Role Model 10.1007/s10551-013-1769-0.. case study Do Role Models Matter? An Investigation of Role Modeling as an Antecedent of Perceived Ethical Leadership

Role Model

10.1007/s10551-013-1769-0.. case study

Do Role Models Matter? An Investigation of Role Modeling
as an Antecedent of Perceived Ethical Leadership

Michael E. Brown • Linda K. Treviño

Received: 18 September 2012 / Accepted: 20 May 2013 / Published online: 21 June 2013

� Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2013

Abstract Thus far, we know much more about the sig-

nificant outcomes of perceived ethical leadership than we

do about its antecedents. In this study, we focus on multiple

types of ethical role models as antecedents of perceived

ethical leadership. According to social learning theory, role

models facilitate the acquisition of moral and other types of

behavior. Yet, we do not know whether having had ethical

role models influences follower perceptions of one’s ethi-

cal leadership and, if so, what kinds of role models are

important. We conducted a field study, surveying super-

visors and their subordinates to examine the relationship

between three types of ethical role models and ethical

leadership: the leader’s childhood role models, career

mentors, and top managers. We found that having had an

ethical role model during the leader’s career was positively

related to subordinate-rated ethical leadership. As expec-

ted, this effect was moderated by leader age, such that the

relationship between career mentoring and ethical leader-

ship was stronger for older leaders. Leader age also mod-

erated the relationship between childhood models and

ethical leadership ratings, such that having had childhood

ethical role models was more strongly and positively

related to ethical leadership for younger leaders. We found

no effect for top management ethical role models. Impli-

cations for research and practice are discussed.

Keywords Ethical leadership � Ethical role modeling �
Role models


National surveys show that few Americans have much

confidence in the ethics and integrity of today’s leaders of

government, business, and other institutions (Jones 2011;

The Harris Poll 2011). Thus, the popular perception is that

ethical leadership in the workplace is weak. Given this

cynicism, it is important to understand the antecedents of

perceived ethical leadership. Knowing where ethical lead-

ership comes from can help organizations strengthen it in

the workplace, thus restoring trust in leadership.

Previous research (Treviño et al. 2000, 2003) has iden-

tified traits and behaviors associated with perceptions of

ethical leadership. In their qualitative research, Treviño

et al. proposed that in order to be perceived as an ethical

leader, a leader must be seen as both moral person and

moral manager. The moral person aspect of ethical lead-

ership reflects the leader’s honesty, integrity, trustworthi-

ness, caring about people, openness to input, respect, and

principled decision making. As moral managers, ethical

leaders use leadership tools such as rewards, discipline,

communication, and decision making to communicate the

importance of ethics, to set standards, and to hold

employees accountable to those standards (Treviño et al.

2000, 2003).

Brown et al. conceptualized ethical leadership from a

social learning (Bandura 1986, 1991) perspective. They

conducted a series of seven studies to develop the construct

of ethical leadership along with an instrument, the ethical

leadership scale (ELS), to measure followers’ perceptions

of ethical leadership (Brown et al. 2005). They defined

M. E. Brown (&)
Penn State-Erie, Erie, PA 16563-1400, USA


L. K. Treviño

The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA 16802,




J Bus Ethics (2014) 122:587–598

DOI 10.1007/s10551-013-1769-0

ethical leadership as ‘‘the demonstration of normatively

appropriate conduct through personal actions and inter-

personal relationships, and the promotion of such conduct

to followers through two-way communication, reinforce-

ment, and decision making’’ (Brown et al. 2005, p. 120).

Their research indicated that ethical leadership is related to

important employee attitudes and outcomes including trust

in supervisor, interactional fairness, supervisor effective-

ness, satisfaction with supervisor, and willingness to report

problems to management. Additional research has found

that supervisory ethical leadership is especially important

in promoting positive and reducing negative employee

behaviors in organizations (Kacmar et al. 2011; Mayer

et al. 2009, 2012; Walumbwa and Schaubroeck 2009;

Walumbwa et al. 2011).

Despite these recent advances in our understanding of

ethical leadership and its relationship to important out-

comes, little is known about its antecedents (Brown and

Mitchell 2010). A variety of personality-based antecedents

have been proposed (Brown and Treviño 2006), but thus

far only two traits, leader agreeableness and conscien-

tiousness, have been found to be related to follower ratings

of ethical leadership (Kalshoven et al. 2011; Walumbwa

and Schaubroeck 2009). Other research on antecedents by

Jordan et al. (2013) found that ethical leadership is posi-

tively related to the leader’s cognitive moral development

and is maximized when the leader’s cognitive moral

development diverges from and is greater than the fol-

lower’s cognitive moral development. Mayer et al. (2012)

found that both dimensions of a leader’s moral identity,

internalization, and symbolization were related to ethical

leadership. This information is useful for selection pur-

poses, but individual differences are not very amenable to

change. From a practical standpoint, identifying anteced-

ents that can help organizations not only select ethical

leaders but also develop them would be beneficial.

Therefore, it becomes important to look to leaders’ expe-

riences for clues about whether and how ethical leadership

might be identified or developed. In this study, we examine

different types of antecedents of ethical leadership by

studying the various kinds of ethical role models that

leaders have had to see if they are related to employees’

perceptions of ethical leadership.

Consistent with previous research, we define a role model

as a ‘‘cognitive construction based on the attributes of people

in social roles an individual perceives to be similar to him or

herself to some extent and desires to increase perceived

similarity by emulating those attributes’’ (Gibson 2004,

p. 136). From an observer’s perspective, role modeling is a

process that involves identifying ‘‘someone I can look up to’’

(Weaver et al. 2005) as well as a process of learning from that

model. According to Gibson (2004), role modeling can be

differentiated from mentoring in that it does not require a

close, personal relationship between models and observers.

In fact, there are wide varieties of potentially important

people who can be selected as role models such as distant

leaders, co-workers, and inspiring individuals from all walks

of life (e.g., teachers, sports heroes, religious figures, family


We focus on role models because prior research

grounded in social learning theory has demonstrated their

impact on moral judgment and action (Bandura 1991).

Modeling influences have been associated with the devel-

opment of prosocial behavior in children (Eisenberg and

Fabes 1998) and ethical behavior in the workplace (Mo-

berg 2000; Sims and Brinkmann 2002; Weaver et al. 2005).

Within the leadership literature, both transformational

leaders (Avolio 1999) and ethical leaders (Brown et al.

2005) have been described as ethical role models for oth-

ers. The assumption is that having been exposed to ethical

role models contributes to the development of one’s ethical

leadership (Brown and Treviño 2006; Weaver et al. 2005).

In this research, we investigate whether the ethical role

models of leaders are related to employees’ ratings of their

ethical leadership. Because ethical role models can take

many forms, we consider three different types of ethical

role models that are potential influences on the develop-

ment of ethical leadership—(a) childhood models (e.g.,

parents, teachers, and coaches); (b) career models (e.g.,

mentors or supervisors), and (c) top managers who model

ethics for employees in the organization (Treviño et al.

2000). We ground our hypotheses in social learning theory

(Bandura 1986, 1991) and the influence of modeling on the

acquisition of moral reasoning and standards. Three main

questions guided our research. Are role models related to

ethical leadership? If so, what types of models (i.e.,

childhood models, career mentors, top managers) are

influential? Given that the types of role models selected as

well as the lessons learned from such models change over

the lifetime of the learner (Gibson 2003), does leader age

moderate the relationships between different types of role

models and ethical leadership?

Theory and Hypotheses

Modeling, Social Learning, and Ethical Leadership

Social learning theory helps explain why individuals are

likely to seek guidance from role models, and how role

modeling might be related to ethical leadership. Social

learning theory posits that individuals learn what to do and

how to behave largely by observing and emulating role


Most adults are not ethically self-sufficient. Rather, they

look outside themselves to peers and significant others for

588 M. E. Brown, L. K. Treviño


ethical guidance (Kohlberg 1969; Treviño 1986). This is

particularly true because ethical dilemmas often involve

ambiguity and individuals attempt to reduce such ambi-

guity by turning to others for guidance.

The social learning process begins when individuals

focus their attention on modeled behaviors. Among the

potential models to choose from, attractive models capture

a learner’s attention. Attractiveness is based on a number

of model characteristics such as nurturance (Yussen and

Levy 1975), status (Lippitt et al. 1952; Lefkowitz et al.

1955), competence (Kanareff and Lanzetta 1958) and

power (Bandura et al. 1963). We propose that ethical role

models influence the development of ethical leadership by

providing attractive exemplars of personal ethical behavior

and the setting of ethical standards.

We focus on three likely sources of ethical role mod-

els—childhood models, workplace mentors, and top man-

agers. For example, a beloved parent, coach or other

childhood model can teach an individual about ethical

leadership traits and behaviors such as honesty, caring,

trustworthiness, and respect. They can also convey the

importance of setting standards and boundaries for

behavior. Such traits and behaviors related to ethical

leadership might also be learned later in life by observing

career mentors or supervisors as they make principled

decisions, communicate ethical standards, and use the

reward system to guide ethical behavior. Finally, by virtue

of their important position atop the organizational hierar-

chy, top managers who are thought to be highly ethical and

who make ethics a part of their leadership agenda are likely

to be powerful models of ethical leadership for organiza-

tional members.

Childhood Models

We propose that having had ethical role models during

childhood can influence the development of ethical lead-

ership in adulthood. From a social learning perspective,

children select attractive ethical role models and learn from

them by observing and emulating modeled behavior.

Individuals who are exposed to ethical role models as

children will learn ethical behavior: behavior that facili-

tates their growth as ethical persons with the characteristics

that can help them to become ethical leaders in the


There are many potential role models that children can

look up to, but parents represent an important type of role

model for children. The common notion that people learn

ethics at Mom’s (or Dad’s) knee fits with this idea. Parents

model not only through words, but more importantly

through actions—most notably in the closeness of the

bonds that they form with their children, the values they

convey, the standards they set, and the disciplinary

methods they use. Research has confirmed that the influ-

ence of parental modeling can have important and far-

reaching consequences for the moral behavior of adults. In

one such study, Oliner and Oliner (1988) investigated the

heroic actions of ‘‘Righteous Gentiles,’’ non-Jews who

risked their lives to rescue Jews from the Nazis. According

to these researchers, the parents of rescuers were influential

in shaping these individuals to behave altruistically later in

life. Specifically, compared to bystanders who took no

action to protect Jews, rescuers were found to have had a

close attachment bond with their parents who modeled the

value of caring for others.

In another study, ‘‘fully committed’’ civil rights activists

who were most involved and undertook great personal risks

in the American South during the 1960s reported having

parents who modeled altruism themselves (Rosenhan

1970). From a social learning perspective, direct modeling

of behavior is important. In other words, perhaps the best

way to teach empathy, tolerance, respect, and compassion

to children is by treating them with empathy, tolerance,

respect and compassion (Berkowitz and Grych 1998;

Lickona 1983).

Parents can also pass on altruistic values to their chil-

dren through their style of discipline. In particular, parents

who set standards, explain to their children why rules are

necessary, as well as the consequences of rule-breaking for

others, treat their children with a certain level of respect

and dignity. This style of discipline that emphasizes rea-

soning and the voluntary internalization of standards can

promote healthy moral development in children (Hoffman

1980) and demonstrate an approach that can be emulated

later in life. This approach sharply contrasts with an

authoritarian style of parenting that is based on strict

obedience to authority and coercion through physical

punishment (either threatened or delivered).

Of course, parents are not the only influence on chil-

dren’s moral development. Especially with older children,

other models such as teachers, coaches, and clergy become

increasingly important in development of ethical attitudes

and beliefs (Atkins et al. 2004; Perry and Nixon 2005;

Sizer and Sizer 1999). Further, peers can also influence the

learning of behavior and standards, but modeling by par-

ents and other adults remains a powerful source of learning

(Bandura 1986). Thus, individuals are likely to come

across many potential ethical role models during their

childhood. From a social learning perspective, the type of

childhood role model (e.g., parent, teacher, coach) is not as

important as having had exposure to such a model. Ethical

models represent an attractive and credible source of

information for children to learn normatively appropriate

behavior. It is likely that the lessons learned from child-

hood models will be abstract ones such as learning the

importance of honesty or caring rather than the specifics of

Role Modeling and Perceived Ethical Leadership 589


how to be an effective ethical leader in the workplace

(Treviño et al. 2000). Nevertheless, managers who were

exposed to strong ethical models as children can carry the

‘‘lessons’’ learned from such models into adulthood. These

leaders will continue to be influenced by the lessons

learned from these childhood models, making them more

likely to be seen as ethical leaders by their followers.

Hypothesis 1 Having had a childhood ethical role model

is positively related to perceived ethical leadership.

Career Models

A second type of role modeling that is a likely source of

influence on perceived ethical leadership comes from

career models (formal or informal). Much has been written

about the impact of models and mentors on important

workplace outcomes (Allen et al. 2004; Gibson 2003;

Manz and Sims 1981; Ragins et al. 2000) in general, and on

ethical behaviors in particular (Moberg 2000; Weaver et al.

2005). Having an ethical mentor provides an important

opportunity for employees to learn about ethical leadership

firsthand in the workplace.

Formal mentoring programs that promote learning from

role models are common in many professions such as

medicine (Kenny et al. 2003). And, informal role modeling

occurs in most workplace settings. For example, research

shows that employees learn by observing how supervisors

administer rewards and discipline (Treviño and Young-

blood 1990). In order for learning to take place, employees

need not actually be the recipient of rewards or punish-

ments themselves; rather they are able to learn vicariously

by seeing how the behaviors of others in the workplace are


Supervisors are likely to be important models because

their position in a prestige hierarchy makes them attractive in

that they enjoy status and power. Previous research suggests

that supervisory role models are not uncommon—a typical

rank and file employee can identify numerous positive role

models, most of them having been supervisors (Gibson

2003). More specifically, most employees are able to identify

a current or former supervisor as an ethical role model

(Weaver et al. 2005). However, supervisory authority does

not automatically make someone a good role model (Manz

and Sims 1981). Supervisors must possess the other key

elements of model attractiveness such as competence, nur-

turance and credibility. Ethical supervisors possess such

characteristics (Brown et al. 2005). In fact, research shows

that ethical leadership can enhance an individual’s potential

for promotion to higher levels of management (Rubin et al.

2010) which further enhances the ethical leader’s credibility

and attractiveness as a model. There is also then high

functional value for observing and learning ethical leader-

ship behaviors from such ethical role models at work.

Qualitative research by Weaver et al. (2005) found that

the presence of an ethical role model in the work place

helps foster ethical behavior. And, having an ethical model

might encourage learners to act as an ethical mentor or

model for others. Weaver et al. (2005) found that, when

asked to identify someone who has served as an ethical role

model for them, employees identified individuals whose

behavior and decision making they could readily observe

on a daily basis and these were frequently direct supervi-

sors. The authors described ethical role modeling as a

‘‘side-to-side phenomenon’’ (p. 324) in that employees

identified ethical role models from among those with

whom they had worked closely. The behavior associated

with ethical role models also overlapped significantly with

behavior previously associated with ethical leadership

(Weaver et al. 2005). Employees who have had such role

models and who go on to become leaders themselves are

likely to imitate the behavior of those ethical role models in

their own leadership. Thus, consistent with social learning

theory and the findings of previous research, we propose

that having had workplace ethical role models is likely to

be associated with direct reports’ ratings of one’s ethical


Hypothesis 2 Having had a workplace ethical role model

is positively related to perceived ethical leadership.

Top Managers as Ethical Role Models

Top managers are widely thought to set the ethical tone at

the top of organizations (Clinard 1983; Ferrell and Gre-

sham 1985) and research has borne this out. Treviño et al.

(2003) found that executive ethical leaders were frequently

described as models of ethical conduct. Further, when top

managers are personally committed to ethics, their orga-

nizations’ ethics programs are more comprehensive, have

stronger aspirational orientations (Weaver et al. 1999a),

and are more fully integrated into everyday organizational

practices (Weaver et al. 1999b).

Consistent with the broader literature on ethics at the

executive-level (Mayer et al. 2009; Weaver et al. 1999a, b),

we consider the modeling of ‘‘top managers’’ globally

instead of focusing on a single executive as a role model.

This approach is also in line with previous research on role

modeling which suggests observers can piece ‘‘together a

composite role model from attributes derived from a range

of possibilities, both real and imagined…’’; in other words,
modeling can be based on ‘‘multiple role models, rather

than a focus on selecting a particular exemplary person’’

(Gibson 2006, p. 702).

590 M. E. Brown, L. K. Treviño


From a social learning perspective, top managers are

thought to be important sources of ethical influence

because their lofty position provides them with status and

legitimacy, making them potentially attractive role models.

Research supports the idea that top managers are ethical

models for their followers and, ultimately, for others in the

organization. Specifically, Mayer et al. (2009) found that

the ethical leadership of top managers is positively related

to the ethical leadership of their direct reports. Through a

‘‘cascading effect’’ (Bass et al. 1987), ethical leadership is

thought to trickle down the levels of management from the

top to the bottom of the organization (Mayer et al. 2009).

Other research casts doubt on the cascading effect yet

supports the ability of senior leaders to influence junior

members of the organization via ethical culture (Schau-

broeck et al. 2012) as well as other influence mechanisms

(Hansen et al. 2012).

Overall, top managers are thought to set an important

example for employees to follow. Given the prestige of

their position, if top managers are perceived to be models

of ethical conduct, then this should influence employees to

emulate their conduct and positively influence ethical

leadership at lower levels of management. Thus, we pro-

pose that having had a top manager as an ethical role model

will promote one’s own ethical leadership.

Hypothesis 3 Top management modeling is positively

related to perceived ethical leadership.

The Moderating Effect of Age

How does the age of the learner influence social learning?

As we have already noted, most of the literature on role

modeling has focused on children learning from adults.

Within organizations, role modeling is seen as an important

aspect of organizational socialization for newcomers. Does

the influence of childhood ethical role models wane in

adulthood? Do other potential models (such as ethical

mentors from work) become more important as time goes

on? We expect it does and so we propose that leader age

will moderate the relationship between different types of

role modeling and ethical leadership.

The conventional wisdom in the management literature is

that the importance of learning from role models diminishes

during one’s career (e.g., Moberg 2000). However, Gibson’s

(2003) research on role modeling in the workplace suggests

that modeling is not just for newcomers—it is important for

employees at any age. Thus, although the types of models

sought out as well as the learners’ motives for social learning

change over time, employees continue to seek out and learn

from role models. Younger employees look to models for

clues on fitting in, doing well and moving up, but middle-

aged employees learn similar lessons from models about

how to succeed in unfamiliar territory (i.e., new positions,

responsibilities, and challenges) as they advance in their

careers (Gibson 2003).

We propose that the influence of childhood models is

stronger for younger employees and weaker for older

employees. Compared to older employees, younger

employees are temporally closer to their childhood models

and have had more limited exposure to role models during

their careers. However, with older employees, the influence

of childhood models is diminished and the importance of

workplace models (both career models and top managers)

is stronger. The influence of career models in the work-

place is likely to increase with age as exposure to ethical

mentors during one’s career increases, becomes more

proximal, and provides more functionally valuable infor-

mation on appropriate ethical conduct in the workplace.

Similarly, top managers will become more important

sources of information for older employees as they are

more likely to have job responsibilities and experiences

that bring them closer to executive-level leaders.

From a social learning perspective, opportunities to

observe and the lessons learned from different types of

models varies with age. Specifically, older employees are

likely to have had more contact with workplace models

during their careers compared to younger employees. Also,

the lessons learned from workplace models will provide

greater functional value for the acquisition of ethical

leadership behaviors compared to childhood models. Thus,

we propose that age moderates the relationship between

specific types of role models and ethical leadership.

Hypothesis 4 Age moderates the relationship between

childhood role modeling and perceived ethical leadership

such that the relationship should be stronger for younger

leaders compared to older leaders.

Hypothesis 5 Age moderates the relationship between

career role modeling and perceived ethical leadership such

that the relationship should be stronger for older employees

compared to younger employees.

Hypothesis 6 Age moderates the relationship between

top management modeling and perceived ethical leadership

such that the relationship should be stronger for older

employees compared to younger employees.

Methods and Results


We conducted a field study, surveying employees from a

large insurance firm in the United States. Our data were

collected from two separate sources—managers and their

Role Modeling and Perceived Ethical Leadership 591


direct reports. Managers provided information on their role

models (childhood, career, and top management) as well as

other demographic and background variables (age, gender,

and number of direct reports). Direct reports provided ratings

of their managers’ ethical leadership. Both surveys con-

tained additional measures that were not part of this study.

Surveys were distributed through the company’s internal

mail system. A cover letter written by a senior manager

was included with each survey explaining that the research

had been approved by the company. Managers forwarded

surveys to their direct reports. Anonymity was promised. A

postage paid business reply envelope was provided with

each survey so that both managers and respondents could

return completed surveys directly to the researchers. All

participants were told that the results would be used in

aggregate—there would be no way to link responses to a

specific individual or work group.

Our sample consisted of 217 managers (out of 600

distributed for a manager response rate of 36.2 %) who had

clearly identifiable direct reports. The average age of

managers was 41.4, and their average tenure with the

company was 11.5 years. 44 % of our sample was men. A

total of 1,561 surveys were distributed to direct reports. We

received 659 completed surveys for a direct report response

rate of 42.2 %.


Role Modeling

Because we could find no existing instruments of ethical

role modeling that were applicable to the types of models

studied in this investigation, we created our own measures

for use in this research. The influence of childhood ethical

role modeling was measured with two items (‘‘As a child, I

had strong ethical guidance t

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