Despite the proliferation of research on ethical leadership, there remains a limited understanding of how specifically the assumingly moral component of this leadership style affects employee behavior. Taking an identity perspective, we integrate the ethical leadership literature with research on the dynamics of the moral self-concept to posit that ethical leadership will foster a sense of moral identity among employees, which then inspires followers to adopt more ethical actions, such as increased organization citizenship behavior (OCB). We further argue that these identity effects should be more pronounced when leaders are perceived to be group prototypical, as their actions then speak louder to followers’ sense of identity. Two studies—a scenario experiment with 138 participants and a field study with 225 employees—provided support for our hypothesized moderated mediation model. Perceived ethical leadership positively affected OCB via followers’ moral identity but only under conditions of high perceived leader group prototypicality. We discuss how the identity pathway of ethical leadership can facilitate novel theorizing about moral transference. Our findings also suggest that, when hiring external ethical leaders or training internal managers, practitioners are well advised to consider that these individuals may only be effective in morally transforming followers when they are perceived as prototypical for the group.
- Ethical leadership
- Group prototypicality
- Moral identity
- Organizational citizenship behavior (OCB)