The emergence of moral leadership

O.N. Solinger, Paul Jansen, J.P. Cornelissen

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The emergence of "moral leadership,"discussed here as a situation wherein individuals take a moral stance on an issue, convince others to do the same, and together spur change in a moral system, abounds in practice. Existing ethical and moral leadership theories, however, have remained confined to micro-level behavioral research. Therefore, in this paper, we develop a process theory of the socially situated emergence of moral leadership and its development into a broader movement affecting moral systems within and across formal organizations. We theorize the pathways through which moral leadership emerges; the triggers that bring about moral awareness and the moral courage to offer an alternative moral stance toward an issue, and leaders' ability to deftly connect followers and their moral convictions into a broader movement, such that a moral system changes from within. With our process theory, we bridge between micro and macro levels of analysis, and highlight the crucial ability of leaders to be both principled and pragmatically savvy, and thus capable of bridging between their own moral convictions and those of others in order to develop a common and mutually binding ground toward change.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)504-527
Number of pages24
JournalAcademy of Management Review
Issue number3
Early online date29 Jul 2020
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2020


  • Leadership, morality, institutional theory, framing, social change, process


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