Value-Based Leadership


Aon Hewitt Think Tank is a special group of India’s progressive HR leaders who are committed to promote India-specific research in the areas of HR and leadership.

About Aon Hewitt Think Tank

The mission of Aon Think Tank is to encourage and support world-class, India-specific research in the areas of HR and leadership. The Think Tank will achieve its mission by focusing on:

  1. Attracting the best talent to pursue India-specific research on HR and leadership
  2. Supporting high quality research through: (a) Direct and indirect financial assistance, (b) Better access to data from the industry and (c) Ongoing guidance and mentoring from senior academicians and industry professionals
  3. Acting as a center for discussion and dissemination of research on HR and leadership in India

This article has been written by Dr. Zubin Mulla, who is an Assistant Professor with Tata Institute of Social Sciences and is working on the Think Tank Research with Aon. His areas of research interest include ethics, leadership, executive compensation and evidence-based HRM.


True leadership occurs when leaders inspire followers to strive for higher goals and engage them in the task of enthusiastically achieving their deepest aspirations as well as the group’s purpose. In these times of change, organizations and societies look for such inspirational leaders to be at the helm of affairs.

Since earliest times, scholars have been studying leaders and have been fascinated by leadership in all its forms. However, there are still a number of unanswered questions. The most fundamental of questions is – what is good leadership and how do we identify good leaders? When we speak of leadership, the term good has two connotations. We want our leaders to be efficient as well as ethical (Ciulla, 2004.) But, by what standards do we measure the ethics of those in power? And finally, why is it that even the best and most ethical of individuals fail to get adequate support from the people?

Predictors of Good Leadership

Human personality consists of three distinct domains (Rokeach, 1968.) The behavioral domain consists of observable behaviors, the affective domain consists of feelings, emotions and attitudes, and the cognitive domain consists of the intellect which reasons and evaluates.

Studies have shown that visible behaviors or personality traits can explain just 12% of variation in leadership perceptions amongst individuals (Bono & Judge, 2004.) The findings with respect to emotional intelligence is mixed. While the popular press (such as the works of Daniel Goleman) continue to emphasize its importance, scholars have found weak support for the incremental impact of emotional intelligence after taking into account the effects of other factors such as personality and mental ability (Føllesdal & Hagtvet, 2013.) One of the main reasons for this is the fact that we still do not have a culturally neutral and robust measure of emotional intelligence.

When we look beyond the behavioral and the affective domain, to the cognitive domain, we find that there are two aspects to human cognition. First, intelligence (or general mental ability) and the second is values. While intelligence (or ability to deal with complex information) is the best predictor of performance at work (Schmidt & Hunter, 2004), it is a weak predictor of leadership potential, predicting only about 7% of leadership outcomes (Judge, Colbert, & Ilies, 2004.) Moreover, the leader’s intelligence has no effect on group outcomes when the leader is under stress or when the leader uses a participative style (Judge et al., 2004.) Summarizing the above research on predictors of leadership, we find that personality, emotional intelligence and mental ability together are able to predict very little of leadership. This leaves us with values as the only other variable to be considered.


Values are prescriptive beliefs which advocate a certain course of action or a certain state of existence as desirable or undesirable (Rokeach, 1968.) Studies across cultures, have so far revealed that despite individual differences, all human beings have a limited set of 19 values such as achievement, humility, security, tradition, hedonism, and dependability (Schwartz & Cieciuch, 2016.)

What makes us different however, is not what we value, but our relative prioritization of the 19 universal values. This unique arrangement of values or priorities for each individual is known as a value system (Rokeach, 1973) and it transcends specific situations and guides one’s judgments, thoughts and actions (Schwartz & Bilsky, 1987.) Hence, values are trans-situational goals which serve as guiding principles for individuals depending on their relative importance (Schwartz, 1992.)

When similar values are clubbed together as per their co-occurrence in the form of a value structure, there are some clear patterns in the form of broad motivational domains. These motivational domains can be conceptualized as two orthogonal axes or two basic dimensions which can explain the organization of the entire value structure. They are: self-transcendence versus self-enhancement and openness to change versus conservation (Schwartz, 1992.)

Both these dimensions of values are extremely relevant for leadership. The dimension of openness to change versus conservation represents the balance of status quo versus change that constitutes the leaders agenda and the dimension of self-transcendence versus self-enhancement represents the extent to which the leader cares for others’ welfare rather than his or her own welfare. In this manner, by measuring values, individuals could be mapped along these two dimensions.

Values and Leadership

A few studies in the beginning of this millennium have shown the importance of values are predictors for leadership. Inspiring leaders strongly espouse traditional, collectivistic, self-transcendent and self-enhancement values (Sosik, 2005) and they give higher preference to other-focused social values as compared to selffocused personal values (Krishnan, 2001.) Moreover, genuine altruistic motives of leaders which take into consideration the concerns of followers are considered far more inspirational by followers as compared to mere symbolic acts of self-sacrifice (Singh & Krishnan, 2005.)

The most compelling evidence of the importance of values comes from a recent study of 45 Chinese Chief Executive Officers (CEOs) and their direct and indirect subordinates (Fu, Tsui, Jun, & Lan, 2011.) The study showed that the CEO’s values substantially enhanced the impact of the CEO’s behaviors on middle manager’s attitudes and behavior intentions. More specifically, only when CEOs gave more importance to others’ happiness as compared to their own happiness, did the CEO’s leadership-oriented behaviors have substantial positive effects on middle managers’ affective commitment towards the organization and the middle managers’ intention to leave the organization. Moreover, the middle managers who had worked with the CEOs for some time were able to clearly discern and accurately describe the CEO’s values based on their words and actions.

Importance of Values for Transformational Leaders

Another factor which makes values crucial to leaders is the extent of change and the kind of leadership that is demanded by the situation. Burns (1978) suggests that different kinds of values are relevant for different types of leadership. In a static environment such as that of an isolated village community, what matters the most is the leader’s personal values or virtues such as temperance, chastity and purity. For more dynamic communities such as those engaged in trade with others in the environment, leaders need to display ethical values such as truthfulness and honesty. However, during periods of high uncertainty and rapid changes (such as the present political and economic climate), what matters most are the leader’s public or end values such as self-transcendence. In other words, when history evaluates the legacy of a leader, what matters most is not whether they were personally virtuous or ethical in their interactions with others, but whether they had the right intentions and whether they led their followers to a better state or not.

When an individual influences another through coercion, the influence is limited to the time when the coercive force is applied. Once the coercive force is removed, the recipient of influence may freely go back to the original state. Similarly, when an individual influences another through providing material resources, the behavior change is limited to the period during which the material resource is being provided and is desired by the recipient. However, when followers are inspired by leaders to willingly and enthusiastically engage themselves in a course of action, they are so completely and permanently changed that there is a little chance of reverting to the older self even though the external influence is removed. It is this permanent transformation of large groups of people which is an outcome of true leadership which makes the values of the leader so essential. When leaders lead large groups and communities through uncertain times, what matters most is not their personal virtues or the ethical values, but their end goals. Specifically, the public values of selftranscendence such as life, liberty, equality and pursuit of happiness are the most potent in predicting great leadership (Burns, 1978.)

Agenda for Inquiry

Our existing approaches to leadership too have been devoid of values. This is evidenced by the popularity of simple behavioral prescriptions to becoming a good leader that fill the popular literature but are often found ineffective in practice. Attempts by organizations to measure and develop leadership competencies have also led to limited results due to the superficial effect of focusing only on visible behaviors. In seeking to measure only that which is easily measurable, we have missed measuring the most essential.

Dr. Zubin Mulla

Dr. Zubin Mulla
Associate Professor
Tata Institute of Social Sciences,




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