leader’s mission statement.
With so many in the workforce living every workday focused on doing what is best for themselves and only considering their individual perspective in their actions, a servant leadership approach might help take the ego out of the climate equation. A culture and climate which promotes, as Victor and Cullen (1988) might say, a benevolence ethical criteria might shift away from individual locus and toward local locus and/or cosmopolitain locus. This could engender ethical climates surrounding team interest and social responsibility rather than others such as self-interest where ethical decision-making will likely result in only what is best for the individual making the decision. It is easy to imagine the ramifications of harm that could ripple through an organization filled with individuals making decisions based on what is best for themselves with disregard for the benefit or harm of others.
You might still have individuals looking out for number one and milking the servant leadership system by taking all they can get, but if a culture of servant leadership is espoused from the ground up and championed from the moment a potential hire completes an application, those self-interested individuals could adopt new perspectives and foci or self-select out of the organization. Is servant leadership a cure for all poor ethical decision-making in a company from top to bottom? No. Does working to meet the needs of your followers and bring them the most benefit and least harm sound a lot like some of the principles espoused in the APA (2010), and many other, codes of ethics? Yes. One could argue that when the decisions, actions, and values of the leader are strong and ethical, it trickles down to impact the organizational climate and the ethical climate of a company for the good as well as the bad. Leaders must take care to ensure this trickle down is for the most good and least harm. As anyone who has seen the movie Remember the Titans (Bruckheimer, Oman, & Yakin, 2000) and recalls the pivotal moment one leader of the team, Julius, says to the other, Gary, of his followers’ negative actions: “Attitude reflects leadership.”
American Psychological Association. (2010, June 1). Ethical principles of psychologists and code of conduct: Including 2010 and 2016 amendments. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/ethics/code
Bass, B. M. (1990). Bass and Stogdill’s handbook of leadership. New York: Free Press.
Bruckheimer, J., Oman, C., & Yakin, B. (2000). Remember the Titans [Motion picture]. United States: Buena Vista Pictures.
Kozlowski, S. W. J., & Doherty, M. L. (1989). Integration of climate and leadership: Examination of a neglected issue. Journal of Applied Psychology, 74, 546-553.
Spears, L.C. (2002). Tracing the past, present, and future of servant-leadership. In L.C. Spears & M. Lawrence (Eds.), Focus on leadership: Servant-leadership for the 21st century. New York: Wiley.
Victor, B., & Cullen, J. B. (1987). A theory and measure of ethical climate in organizations. Research in Corporate Social Performance and Policy, 9, 51-71.
Victor, B., & Cullen, J. B. (1988). The organizational bases of ethical work climates. Administrative Science Quarterly, 33, 101-125.