2021 Volume 24 Issue 2

Moral Identity and the Leader’s Response

Moral Identity and the Leader’s Response

8 Steps for Moral Identity

In a world where, according to a Harvard Business Review survey, 58 percent of employees reportedly “trust strangers more than their own boss,”[1] the need for leaders to understand their impact on employees is a topic worthy of immediate attention. As a recent Gallup survey declares, “It’s the Manager” that largely determines whether employees are committed and engaged participants in an organization’s efforts.[2] Because engaged and committed employees are so critical to an organization’s success, understanding the importance of how leaders earn and keep the trust and followership is vital to those organizations.

Leaders earn others’ trust by being highly moral, ethical stewards.[3] Such steward-leaders have a clear understanding of their own identities and are committed to moral values that they demonstrate by their actions.[4] The focus of this article is on the importance of leaders understanding their own moral identities and using that knowledge to increase followers’ commitment to their organizations. By understanding the complex nature of their own identity, leaders and managers can identify how they can relate more successfully with their employees by demonstrating their own moral integrity.[5]

Defining Moral Identity

Morality is a personal standard of right and wrong that is individually defined by the subjective lens through which each person interprets the world, beliefs about duties owed to others, and the situational context in which ethical decisions are made.[6] The subjective lens is a byproduct of each individual’s life experiences, core beliefs, and personal values and becomes the basis for making decisions about others’ conduct, their trustworthiness, and the degree which others are perceived as ethical or unethical.[7]

Moral conduct has been studied by a number of scholars and philosophers, and the predominant perspectives are a masculine moral perspective, developed by Lawrence Kohlberg, and a feminine moral perspective, developed by Carol Gilligan.[8] Kohlberg and Gilligan were colleagues at Harvard University and their research incorporates much of the original thinking about moral development of the Swiss psychologist, Jean Piaget. Piaget studied the evolution of cognitive decision-making of children and had proposed that individual problem-solving was a product of improved qualitative and quantitative reasoning as individuals interact with the world.[9] Kohlberg’s moral model is largely rational, justice-oriented, and based upon rules.[10] Gilligan’s moral model is far more relationship-oriented and emphasizes caring about others, particularly those individuals to whom an individual owes a specific duty based upon their close interpersonal association.[11] Both the masculine and feminine moral perspectives incorporate Piaget’s idea that moral decision-making improves with maturity and personal experience.

Moral integrity is the degree to which each person’s process for making moral and ethical decisions is consistent with their core values, their beliefs about duties owed to others, and their own personal identity.[12] For leaders and managers, moral integrity also involves the set of standards by which those individuals demonstrate their consistency and alignment with the proclaimed values which their organizations advertise.[13] If the company claims to advocate a specific set of values, beliefs, and standards, its leaders and managers are perceived by others as honoring their moral identity if and only if their personal conduct is consistent with those standards and the policies which the company adopts actually reinforce those same standards.[14]

According to Peter Burke and Jan Stets, each person’s identity consists of an ongoing process of self-appraisal in which that person constantly evaluates her/his own conduct and the antecedents to that behavior.[15] The identity standard developed by Burke and Stets and the eight steps involved in guiding one’s actions are reflected in Figure 1.[16]

Each person’s beliefs about their identity are based upon a comparator which consists of the values and ethical assumptions that defines how that person sees herself or himself.[17] Those assumptions frame the basis for behavioral standards. For most people, the identifying of performance expectations and their resulting intended behaviors takes place at the subconscious level. Ultimately, however, actual behavioral decisions depend upon the nature and context of each social situation.[18] Feedback from oneself and both verbal and nonverbal feedback from others provides the input by which a person then evaluates her/his performance and uses that information to amend personal expectations or make the effort to meet previously-determined standards of behavior.[19]

In the hubbub of busy life, the identity standard is rarely consciously considered but is influenced by a subconscious calculus by which people make decisions—often rationalizing conduct at the emotional level without fully realizing the inconsistencies between what one says and what (s)he actually does.[20] This self-deception is remarkably common but rarely fully understood.[21] Each person’s moral identity is enhanced by increasing her/his conscious understanding of each of the eight steps that make up the identity and using that understanding to be more fully aware of the subtle decisions made at each of those steps. Table 1, provided below, identifies the nature of those decisions and confirms why each of the eight steps affects moral integrity.[22]

Figure 1: The Identity Standard Moral Identity Model


Table 1: Explanation of the Identity Process

Identity Element


Moral Component


ComparatorThe comparator is a set of general ideals by which a person defines his/her own standards for guiding personal conduct.These standards typically incorporate moral variables about duties, rules, relationships, and responsibilities.Moral identity incorporates this comparator as a generalized definition of beliefs and values.
Expectations of PerformanceExpectations of performance translate the general ideals into more specific guidelines for actions and personal conduct.Expectations are generalized but are nonetheless moral and ethical, principle-centered, and values-based.These expectations translate general ideals into much more specific guidelines for individual conduct.
OutputThe output constitutes specific criteria about one’s identity and what a person believes is his or her specific obligations associated with her/his conduct.Outputs are, once again, morally and ethically important identifiers that equate with how one ought to act.Outputs are the metrics by which a person evaluates his or her ideal standards and conduct. This output measure establishes criteria for one’s future actions.
Intended Actions or BehaviorThe output is equated to specific actions and behaviors that demonstrate a person’s commitment to beliefs and values.Actions or behaviors are anticipated responses that are duty-based but often situation-dependent as well.Intended actions and behaviors are the means whereby standards are equated to conduct but intentions can also be affected by context.
Social SituationThe social situation is the specific context in which a person actually interacts with others and includes her/his capacity to act in that situation.The social situation and its accompanying pressures directly influence individual choices and may result in a failure to honor moral responsibilities.Unanticipated situations, limited resources, time pressure, and social influences can have a major impact on personal choices and make “desired” responses difficult.
Reflected AppraisalReflected appraisal includes feedback from others but also is made up of one’s view of his or her actions, compared to his/her intentions.The reflected appraisal can result in guilt about actions or can reinforce positive intentions actually carried out.This reflected appraisal provides the opportunity to assess one’s conduct, based upon a situation.
InputInput is the value-based self-assessment that results from one’s personal choices and affirms or disconfirms one’s identity.Input becomes a moral and ethical self-assessment according to the criteria of the comparator.This assessment of value is a positive or negative data point for evaluating personal conduct.
Perceived Self-MeaningThe perceived self-meaning is the inference that a person draws about her/his ability to conform conduct to the identity standard.The perceived self-meaning can reinforce values or cause a person to reevaluate her/his future comparator.Rationalizing can occur to protect one’s self-esteem or can inspire a person to make a greater effort.


For each leader or manager, the eight steps of the moral identity enable that person to assess her/his personal conduct and determine whether (s)he is truly honoring the duties owed to self and to others. The moral identity may change and may result in compromising the original output standard. In addition, the failure to perform as one intends to act may be an incentive to recommit to personal ideals, produce guilt, or result in redefining one’s moral identity. The failure to keep commitments or to perform as one intends to act—consistent with her/his moral identity—can directly affect others’ trust and commitment. In addition, behavior that falls below one’s ideal standard also may impact the degree that a person trusts herself or himself.

Suggestions for Self-Monitoring

The very practical question for leaders and managers is “How can I increase my own understanding of my moral identity so that I can be worthy of others’ trust?” That query generates a series of eight specific suggestions that can enable leaders, or anyone really, to more fully be in touch with their moral identity.

  • Understand your own comparator: Thoughtfully assess the ideals and standards that clarify the expectations oneself and the values that guide one’s life. Make that self-assessment personal, detailed, and complete.[23] Each person’s comparator identifies those values which define what is moral and ethical for that person.[24]
  • Define your specific expectations: Articulate expectations about relationships with others in terms of how morals standards apply to the criteria that reflect ethical duties in treating employees and significant others. Identify the people to whom you owe specific duties associated with the relationships that exist and the expectations of other parties.[25] Include specific expectations about duties owed to self as well as to others.
  • Translate the expectations into specific duties: Duties and responsibilities frame the obligations associated with relationships and equate to specific actions and behaviors.[26] Those duties should be both result-oriented and value-based and should focus on the outcomes that align with obligations. For leaders, incorporating those duties into organization policies, programs, and practices communicates a commitment to honor the relationships with others that are part of a leader’s role and responsibilities.
  • Anticipate intended actions: Reflect on past situations, assess the integrity of past behaviors, and acknowledge that there are patterns in each person’s behavior that require changing.[27] Personalize your intended actions in as much detail as possible in order to be prepared for the situations you might face.
  • Prepare for unanticipated situations. When individuals prepare for specific situations, their performance tends to be far more aligned with the values that they claim.[28] Unusual situations inevitably occur in life but those scenarios can nonetheless be predicted and prepared for by thinking creatively. By preparing for a diversity of potential situations, leaders are more likely to be able to honor duties that are owed despite the occurrence of unusual events.
  • Identify the appraisals that matter: Maturity teaches that self-appraisal over the long-term is ultimately far more important than the short-term feedback of peers who may have completely different standards.[29] Acknowledge that others’ feedback may be based upon moral and ethical criteria that vary from one’s personal standards—and that others’ expectations of duties owed may affect their trust and commitment. Recognize the importance of clearly explaining duties owed to others to avoid miscommunication and acknowledge that those expectations often may vary from one’s own perceptions.
  • Measure your behaviors in context: The input that you give yourself about how you handle a specific situation can be a powerful teaching moment. Accept the reality that life is a learning process but that it also requires personal accountability.[30] Recognize that the context of your situation may have affected your response and be both fair and forgiving, as needed.
  • Keep your meanings positive: Mistakes do not define anyone. Each person is greater than her/his mistakes.[31] Loving oneself and loving others include forgiving your past mistakes and becoming a better person.[32] Use this acquired meaning to honestly assess your conduct—identifying both what you can improve and what you most want to accomplish.

Each of these eight suggestions mesh with the nature of one’s moral identity. More importantly, these suggestions also align with helping a leader or manager to become her/his best self. Using each of the steps of the identity process, a leader can be more consciously aware of her/his ability to be true to the moral and ethical standards that (s)he espouses.[33] By honoring their moral identities, leaders are able to earn the respect of the many employees who do not believe that their leaders can be trusted or believed.[34]


Despite the fact that the challenges facing leaders and organizations seem more difficult than they have ever been, leaders need not compromise their moral standards or their identities. By understanding their moral identities and by reflecting on the suggestions contained herein, leaders and managers can enrich their own lives, improve their organizations, and create relationships that also help their employees to achieve their highest potential. By honoring those relationships, leaders and managers can restore the commitment so often not found in too many of today’s organizations.[35]



[1] Sturt, D. & Nordstrom, T., (2018). “10 ShoIcking Workplace Statistics You Need to Know.” Forbes, March 18, 2018 and found online on February 14, 2021 at 10 Shocking Workplace Stats You Need To Know (forbes.com).

[2] Clifton, J. & Harter, J., (2019). It’s the Manager. Omaha, NE: Gallup Press.

[3] See, for example, Caldwell, C., Hayes, L., Karri, R., and Bernal, P., (2008). “Ethical Stewardship: Implications for Leadership and Trust.” Journal of Business Ethics, Vol. 78, Iss. 1/2, pp. 153-164 and Hernandez, M., (2012). “Toward an Understanding of the Psychology of Stewardship.” Academy of Management Review, Vol. 37, No. 2, pp. 172-193.

[4] Dumay, J., La Torre, M. and Farneti, F. (2019), “Developing Trust through Stewardship: Implications for IC, Integrated Reporting, and the EU Directive 2014/95/EU”, Journal of Intellectual Capital, Vol. 20, pp. 11-39.

[5] Caldwell, C. & Anderson, V., (2021a “Moral Identity and Self-Improvement.” Paper accepted for publication in the Journal of Values-Based Leadership, Summer/Fall edition.

[6] Caldwell, C. & Anderson, V., (2021b). “Moral Identity in an Uncertain World” in Moral Identity, C. Caldwell & V. Anderson (Eds.). Hauppage, NY: NOVA Publishing.

[7] Mayer, R. C., Davis, J. H. & Schoorman, F. D., (1995). “An Integrative Model of Organizational Trust.” Academy of Management Review, Vol. 20, No. 3, pp. 709-734.

[8]Caldwell, C & Anderson, V., (2021b), op. cit.

[9] Piaget, J., (2001). The Language and Thought of the Child. New York: Routledge.

[10] Kohlberg, L., (1981). The Philosophy of Moral Development: Moral Stages and the Idea of Justice. New York: Harper & Row.

[11] Gilligan, C., (2016). In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development. Boston, MA: Harvard University Press.

[12] Caldwell, C & Anderson, V., (2021a), op. cit.

[13] Compare to Schein, E. H. & Schein, P. A., (2016). Organizational Culture and Leadership (5th ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Burke, P. J. & Stets, J. E., (2009). Identity Theory. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Caldwell, C., (2020). “Identity and Voice: Understanding Yourself and Helping Others” in Communication, Meaning, and Identity. Hauppage, NY: NOVA Publishing, pp. 201-222.

[21] The Arbinger Institute, (2020). The Anatomy of Peace: Resolving the Heart of Conflict. Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler.

[22] Caldwell & Anderson, (2021), op. cit.

[23] Caldwell, (2020), op. cit.

[24] Burke & Stets, (2009), op. cit.

[25] Caldwell, C., (2020). “Personalizing the Concepts: Discovering What Matters” in Communication, Meaning, and Identity. Hauppage, NY: NOVA Publishing, pp. 223-242.

[26] Burke & Stets, (2009), op. cit.

[27] The Arbinger Institute, (2020), op. cit.

[28] Fishbein, M. & Ajzen, I., (2015). Predicting and Changing Behavior. New York: Routledge.

[29] Boud, D., (2016). Enhancing Learning through Self-Assessment. New York: Routledge.

[30] Silverstein, S., (2015). No More Excuses! The Five Accountabilities for Personal and Organizational Growth. Mooresville, IN: Sound Wisdom Publishing.

[31] Fromm, E., (2006). The Art of Loving. New York: Harper Perennial.

[32] Anderson, V., Caldwell, C., & Barfuss, B. 2019. “Love: The Heart of Leadership.” Graziadio Business Review, Vol. 22, Iss. 2 and may be found online at https://gbr.pepperdine.edu/2019/08/love-the-heart-of-leadership/.

[33] This alignment is addressed in Schein, E. H. & Schein, P. A., (2016). Organizational Culture and Leadership. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

[34] Sturt & Nordstron, (2018), op. cit.

[35] Clifton & Harter, (2019).

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Author of the article
Cam Caldwell, PhD
Cam Caldwell, PhD
Cam Caldwell, obtained his PhD degree from Washington State University in 2004 where he was a Thomas S. Foley graduate fellow. He has co-authored over 100 publications about leadership, trust, and ethics and his book about moral leadership was published in 2012 by Business Expert Press.
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