Can Good Followers Create Unethical Leaders? How Follower Citizenship Leads to Leader Moral Licensing and Unethical Behavior Academic Article uri icon


  • Whereas the study of leadership has generally focused on how leaders influence the behavior of their followers, this article focuses on how and when the behaviors of followers can influence leaders' behavior. Specifically, we use moral licensing theory to examine the possibility that positive follower behavior could lead to unethical behavior by leaders. Across a pilot study, 2 experiments, and 1 field study, our findings suggest that when their followers perform organizational citizenship behaviors, leaders are more likely to grant themselves moral credit to behave unethically. Moreover, we find that leaders are especially likely to gain moral credit as a result of followers' good deeds when leader narcissism is high or when they identify with their followers. Together, these studies provide evidence that good behavior on the part of followers may psychologically free leaders to engage in subsequent unethical behavior, thereby contributing to our understanding of how followers can influence leader behavior and how vicarious moral licensing operates in organizational contexts. (PsycInfo Database Record (c) 2020 APA, all rights reserved).

author list (cited authors)

  • Ahmad, M. G., Klotz, A. C., & Bolino, M. C.

publication date

  • January 1, 2020 11:11 AM