Dominance vs. Prestige in Leadership: Ethics and Risk

Leadership in organizations is important. But not all leadership styles have the same impact. Two prominent styles, dominance-based leadership and prestige-based leadership, have recently been examined to understand their effects on ethics and behavior within organizations. These studies shed new light on how different approaches to leadership not only shape the culture within a company, but also how they can influence the moral behavior of both leaders and their subordinates. The results of these studies provide valuable insights for organizations that strive for a healthy and ethical work environment.

Dominance vs. Prestige

Let's first see what the difference is between leadership based on dominance and leadership based on prestige.

  • Dominance-based leadership: In dominance-based leadership, power plays a central role, with leaders relying on their authority and hierarchical position to exert control and command obedience. These leaders are often authoritarian and controlling, emphasize rules and discipline, and are more focused on achieving results, sometimes at the expense of employee well-being. Their authority is based primarily on their position and the power that comes with it, and they are often feared more than respected.
  • Prestige-based leadership: In prestige-based leadership, the approach to power and authority is less hierarchical and more based on personal qualities and respect. These leaders are approachable, collaborative and show empathy. They motivate and inspire by exemplary behavior, sharing knowledge and by supporting the autonomy and personal growth of their team members. Their authority comes from their competencies, personal qualities and the voluntary respect of their followers. These leaders are often well-liked and respected for their insights and guidance.

Damage from Dominant Leadership

Research by Brady, Kakkar, and Sivanathan (2024) sheds light on how dominance-based leadership is related to morally risky behavior. Consider, for example, financial risks, health risks, safety risks and environmental risks. The researchers analyzed 13 studies with a total of 26,880 participants, using both correlational and experimental methods. The research reveals that leaders who focus on dominance are more likely to exhibit behavior that ignores risks to achieve their own interests. An example of this is making achieving end goals more important than ethical considerations. While these leaders take moral risks for their own self-interest, the risks are mainly borne by others (for example, the employees, the organization and society - think of the global financial crisis of 2008).

Impact of Leadership Styles on Subordinates

Brady & Sivanathan (2024) examined the impact of leadership orientations on subordinates' ethical norms and behaviors. Their research, consisting of seven studies, examined how subordinates perceive the moral character of their leaders. The study showed that dominance-based leadership positively correlates with unethical behavior of subordinates. Prestige-based leadership, on the other hand, is negatively correlated with unethical behavior. These findings highlight the role of leadership style in shaping team members' moral perceptions and behaviors.

Summary and implications

Both of these studies emphasize that dominance-based leadership styles can lead to unethical behavior and moral hazard, both among the leaders themselves and their subordinates. On the other hand, prestige-based leadership styles encourage ethical behavior and positive social interactions within teams.

These contrasts between the two styles provide useful insights for promoting an ethical and healthy work environment in organizations. Here are some possible implications:

  • Leaders themselves can be encouraged to adopt reflective practices that critically assess their own leadership style and help them shift towards a more prestige-based approach.
  • Employees can benefit from an open feedback culture in which they can share their experiences with different leadership styles, giving organizations insights into the effectiveness of their leaders.
  • Human Resources departments can develop specific criteria for hiring and promoting leaders who exhibit traits of prestige-based leadership.
  • Top management of companies can initiate training and development programs that focus on cultivating prestige-based leadership, with an emphasis on collaboration, empathy, and knowledge sharing.
  • Management schools and academic institutions can revise their curriculum to place greater emphasis on the benefits of prestige-based leadership and how to develop it.