Prosocial Leadership 


Understanding Prosocial Leadership

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Ethics connection to leadership may be desired, but its connection is problematic.  First, no leadership theory is built directly from and within the framework of classical ethical theories. Second, leaderships apparent connection to ethics depends upon the Normative Ethical Action category.  Wherein, ethical behavior is defined against an ethical principle and leaders are simply instructed to do the right behavior that illustrates the ethical principle.  The expectation is that leaders can do what is ethically expected them and then do the ethically right thing, with no regard to development and no mention of antecedents. 

While we want leaders to be ethical, there are many historical examples of leaders who were unethical.   The classic example is Hitler, whose leadership lead to horrific and inhumane outcomes, but ironically Hitler fits one widely used definition of leadership which states, “Leadership is a process whereby an individual influence a group of individuals to achieve a common goal” [1].  This conundrum is referred to as the “Hitler problem” within leadership ethics studies – unethical leaders are still considered leaders[2].   

Or, consider what I regard to be Utility Leaders who believe duty to ethical rules is the goal of good leadership. Utility leadership occurs when leaders do the right ethical behavior, that is, they follow the right and ethically accepted rules. But, doing the right thing is external to the leader, and the ultimate benefit of others is not an internal motivating force that drives the leader.  What is missing is an internalized moral as outlined by Soren Kierkegaard. 


[1] Northouse, P. G. (2015). Leadership: Theory and practice. Sage publications. p.5
[2] Ciulla, J. B. (2005). The state of leadership ethics and the work that lies before us. Business Ethics: A European Review, 14(4), 323-335.


Leadership Ethics

Soren Kierkegaard was one of the first to capture the distinctions individuals have to make in their personal ethical orientations.  In his work Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard notes that individuals can use others as a means to an end (Hitler Problem) or see ethical behavior as their ultimate goal (Utility Leader) or, they can internalize an ethical code.

For Kierkegaard, the highest or most authentic mode of existence for humans is one “which has its teleology [purpose] within itself”[3]. This highest ethical purpose or mode of existence Kierkegaard refers to as the beautiful, religious or noble agent (person) wherein individuals have understood that they have an internal devotional purpose to do the right thing, and the end goal of ethical or others-directed action is given meaning for the individual within themselves. For Kierkegaard, the truth or highest moral good is more than a static idea or normative rule, but instead, it is connected to the subject, a person, that emerges in relationships with others.  Thus the individual leader treats others ethically as an expression of their inner self and in doing so begins to embrace a better version of themselves. Kierkegaard's mode of existence, the beautiful, resonates with prosocial values since they are intrinsic motivational dimensions of humans, and when acted upon providing deep meaning for individuals [3]


3. Storsletten, V. M., & Jakobsen, O. D. (2015). Development of Leadership Theory in the Perspective of Kierkegaard’s Philosophy. Journal of Business Ethics, 128(2), 337-349, p 32

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