Sub-theme 18: Redesigning Leadership in Organizations: The Economic Imperative and Ethical Practice

David Knights
Bristol Business School, University of the West of England, UK
Peter Case
Bristol Business School, University of the West of England, UK
Tuomo Takala
School of Business and Economics, University of Jyväskylä, Finland

Call for Papers


In recent years, we have witnessed a plethora of failures in ethical corporate leadership with varying consequences. The business ethics research community has responded largely by focusing on (1) the nature, dynamics, limitations and improvement of corporate social responsibility policies and practices, (2) the ways in which corporate citizenship should be understood, implemented and improved, (3) the ways in which globalization and internationalization of business are changing the ethical questions and problems faced by corporations and their leaders, and (4) what can be done to help managers recognize and be sensitive to moral issues and ethical questions in their work.

Most of the research can be divided roughly into prescriptive and descriptive approaches. The prescriptive approach builds primarily on philosophical ethics and focuses on principles that, if adhered to, constitute 'ethical leadership' (cf. Bass & Steidlemeier, 1999; Ciulla, 2004). The descriptive approach draws on psychology, sociology and organization studies and focuses more on how leadership is perceived as ethical (or not) in particular organizational and social settings (cf. Brown et al., 2005; Treviño et al., 2000; Treviño et al., 2003). What is common to much of the ethical leadership research in both approaches is the tendency to conceptualize ethics as an issue, question or problem. In fact, ethics is simply one more variable that has an effect on how business is done and how leaders and managers (ought to) behave (Sandberg 2008).

Despite recurrent crises, the leadership and ethics literature seems comparatively unaffected by critical perspectives. There are some examples of earlier critical work (cf. e.g. Takala, 1989), and some inroads have been made more recently (cf. Parker, 2003; Knights & O'Leary, 2005,; 2006; Case & Gosling, 2007; Banerjee, 2008, 2010; Crane et al., 2008; Jones, 2010; Case et al., 2011). These interventions have raised such questions as the importance of analyses of power in studies on ethical leadership, the insufficiency of some of the existing dominant conceptualizations in the field (such as 'Corporate Social Responsibility') and the possibilities of approaching both the practice of ethics in leadership as well as the notions of ethics and leadership themselves from novel directions.

This sub-theme aims to advance the leadership and ethics agenda. More specifically, it is concerned with redesigning studies of leadership and ethics in organizations. We argue that to gain critical understanding of ethics, it is necessary to find ways to understand leadership, management and organization as ethical practices; practices that have an inherent ethical quality to them. But, if there is no escaping from ethics in leadership in contrast to leadership as ethics, how should we approach it as a research subject?

We invite contributions with theoretical, methodological or empirical perspectives that approach leadership and ethics from a critical perspective. We are particularly eager to hear from authors inspired by theoretical perspectives (e.g. gender and diversity studies) that are outside or at the margins of current leadership and ethics research and help us both to challenge and think more carefully about its assumptions, conceptualizations and truths.

We welcome proposals for papers addressing leadership and ethics, including:

  • The ethics of difference in leadership and organization
  • Feminist ethical leadership
  • The politics of ethical leadership
  • Charismatic leadership and ethics
  • Ethical leadership and globalization
  • Ethical leadership beyond good and evil
  • The practice of leadership and forms and traditions of ethics
  • New methodologies and research designs for leadership and ethics research


Bass, B.M. & P. Steidlmeier (1999): "Ethics, character, and authentic transformational leadership behavior." Leadership Quarterly, 10 (1), 181–218
Banerjee, S. (2010): "Governing the global corporation: A critical perspective." Business Ethics Quarterly, 20 (2), 265–274
Banerjee, S.B. (2008): "Corporate social responsibility: The good, the bad and the ugly." Critical Sociology, 34 (1), 51–79
Brown, M.E., L.K. Treviño & D.A. Harrison (2005): "Ethical leadership: A social learning perspective for construct development and testing." Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 97 (1), 117–134
Case, P. & J. Gosling (2007): "Wisdom of the moment: Premodern perspectives on organizational action." Social Epistemology, 21 (2), 87–111
Case, P., R. French & P. Simpson (2011): "The philosophy of leadership." In: A. Bryman et al. (eds), The SAGE Handbook of Leadership. London: Sage, 242–252
Ciulla, J.B. (ed.) (2004): Ethics, The Heart of Leadership. 2nd ed. Westport, CT: Praeger
Crane, A., D. Knights & K. Starkey (2008): "The conditions of our freedom: Foucault, organization, and ethics." Business Ethics Quarterly, 18 (3), 299–320
Jones, C. (2010): "Editorial introduction: Derrida, business, ethics." Business Ethics: A European Review, 19 (3), 235–237
Knights, D. & M. O'Leary (2005): "Reflecting on corporate scandals: the failure of ethical leadership." Business Ethics: A European Review, 14 (4), 359–366
Knights, D. & M. O'Leary (2006): "Leadership, Ethics and Responsibility to the Other." Journal of Business Ethics, 67 (2), 125–137
Parker, M. (2003): "Business, ethics and business ethics: Critical theory." In: M. Alvesson & H. Willmott (eds.), Studying Management Critically. London: Sage, 197–219
Sandberg, J. (2008): "Understanding the separation thesis." Business Ethics Quarterly, 18 (2), 213–232
Takala, T. (1989): "Discourse on the social responsibility of the firm in Finland, 1930–1940 and 1972–1982. Theoretical framework and empirical findings." Scandinavian Journal of Management, 5 (1), 5–19
Treviño, L.K., M. Brown & L.P. Hartman (2003): "A qualitative investigation of perceived executive ethical leadership. Perceptions from inside and outside the executive suite." Human Relations, 55 (1), 5–37
Treviño, L.K., L.P. Hartman & M. Brown (2000): "Moral person and moral manager: How executives develop a reputation for ethical leadership." California Management Review, 42 (1), 128–142


David Knights David Knights currently holds Visiting Professorships in the Business/ Management Schools of Universities in Gothenburg, Stockholm and Lancaster. His latest book is Organizational Analysis: Essential Readings, Cengage Learning, 2010 (edited with H. Willmott).
Peter Case Peter Case is general co-editor of Culture & Organization and a member of the editorial boards of Leadership, Leadership & Organizational Development Journal and the Journal of Management, Spirituality and Religion. His research interests encompass the ethics of leadership, organisation theory and technologically-mediated organization. Recent publications include The Speed of Organization (with S. Lilley and T. Owens, 2006: CBS & Liber) and John Adair: the Fundamentals of Leadership (with J. Gosling and M. Witzel, 2007: Palgrave).
Tuomo Takala Tuomo Takala is the editor of EJBO (Electronic Journal of Business Ethics and Organization Studies) and a member of editorial boards of Psychology, Leadership & Organizational Development Journal, Journal of Management Development and Management Research and Practice. His recent publications relate to CSR and business ethics.