Purposeful Leadership: When the Bottom Line Includes Ethics and Vision

 'Traditional Leadership Glosses Over Who Leadership Should Be Focused On'

By Tiffani Sherman
September 20, 2017

A study finds that employees are less likely to quit, more satisfied and will work harder if they feel their morals and principles are like those of their leaders.

“A lot of us work in places where there are not discussions about ethics and values in our workplaces,” says Katie Bailey, a professor of management at the University of Sussex in Brighton, England, and author of a study about the effect of purposeful leadership, one of the first academic studies of its kind.

katie bailey

Katie Bailey

Funded by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, a London-based international association for human resource professionals, the research showed that employees are less likely to quit, are more satisfied and will work harder if their managers are purposeful.

“Leaders are not thinking about their decisions and how they impact the people, the environment and society,” Bailey says. The institute “wanted to know if purposeful leaders made a difference or not.”

Purposeful leaders have three characteristics: vision, a commitment to stakeholders, and strong morals.


  • Strong morals
  • Vision for his or her team
  • An ethical approach to leadership marked by a commitment to stakeholders

Source: Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development

“They set a clear vision for their team about what they want to achieve, and setting a vision can be done collaboratively,” Bailey says.

The vision needs to be connected to that of the overall organization, like that of a hospital or medical group, but individual leaders need to work with their teams to create a vision for their small part of the larger whole, Bailey said.

Consider all the stakeholders, which in the case of a physician leader, is not just a patient. It’s also the patient’s family, the physician, other medical care staff, the hospital or practice, and more, she says.

“Have you taken them into account when making decisions? There could be many groups affected by a decision,” Bailey says, “I think it’s quite challenging, it’s difficult to balance different viewpoints.”

VIDEO: Katie Bailey Discusses Findings from the Purposeful Leadership Study

One viewpoint is often the bottom line, which all too often is the primary focus of many leaders, Bailey says.

“Traditional leadership glosses over who the leadership should be focused on,” she says, adding concerns about money often keep the focus away from the real stakeholders.



purposeful leadership chart
  • Purposeful leadership and its constituent components – moral self, commitment to stakeholders and vision – are important in influencing a range of employees outcomes.
  • Only 21% of managers in the UK rate themselves highly as purposeful leaders. There is a link between purposeful leadership and employees’ percention that their leaders behave ethically, although the relationship is complex and varies across organizational contexts.
  • The links between purposeful leadership and the extent to which employees believe their ethics and values fit well with those of their organization vary across the case studies.
  • Enablers of purposeful leadership center around having clear policies in place, role-modeling from senior leaders, training and organizational culture.
  • Constraints against purposeful leadership center around time and resource pressures, leading to the prioritization of business or organizational interests.

Source: Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development

That can lead to the perception leaders are more concerned with dollars instead of people.

“Employees talk a lot about leaders who behave ethically and treat people fairly,” Bailey says, adding employees are happier when they feel their morals and ethics are like those of their leaders.

That seems to happen more when those leaders put clear policies in place, provide proper training and create a positive organizational culture, she says.

“We found a link between purposeful leadership and the intent to remain with your employer,” Bailey says.

In the study, 21 percent of managers said they are purposeful leaders and a lower percentage rated themselves as moral people, highlighting a large opportunity for improvement, Bailey says.

 “It’s important for employees to think they work for an ethical leader,” Bailey says. “Sometimes we don’t think about how we come across to our colleagues.”

Her team did not specifically study physicians, however she says the general results would probably carry over to the medical community. When treating patients with a complex disease, Bailey says, purposeful leaders will think not only about the recovery involved, but also the stress on the family as well as the financial cost to the hospital. As a leader, discuss the treatment ideas with the entire medical team involved so they members know how you reached your conclusions.

It’s also important to discuss ideas in team meetings and during one-on-ones with colleagues.

“It’s about being clear and explicit with your values and how you bring those to your work,” Bailey says. 

Topics: Leadership

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