Ethical leadership: A review and future directions
Michael E. Brown
, Linda K. Treviño
Sam and Irene Black School of Business, The Pennsylvania State University-Erie, Erie, PA 16563-1400, United States
The Pennsylvania State University, United States
Our literature review focuses on the emerging construct of ethical leadership and compares this construct with related concepts
that share a common concern for a moral dimension of leadership (e.g., spiritual, authentic, and transformational leadership).
Drawing broadly from the intersection of the ethics and leadership literatures, we offer propositions about the antecedents and
outcomes of ethical leadership. We also identify issues and questions to be addressed in the future and discuss their implications for
research and practice. Our review indicates that ethical leadership remains largely unexplored, offering researchers opportunities
for new discoveries and leaders opportunities to improve their effectiveness.
© 2006 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Keywords: Ethics; Leadership; Ethical leadership
Following Enron and other recent ethics scandals in business, government, sports, non-profits, and even religious
organizations, people are asking, what is wrong with our leaders? Special sessions at the Academy of Management, calls
from the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business' (AACSB) ethics education task force, passage of the
Sarbanes–Oxley Act, and revisions to the U.S. Federal Sentencing Guidelines all highlight the importance of ethical
leadership. In a post-Enron world, practitioners have strong incentives to select for and develop ethical leadership in
their organizations and researchers want to study ethical leadership in order to understand its origins and outcomes.
Much has been written about ethics and leadership from a normative or philosophical perspective, suggesting what
leaders should do. But, a more descriptive and predictive social scientific approach to ethics and leadership has
remained underdeveloped and fragmented, leaving scholars and practitioners with few answers to even the most
fundamental questions, such as “what is ethical leadership?” Therefore, we conducted a comprehensive review of the
relevant social scientific literatures that have linked ethics and leadership in order to clarify current understanding and
point the way for future research.
We consider research that resides at the intersection of leadership and ethics. Within this broad category, we review
recent research that systematically conceptualizes and develops an “ethical leadership” construct (Brown, Treviño, &
Harrison, 2005; Treviño, Brown, & Hartman, 2003; Treviño, Hartman, & Brown, 2000). According to this research,
ethical leadership is defined as “the demonstration of normatively appropriate conduct through personal actions and
interpersonal relationships, and the promotion of such conduct to followers through two-way communication,
The Leadership Quarterly 17 (2006) 595 – 616
Corresponding author. Tel.: +1 814 898 6324; fax: +1 814 898 6223.
E-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org (M.E. Brown).
1048-9843/$ - see front matter © 2006 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.