Moral Failures of Exceptional Leaders: A Qualitative Study
Viviette L. Allen
Research and theory in organizational leadership has tended to focus strongly on leader effectiveness, success, and best practices. Yet, fewer studies have addressed leader failure, especially moral failure. Justification for exploration of moral failure rests in its prevalence, resultant damage, and the general lack of comprehensive models to identify and suggest relationships between antecedent variables and the consequences of failure. Drawn from a careful examination of pertinent literature from the fields of organizational leadership, morality, ethics, theology, and psychology, this qualitative study examined demographic and motivational factors through a content analysis of 531 statements made by two exceptional leaders (K. Lay and W. Clinton ) who have been publicly implicated in episodes of moral failure. Coding was based on a scale derived from Bandura's (1986, 1991, 1997, 1999) social learning theory (SLT). More specifically the focus involved a conceptualization of self-exonerating, moral disengagement mechanisms that were derived from SLT. Two coders, one of whom was this researcher, were employed. Their independently developed coding results fell within acceptable levels for intercoder reliability (Cohen's Kappa = ~.81). Analysis revealed a dynamic, chaotic interaction of multiple intra-/inter-personal and contextual factors, many of which were also consistent with leader success. Discussion suggested conceptual, assessment, and intervention considerations for the application of these findings. This study concluded with observations suggesting that the understanding and practice of leadership can be significantly advanced through a focus that extends beyond leader strengths to incorporate analyses of leader vulnerabilities and failure.
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