Daniela Sotirova
Department of Legal Studies and Humanities,
Faculty of Business,
Technical University – Sofia, Bulgaria


Ethics of leadership in cross-cultural behavioral business ethics is examined in this paper. It is done on the basis of meta-analysis of literature in cross-cultural business ethics, organizational ethics and culture, and intercultural communication. Reflection practice has been used as a method of analysis in the social sciences. Some novel aspects are described on the basis of social learning theory and leadership consulting practices. Among them is the issue of ethical implications of using international managerial language in everyday business communication. The negative impact of platitudes and trivialities on organizational ethics is determined. Cultural differences in perception of essential qualities of the ethical leadership are explained. The role of moral grounds in understanding cultural differences is analyzed. Characteristics of ethical or unethical personal leadership are stressed on the basis of a culturally defined model of leadership. Hyper norms in cross-cultural business communication are considered, as well as some advices for effective leadership in international projects. Ethical leadership is seen as a kind of mixture of three ingredients (3 in 1): moral character, ethical management, and cultural intelligence. Conclusively, the study affirms the importance of interactive dialogue methods in teaching academic business ethics, as well as the power of reflective practice and ethical culture of professors for moral leadership development of future managers.

Keywords: ethical leadership, cultural differences, cross-cultural business ethics, moral grounds, moral character, cultural intelligence, intercultural business communication.


The main focus of this text is on business ethical and cross-cultural interpretation of leadership. The aim is to propose framework for understanding ethical leadership in different cultures. The study attempts to clarify conceptually and on the basis of critically summarized consulting experience the specific aspects of leadership in the context of cross-cultural ethics. It presents constructs and models, which have not been sufficiently included in studies of leadership and which are derived from business ethics, organizational ethics and intercultural communication.

Traditionally such studies, as most managerial and business ethics themes, are drawn primarily from a western view of business and ethics. Today, however, there is a need to expand the perimeter for a more thorough and accurate comparisons of cultures, values and ethical systems. C. Johnson underlines in “Organizational Ethics. A Practical Approach” the challenges of ethical diversity as one of the dangers of globalization. This danger lies between two extremes: ethical imperialism and cultural relativism. According to C. Johnson „…leaders faces with ethical diversity sometimes behave as ethical imperialists by imposing their personal moral standards on members of other cultures” (Johnson: 2012: 381-382). Compliance with local values and overemphasizing morals in contradictory situations leads to the extreme position of cultural relativism. Therefore, it is necessary to know and understanding deeply patterns of ethical leadership in different cultures – an instrument of effective and ethical business behavior.

Researchers in organizational studies, especially in the field national culture – organizational culture, have collected many data and models of business leadership. Most of them have moral dimensions and are subject to ethical perusal. The use of meta-analyses and qualitative methods to study cross-cultural differences in ethical leadership in business context allows for summarizing all relevant but inconsistent results achieved in applied ethics, international organizational behavior, and intercultural studies. Discussions and definitions in such a broad research subjects will be mentioned further in this paper only if they are relevant to the topic.

This paper is based also on the method of so-called reflective practice (Ross 1994) – the conceptualizing experience of business ethics training in a different organizational environment are part of the methodological tools used for this article.

When we think of moral leadership in the wider global context, we notice at least two contradictory trends. On the one hand, global business and the international market of highly trained managers place the requirement for ethical leadership in rapidly changing business contexts. On the other hand, still it remains very difficult to overcome cynical perspective to other group values and ethics. Cultural otherness becomes a bigger problem in communication at all levels.

That is why, the perspective of social perception of moral leadership is the starting point in the analysis.

Social perception of moral leadership

Leader and morality, ethical and leadership are words that we use and interpret inseparably. Many of the key themes revealing the essence of leadership have a moral content: authenticity, influence, impact, ethos, responsibility, altruism, loyalty. “Ethics, the heart of leadership“– this title of professor in Leadership and Ethics J. Ciulla’s book is both a magnetic statement and a verifiable thesis (Ciulla 2014).

There are concepts, which have been discredited as scientific terms because they have been overused by political leaders and have been circulated around through their doctrines. Alas, among them are such terms as moral leadership, multiculturalism, and ethicality. When the media and politics do not provide examples of good leadership, this discredits the meaning of the term moral leadership. What has been important for the social perception of moral leadership in all ages is leadership in the civil service. The expert on applied ethics, S. Bok writes that “moral leadership referred primarily to people in the public sphere” (Bok 2011). That is a century-old tradition: in Europe it goes back to Aristotle who advances the thesis that those who serve the government have an important role in the enlightenment of citizens (Aristotle 1984). This line of thinking continues with Machiavelli with whose name have been denominated both Jesuit maxima and psychological constructs related to leadership qualities: machiavellism is an important personality characteristic of the leader’s potential (Drory and Gluskinos 1980: 81-86).

Over the last two decades the claim about a great crisis of leadership in the public sphere has been repeated in various contexts in different countries. “The leadership crisis in most of our institutions. … is the most urgent and dangerous of the threats we face today, if only because it is insufficiently recognized and little understood”, writes one of the most quoted authors on the topic (Bennis 2009). Similar is the general perception expressed in a title from the blogosphere in Bulgaria: “The absence of moral leadership is killing the state“ (Atanassova 2014).

On such a social background there arise new perspective of moral leadership, which has crystallized in global business communication. It can be comprehended in the border zone of applied ethics and cross cultural studies. Although leadership has long been analyzed as connected with different levels and elements of organizational culture (i.e. norms, values, organizational heroes), some of the cultural indicators have been less well researched. An example is organizational language and discourse. When we want to know each culture and understand behavior, the first step is understanding the messages. The “point of entry” is to look at the language, the specifics of the wording containing the phrase moral leadership in organizational life.

“It is a matter of leadership“: clichés in organizational language encourage unethical practices

Organizational language and wrong messages in communication have been ignored in ethical business behavior as a research and training field. On the one hand, morality and ethics are intuitively understandable for every mature representative of homo sapience. On the other hand, it is obvious that platitudes have become an essential part of the everyday language of managers and corporate trainers. These arguments have first been propounded by the organizational consultant M. Evans (Evans 2009), one of the founders of Cultureship – a team supporting organizational culture based on ethics (Bingham 2013).

Some social psychologists and sociologists have shown the dehumanization effect of speech (Schroeder, Epley 2016). Particular aspect of dehumanization is organizational communication is organizational discourse. To understand organizational culture, it is necessary to start from the talk of the managers. They often use trivialities to explain problematic situations in their work and these trivialities can be called in different ways – clichés or trafarets, i.е. a sample that is followed automatically. Organizational issues are expressed through superficial meaning-nothing and quite generalizing phrases. Similar general words and phrases are used to explain failures, bankruptcies and less significant unsuccessful actions. According to M. Evans, what is necessary is “a resolute correction of the improper management speaks” (Evans 2009). A banalized explanation of everyday situations interferes with lack of ethical communication in business. It is set against a concrete discussion of how to get to the «high stories» of ethical standards, as written in the codes, away from routine. Everyday order often is full of aggression and pressure, and dictatorship to make decisions «here and now». The use of trafarets in explaining setbacks and pressure is an indicator that there is an abyss between the layers in a business organization. Understanding clichés in organizational discourse is a symptom in defying organizational ethical culture.

Examples of platitudes are judgements like «it is all a matter of management», «there are problems with the style of leadership» etc. They do not describe particular difficulties and leave aside the real complexity of the problem and the way out of it. And another essential thing – these messages are unaddressed. The reason for sticking to trafaret phrases is …their truthfulness. Unclear and unequivocally identifiable problems of the organizational routine make us use labels like: «This is because of a lack of leadership» or «there is no good communication». There is a strong desire to give a quick diagnosis. With the different perceptions people / managers, employees, outsiders / have of a problematic situation and how to deal with it, banal judgements are a way to generalize meaning understood by everybody.

By using examples of organizational dialogue it is possible to illustrate a more precise reconstruction and proper understanding of the problem situation. Banal „diagnoses“ stop communication. When «the diagnosis», i.e. identification of the problematic situation is limited to the generalizations of the boss, then the phrase «It is about leadership” – the most common universal cliché – comes to the rescue. It is a substitute for an analysis and assessment of the problem situation, which will allow to formulate and look for answers to the questions: «If the problem is with leadership, is more or less leadership needed in the case? »; «Do we want leadership or just a change of management? »; «Do we want a commander or a leader? »; «Do we need a leader, who is one of us or comes from outside?“ and so on.

The more rarely the organization uses the banality «It is about leadership» the more capable it is of coping successfully with its problems. Leadership is a trivialized term. It is a mantra, which is always handy in hiding other problems. It can be used in cases such as complaints from deceived customers, about wrong execution of orders, from disappointed suppliers, about discrepancy between order and payment, unfair payment of overtime, and other moments of disappointment and dissatisfaction in organizational life. Particular examples of expression «it is about leadership», which is void of any meaning, are the following most common organizational replicas (to those suggested by M. Evans we add some other phrases often mentioned in corporate training in Bulgaria):

  • «The boss is incompetent»;
  • «The boss also needs help and support»;
  • «The people don’t have the necessary skills»;
  • «Top management doesn’t want to take responsibility (they don’t care for the organization)»;
  • «There is nobody to set an example; there is nobody to raise the question openly»;
  • «There isn’t enough interpersonal sensitivity, refinement in small things»;
  • «Everybody avoids direct conversation with the employer (the boss)»;
  • «Nobody wants (would think of, would pay for) a consultant or training»;
  • «Nobody notes the small successes (everybody looks at things negatively) ».
  • «There is random communication with the staff and it is only in the authoritarian way by means of complaints and telling people off, and not by means of encouragement».

Messages of leadership have moral content, when they are not declarative or unclear, but show direct reference to something. The change in the language habits in the organization is that mobilizing initial step, which has the force of «moral attraction» for ethical organizational communication.

Defining ethical leadership in business

Effective and ethical leadership are inseparable. The widely spread layman’s concept that effective leadership is not related to the moral qualities and ethical behaviour of the leader is superficial. Special studies, with varying purposes and scope, indicate the opposite. In one of the latest international studies (of March 2016) managers and executive officers of international companies are asked the question what exactly makes a leader effective? 195 leaders from 15 countries and over 30 leading world business organizations were asked to choose the 15 most important leadership competencies from a list of 74 competencies grouped into five themes. For about 67% of the business leaders in the world „high moral and ethical standards“ is the quality rated first, before all other groups of competences. According to S. Giles all leaders’ features are desired and difficult for self-development, but to develop ethicality you have, to a great extent, „to act against your human nature“ (Giles 2016). If this is so, moral leadership is an issue with multiple projections and one of them is that about our „second nature“ – culture.

In the International Encyclopedia of Ethics, the article „Leadership ethics“ points out that the morality of leaders it may have been written about for thousands of years, but „Leadership ethics“ is a relatively new field of applied ethics“ (Ciulla 2013). As a research and consultancy field it frames specific moral issues of leadership that are on the borderline between professional ethics, moral philosophy and organizational studies. The last of these three areas has an impressive array of academic and popular versions of definitions of moral leadership. Because of their great variety and descriptiveness, a negative definition is helpful: moral leadership is not destructive, bad, toxic, inauthentic, transactional, authoritarian, repressive, or absolute. The attempt to define it positively is more reliable if it is based on the theory of social science learning. In the model proposed by L. Trevino, Professor of organizational ethics and leadership, ethical leadership is behaviour, conforming to norms (normatively acceptable); consistent with the context, including the macro-cultural context; containing two-way communication with followers, who have a procedural and interpersonal right to a vote; visibly supporting ethical standards in the process of decision-making in the organization (Brown et al. 2005). Mihelič, K., B. Lipičnik, and M. Tekavčič define leadership as the art of persuading a follower to want to do the things, activities, that the leader sets as goals (Mihelič et al. 2010). For pragmatizing the complex construct in a cross-cultural business context it is useful to specify the division of ​​two dimensions of ethical leadership. It can be expressed briefly as follows (Table 1):

Table 1: Two dimensions of ethical leadership (Trevino, Nelson 2010)

Moral personality (character)

Demonstrates to the followers how

leaders behave.

Moral manager

Demonstrates to the followers how they must behave and takes them to task for not doing it.

The main qualities are:

Honesty; integrity; inspires them with    trust

He is a role model:

Performs ethical actions

Behaviour is:

Open; with attention and interest in people

Personal morality


Requires and encourages professional

ethical behaviour of the employees

Decision-making is:

Value-based; fair


Convey messages and intimations

based on ethics and values

The many and varied areas of research of culture and cultural diversity have been enriched with a new field – cross-cultural business ethics. The term is new in applied ethics (Drumwright et al. 2015) and presupposes a change in focus: the emphasis is on the moral aspect of communication, the intertwining of individual and cultural factors in making ethical decisions. Cross-cultural business ethics is behavioural ethics. It studies the values, principles and rules of behaviour in global business, with focus on communication, the building up of networks and teams with international members in a cross-cultural environment. This academic and consultancy area draws on and builds upon ideas from intercultural communication, cross-cultural management, organizational behaviour and culture, international human resources management. Whether cultural diversity is an ethical diversity too – that is the key problem analyzed in cross-cultural business ethics (Sotirova 2016).

In this perspective, a number of topics stand out that require a moral-philosophical interpretation first of all. Among them is an issue directly related to cultural differences: what do ethical standards in different cultural practices serve for – justification or application? Is it that we only know and accept or make efforts to follow the norms? The justification for one or the other cultural preference lies in the circumstance that after “the disenchantment of the world” (according to Max Weber) moral pluralism has expanded (Weber 2002).

At the level of knowledge of intercultural communication moral pluralism is tenable with a denial of the thesis that there is only one universal ethics. R. Shutter in „Ethics, culture and communication: an intercultural perspective“ points out that it is necessary to re-evaluate the way we understand ethics in intercultural communication. Since each study of a unique culture (intracultural analysis) exposes deep social structures in society, it is easy to give advice „… about intercultural communication like the piece of advice that is traditionally offered: be empathic, be aware of the fact that people are different, and that the values are different in different societies, etc. ad nauseam. The truth of the matter is that one can heed all such intercultural warnings and still reject ethical principles that regulate communication and relationships“(Shutter 2003).

In analyzing ethical leadership in consistence with the culture of a particular community, a metaphor in applied ethics is heuristic and useful. J. Jacobs (Jacobs 1993) proposes to distinguish between two moral syndromes – that of the trader and that of the guard (security guard), detectable as preferences in making ethical decisions based respectively on utilitarianism and universalism as ethical principles. Following the logic and the statement of Jacobs’ exposition we hereby systematize the behavioural differences between them as follows (Table 2).

Table 2: Two types of moral syndromes


Moral syndrome А Moral syndrome B
Negotiates and seeks agreement Discipline and duty first of all
Honest Respects traditions
Communicates easily with strangers Seeks footing in hierarchy
Does not break contracts Faithful and loyal
Optimist Fatalist
Seeks the effective demonstration of results Perfectionist
Is oriented at conformism and agreement Rules are important, is prone to extremes
Syndrome of the trader:

Behavior  that ensues from the exchange of goods and services, and is characteristic only of the human being, a preferred syndrome in trade, business.

Syndrome of the guard:

originates from behavior, analogous to that of animals (defense of one’s own territories, trying to make a living, etc.); preferred in the army, the police, bureaucracy, justice, religions.


Whether there is congruence between a type of personal moral syndrome with the type of national and organizational culture, the preference of organizational leader for one or another style is a specific choice. It is open to self-reflection, dialogue and change in particular groups within job context.

The research „claims“ of cross-cultural business ethics can easily be justified today. In a global environment, the number of multicultural teams is growing everywhere. To use the expression of D. Narvaez, according to whom in the cross-cultural environment we all should be able to act as moral experts (Narvaez 2006). Pragmatic orientation is a leading prospect for research and for consultancy recommendations on cross-cultural ethics; it is knowledge of „know how“ rather than of „know what”.

Cultural characteristics of leader’s ethical behaviour: different levels of analysis


In cross-cultural studies the differences between ethical and unethical leadership are based on these three generally accepted perspectives:

  • the Western perspective;
  • the example that comes from the management of business organizations in the private sector in Western economies (North American and Western European);
  • perception of ethics and the ethical formed on the basis of reducing business ethics to compliance (obedience with rules and regulations), which in turn is also part of the western paradigm.

Within the framework of this western paradigm is developed a typical understanding of leaders as competing in top role model characteristics. D. Goleman describes leaders as stars (celebrities) who have exceptional abilities as compared to those of the average ones (Goleman 2014). Modern exceptional leadership traits have been defined as follows: strategic orientation, market smartness, orientation towards getting results, commitment to the goal of having satisfied customers and users, cooperation with and impact on others, striving for developing winning teams, transformational leadership. This list reflects the absolutized qualities of the best leaders coming from the business world of information technology. The „hero of Silicon Valley“ is depicted. An essential question is how far the image of the „global leader“ is culturally and ethically acceptable, even in the context of a digital global environment?

Special studies of moral leadership in a different regional and national cultural context follow a classic line of comparison along the axis of western and eastern cultures or of certain „representatives.“ For example, the article (Gu et al. 2015: 513-529) comparatively analyses moral leadership and its impact on the creativity of employees in Chinese, Canadian and American companies. Pointing out that leadership itself is defined within the framework of the western world; the authors use the construct paternalistic leadership to China and to eastern culture as a whole. Paternalism is the predominant leadership style in non-western business. Paternalistic leaders combine authority with benevolence, good will and mercy and in this sense they are perceived as ethical.

  1. Pellegrini, T. Skandura and V. Jayaraman compare the attitudes of employees from the USA and India to paternalistic leadership. Paternalism has a significantly stronger positive effect on job satisfaction in India, whereas this correlation is not as significant in the United States. In both cultural contexts paternalistic leadership is positively related to organizational commitment (Pellegrini et al. 2010: 391-420). S. Eyzenbek and F. Brodbek carry out a cross-cultural and cross-sector analysis of ethical and unethical leadership (Eisenbeih, Brodbeck 2014: 1-17). They point out that nowadays it is necessary for managers to manage in an ethical way people and projects from diverse cultures, but also from various sectors (private and public, regional and international). It is vital to form an overall unifying picture about what is perceived as ethical and unethical in cultures, industries and sectors. The present study makes use of the dichotomy West – Eastern culture as a starting point. The opinions of the executives from different countries who participated in the survey, cited in the above work, can be summarized as follows (Table 3):

Table 3: Perception of ethical and unethical leaders in Western and Eastern cultures

(Adapted from Eisenbeih, Brodbeck 2013)


Western cultures                                                         Eastern cultures

Ethical is compliance with rules and standards         Ethical is conformity with values

Ethical leader            Unethical leader                 Ethical leader         Unethical leader

Honesty                      Dishonest                             People oriented            Egocentric

Integrity                      Corrupted                             Responsibility

Responsibility            Egocentric

People oriented           Manipulator

The differences among the Eastern cultures (Chinese, Indian, etc.) obviously hamper the identification of more than two traits of ethical leadership and one of unethical leadership. In recent years, the field of non-western business culture has been expanded. Studies of African ethical leadership in business have emerged (Rezick et all 2011:435-457). Thus, the division of Western and Eastern culture again shows its incompleteness. In spite of that, knowing the different perceptions of ethical leadership in western and eastern business communication helps to identify major problem areas in cross-cultural communication. Such a key issue is the aberration in levels of openness. Learning the openness became an important in training for Asian organizations.

A heuristic theoretical construct used to study openness is the moral voice. In (Lee at all 2017:47–57) the role of ethical leadership in relation to a direct ethical outcome of employees is examined among Korean white-collar employees and their supervisors. Moral voice shows how and when ethical leadership motivates employees to speak up about ethical issues. As a construct moral voice is introduced by E. Morrison (Morrison 2014: 173-197). She describes the role of openness and of open door policy, when employees can express even controversial issues. Some leadership actions may discourage ethical concerns. A culture in which people freely speak up is vital to ensuring people don’t collude with misconduct. “Leaders that are open and approachable, who demonstrate regard for the opinions of others, are far likelier to have employees speak up when circumstances require it”. But these manifestations of ethical leadership are еаsily accepted for Anglo-Saxon culture as well as European culture.

Digital technologies are changing business culture, and there is global access to countless consultancy tips on the valuable qualities of the successful business leadership behaviour and how to develop them (Sediman 2015). However, in their adaptation and acquisition by each community there arises the problem of cultural translation of the terms used for the values ​​and virtues, as well as for other traits of the moral character when translating them from one language (most often English) to another organizational language. Here I suggest a comparison between common terms for leader’s moral characteristics used in international business contexts. It is based on a comparative analysis of definitions in codes of ethical behavior, manuals, training materials, textbooks in strategic management and organizational communication, as well as observations during conducted training sessions in cross-cultural business ethics. (Table 4):

Table 4: Cultural differences in essential qualities of the moral leader


Moral quality                         Culturally specific similar terms

Honesty                                               wholesomeness, integrity, uprightness, goodness

            Modesty                                                humility

            Courage (Moral courage)                    bravery, determination

            Passion                                               enthusiasm, drive

            Sincerity                                             truthfulness, openness

            Solicitousness                                     humaneness, compassion, sensitivity, charity

            Trust                                                  loyalty, respect

            Wisdom                                              intelligence, insight, perspicacity


In this case we are confronted with a typical situation of the so-called „lost in translation“. To M. Kundera (Kundera 2014) we owe a good example and profound reflections about unique moral and psychological states expressed with words difficult to translate. Litost is the Czech word for „painful condition caused by the nature of our own, suddenly revealed nothingness.“ It designates the „… humiliation and anger that follow”. The condition is characteristic of the age that precedes experience; it feeds the thirst for revenge, hiding itself behind pathetic hypocrisy „(ibid), and the real reasons can never be demonstrated. Kundera gives the example of a boy and girl swimming in a lake. She is a good swimmer and is the first to get to the shore. The boy feels humiliated, and under the false pretexts that there were dangerous currents along the coast, hits the girl. Litost translates in different languages, according to references, as regret, depression, anger, sorrow, denial (in Bulgarian), podavlennosty (Russian), regret, pity (English).

Perceptions of business features related to ethics have been studied by various methods, for example by means of an interview. In their study on effects of national culture on business ethics S. Trobez, M. Vesić, G. Žerovnik, X. Ye, and D. Žužul (Trobez et all 2017: 51-59) displayed following cultural features of communication typical for various countries (Table 5).

Table 5: Business communication features related to ethics


Country Features in business communication related to ethics
Spain Open and sociable people, kindness
Italy Open and ready to help at all times, quite lazy and unambitious, they enjoy in good food and drinks.



Quite closed, strict rules, very respectful to others

England They strive openly for the maximum profit
Germany Precise rules that everyone strictly follows, an innate sense for business ethics (they keep their promises and follow the settled arrangements)

Southeast EU (The Balkans in general)


Relaxed, they keep their promises (but mostly with a remarkable delay). Croats can quickly fool you, whereas Serbs are fair and flexible (if they like you, they are going to do everything for you)

Scandinavian countries Very ethical in business communication, they put a great deal of importance on social values and justice

Eastern EU countries


Aspects of human relations are not very important, people value power and strength




They are still learning – they want to do something, but they still don’t have enough organizational skills

USA The features of a competitive and very individualistic culture, they put a great deal of value in success


Courtesy, thoughtful when expressing themselves, they don’t ask too many questions, they put great importance on respecting the elderly and superiors.

List of these features can be expanded and diversified. Too often we’ve heard attendees in cross-cultural courses say they had been told “Do this or that” for communication and behavior in various countries (Cotton 2013). They had no proper understanding of why they were supposed to do this.

Cultural dimensions and moral grounds as frameworks for cultural specific ethical leadership

Apart from the phenomenological descriptions of cultural specific business behaviour, there are well-established models for analyzing organizational culture and cultural parameters. They are a valuable conceptual framework for comparing cultural norms related to ethics.

Culture is a basic ethical resource for both the individual and the community. The same is true for organizational culture and ethical behavior of employees and managers. For Ravasi and Schultz organizational culture is a set of shared assumptions that guide behaviors (Ravasi et al. 2006). This understanding of organizational culture could be seen as consensual for most researchers. Indeed, a whole avalanche has formed over the last two decades in organizational culture research. I will mention further only some specific approaches in Bulgaria and other Eastern European countries which have a direct relationship with differences in moral leadership. Popular models connected with cross-cultural perspective are those of D. Denison (Denison et al. 2004), S. Harris (Harris 1994), K. Cameron and R. Quinn (Cameron et al. 1999), and G. Hofstede (Hofstede 1991). Professor of Cross-Cultural Awareness and Organizational Behaviour Michael Minkov had proposed a sixth dimension indulgence versus restraint and it was added to the Hofstede model of national culture (Minkov 2013).

Cultural dimensions proposed by G. Hofstede remain a reliable basis for this (Hofstede 2001). In this model have been estimated value preferences. They are a kind of cultural frame for ethical behaviour of people in a given national culture. The Hofstede’s model provides results of current research in a convenient and accessible form for self-training to anyone who is going to start business in a new cultural environment. Here is an example of the cultural parameters of Latvia and Bulgaria. (Table 6)

Table 6: Comparison of the cultural parameters of Bulgaria and Latvia



Cultural parameter Bulgaria Latvia
Power distance 70 40
Individualism 30 70
Masculinity 40 9
Uncertainty avoidance 85 63
Long term orientation 69 69
Indulgence 16 13


A newer and less familiar pattern was proposed by cultural anthropologist and professor of business ethics J. Haidt. He offers the moral grounds construct for explaining the cultural specificity of morality as a basis of which ethical decisions are taken in a community (Haidt et al. 1997: 107-131). Cultural differences grow on moral grounds. All over the world, for example, causing harm to another person is reprehensible. But in cultures there are examples of neglecting pain caused by injury, as well as of gloating and liking of the painful suffering of others. One and the same problem can be seen as moral or „neutral“ in different cultures. For business ethics an illustrative example is the way bribes, tips and corruption are perceived along the axis of gift and gesture – condemnable act and criminal act. Professor J. Haidt formulates moral grounds model, starting from psychological focusing on moral feelings. Emotivism and intuitivism are characteristic of his approach. Moral grounds are moral intuitions like our senses: all people have the same sensory faculty, but different tastes, visual perceptions, senses of sour and sweet. The moral grounds are about:

  • damages, causing pain and concern, which lead to compassion;
  • fairness and reciprocity, through which strangers are bound together, expressed in reciprocal altruism, without which a social connection is impossible;
  • belonging and loyalty, related to the extent and form of trust, as well as readiness to cooperate;
  • authority, respect and stability;
  • purity and sanctity, the thing which is perceived as infinite and transcendental, as well as everything which causes disgust in the community;
  • as with other cultural models, subsequently a new, sixth moral ground is added: the perception and the need for freedom and/or subordination (Haidt 2003).

Cultures can provisionally be divided into strictly moral and more tolerant when they are compared on moral grounds. It is interesting that in cultures which are characterized by greater ethical rigidity, i.e. there is a narrower field of forgiveness, the moralizing position is more widely spread than in cultures with ethical tolerance, where the sphere of the permissible has been extended and is indeterminate. The perimeter within which firm and stringent ethical decisions are expected to be taken is smaller.

The proposed grounds delimit three ethical systems: ethics of autonomy, ethics of community, and ethics of sanctity. In terms of values they favour human rights, solidarity and submissiveness to the sacred respectively. In each of them the moral sphere is delineated by signs of infringement of rights, of loyalty or of someone’s sanctity.

Different moral grounds determine the „natural“ forms of organizational loyalty, extent of devotion of the individual to the community, involvement and others. If authority, respect and stability are high moral grounds for the Arab and most of the Asian cultures, the question arises how do organizations from those cultures support criticism, debate, defense and justification of a proposal – all the practices imposed by the western organizational model? How to achieve the desired adaptation of the employee, what is consensus and agreement, how to discover and manage the talent of young employees, how to improve time management, and as a whole – are the constructs of the western management applicable tools? It must be assumed that the answers to these questions remain culturally specific in the global business environment as well.

Models of the culturally approved ethical leadership

In the specialized literature are described various approaches to conceptualizing cross-cultural leadership in business. P. Earley and S. Ang have examined mainly the level of individual interactions between representatives of different cultures in the negotiation process, dialogue and other modes of organizational communication. They determine the factors through which the culture influences leadership behaviour at this personal and group level. The five factors are: a) individual competencies of the leader, b) team work and its effectiveness, organization, d) overall context and e) the particular situation (Earley and Ang 2003).

At the transnational level the results of the international GLOBE project (an acronym for the English title – Global Leadership and Organizational Behaviour Effectiveness) could be extremely useful (House et al 2004). This is a research „enterprise“, which unites hundreds of scientists and scores of thousands of managers from over 60 countries. The aim of this project is to determine the relationship between cultural values ​​and effective leader‘s behaviour and to determine different cultural patterns of moral leadership. The study of global leadership has made a comprehensive review of surveys with managers around the globe (17 000 respondent managers), and they are grouped into over 20 key parameters of competence. They form groups of leadership competencies and different dimensions of global leadership. The study provides an explanation of the relationship between cultural parameters (e.g. the familiar ones of individualism – collectivism; masculine values ​​- feminine values; power distance, uncertainty avoidance, if we follow G. Hofstede model of value differences) and culturally approved leader‘s qualities. What is of interest too is the invisible special role of the culturally approved implicit theory of leadership among all norms and social practices influencing cultural leadership. (Javidan and Dastmalchian 2009: 41-58). Along with material prosperity in a society, among the factors for the model of leadership is the psychological well-being. It is determined by the levels of satisfaction and happiness in a country.

According to the results of the Global leadership project, there are different dimensions of the perception of culturally approved implicit leadership (Chokar and Brodbeck 2008). These dimensions have been derived from:

  • Charismatic / value-based leadership – characterized by integrity and holism, oriented towards a better performance; the leader is a visionary, inspiring, dedicated and ready for self-sacrifice individual, but he/she can also be „culturally justified“ toxic and autocratic leader.
  • Teamwork – the leader is expected to be a diplomat, and to maintain cooperation and integration. A manager who does not have this ability would be alienated from the people he/she manages, even bitter to them.
  • Degree of self-defense – identification of the leader with his/her roles, forms of egocentricity, and «loss of face».
  • Involvement – manifestations of non-autocratic behaviour of a participant in a joint process of working, in support of those he/she is leading, i.e. the followers.
  • Humane attitude – manifested in humility, compassion and other culturally acceptable altruistic traits or „humanity.“
  • Autonomy – the leader is able to function without constant turning to others for advice and consulting them.

GLOBE Project is used as a cross-cultural examination of the endorsement of ethical leadership. C. Resick, C. J. Hanges, M. Dickson, and J. Mitchelson take data from this project to analyze the degree to which aspects of ethical leadership were endorsed as important for effective leadership across cultures. Four aspects of ethical leadership are constructed – altruism, collective motivation, encouragement, and character/integrity (Resick at all 2006).

Particular issues in international projects: the constructs of hyper norm, moral project, and cultural intelligence

On what moral grounds to stand when acting in another culture, „when Ethics travels“, if we are to use the book title of T. Donaldson and W. Dunfee (Donaldson, Dunfee 1999: 45-63). According to them, there exist hyper norms acting on the macro social level. Hyper norms are a benchmark for adequate behaviour in a different culture. The guidance for appropriate behaviour according hyper norms is to adhere to the following:

  • Check whether a given cultural practice is authentic and legitimate (i.e. widely accepted and in accordance with hyper norms).
  • Follow the legitimate local customs if possible.
  • In a controversial situation give priority to standards and practices derived from the larger group.

Hyper norms are pragmatized in some advices, including – to the leader of multicultural teams and projects. Based on (Smith et al 2008) we can summarize them as follows:

  • Apply ethical standards equally to all markets, units and employees. If a country has a policy to follow certain norms, be ready to review projects on markets with unfavorable ethical climate. Respond politely and with respect, if you have to refuse (bribery proposal, for example). Do not act in a haughty manner or gloatingly when you do not accept unethical proposals: simply explain that the code of ethics of the company forbids such behaviour and that you would like to keep your business relations in the future. Make sure that the managers understand your commitment to ethical standards after such cases.
  • Consider the unique ethical climate in every market in developing your own code. Let compliance with it is a priority for the managers and the board of directors so that they set an example to the others in the organization. Create rules especially in activities with intensive international contacts. Ask the managers to justify their ethical decisions in foreign markets in accordance with this code to ensure that they themselves accept it as something serious.
  • Follow the local customs at your own discretion. Make a decision for each particular case, when you intend to disregard the local traditions because of possible damages. However, adhere strictly to a code of ethics when you make decisions about humanitarian and environmental issues. Use your right to judgement on issues such as bribery or wages of local employees. (For example, you may decide to offer cash gifts to government officials in a country where there is no other reasonable way to enter the market, but not to enter the market if the raw materials are provided by suppliers using illegal labor).
  • Regularly conduct ethical cross-cultural training for the entire company in addition to training programs on ethics for new employees. Use additional special seminars to highlight emerging problem areas, and cite recent examples whenever possible.

Apart from the level of hyper norms, in cross-cultural communication there are critical areas (sensitive zones) in which moral leadership is threatened and there is a need for focused attention and regulation. A source of problems while working on an international project, for example, is planning, important in the perspective of management of diversity in time attitude. The critical importance of this issue we would like to justify with a phrase attributed to B. Franklin: „If you fail to plan, then you plan to fail.“ A specific reason for «discrepancies», even with ultrafast electronic communication, is that, frequently, work on a project starts prior to its authorization and making it formal project.

Ethical problems and the development of good relationships in a multicultural team could be rationalized and improved through the moral project construct introduced by D. Hart. He distinguishes moral work, moral episode, and moral example, which is useful for more precise structuring and management of job relationships (Hart 1994). Such type of moral design is related to leadership as serving and the figure of leader as a servant, not quite a melodious translation of the term servant leadership (Ivanov 2015) in non-English managerial publications. Ethical leadership as serving could adequately be interpreted in the perspective of norms and role behaviour in the ethics of care.

There are special «sensitive areas» of cross-cultural business ethics and ethical leadership. They are not related only to the usual discrepancies between activities, integrity, honesty, perception of fairness, and virtues of people from different cultures. There are subtle behaviours that can compromise the ethical leadership of an international project (team). In one of the first monographs on this problem (Kleim 2012) author highlights the following culturally sensitive areas in work on an international project:

  • Manipulative lack of information or misinforming of the participants about the work;
  • «Soft» (hidden and unprovable) sabotage of the work or different parts of it;
  • Downgrading someone’s contribution, «smearing» of someone’s inclusion in the crowd, because it is difficult and disadvantageous to disclose.

The specific psychological conditions should be taken into account to avoid four additional ethical problems in business communication in an intercultural team:

  • Dissatisfaction that things do not go «by the book», learned, planned work schemes more often do not work the way they should;
  • Additional pressure and organizational stress from the expectation to be a successful team player;
  • Internal conflicts caused by the desire to agree with the other in order to solve disagreements and conflicts in the bud;
  • The need to maintain good relations with various stakeholders (participants): partners and managers, subordinates and competitors, young and old, women and men.

International projects and teams are increasingly based on successful transfer of experience from already established effective cross-cultural partnerships. For the leader in such project it is imperative to possess a set of special features. It is most accurately expressed with the term cultural intelligence. The concept proposed in the Harvard Business School (Ang and Dyn 2008), for ten years has been transformed into different models and set up a standard of behaviour of modern moral leader. One of the advantages of cultural intelligence construct is that it avoids the reduction of culture to nationality in business communication. When they communicate, people from different cultures often unintentionally replace interculturalism with internationality, forgetting the multiple cultural belonging of each individual.

Various measures of cultural intelligence, already measured with a cultural quotient (CQ), have been proposed. On the basis of studies (Livermore 2015: 25-42) and with the aim of applying this in the Bulgarian and European context the following structure of cultural competence suitable for rendering concrete for education, corporate training and individual development:

  • СD (cultural drive) – enthusiasm, interest in the possibility of being effective in an environment with different cultures; ability to derive pleasure from communicating with other culture, to gain useful experience of diversity and develop one‘s one efficiency and extend the radius of trust to things that are foreign;
  • CK (cultural knowledge) – knowledge of the similarities and differences between cultures, what is new in the economic and legal systems of the countries including the condition for the so-called compliance ethics (compliance with the regulations) as well as knowledge of the religious beliefs, sociolinguistic rules of verbal and non-verbal expression, relevant information about the regional demographic picture;
  • CS (cultural strategy) – personal ability to extract meaning from cross-cultural experience through assessment and re-evaluation of one’s one mental schemes and those of others, which implies: a degree of awareness of one’s own and team members’ cultural knowledge; planning – of behavioral strategies for that particular culturally heterogeneous communicative situation; checking – rationalization of the match and mismatch between preconceived ideas and what actually happened in order to change behavior.
  • CA (cultural action) – the ability to adapt, „on the move“, verbal and non-verbal behaviour, in order for it to be adapted to the situational context, the inclusion of an active repertoire of flexible reactions, habits to modify behavior (gestures, facial expressions, emphasis, tone, speed, pauses, etc.).

Cultural intelligence is not only about knowing the cross-cultural etiquette, as it is often perceived. Leadership, in a culturally intelligent and ethically competent way, sets great store by specific ethical norms of teamwork in a cross-cultural environment:

  • openness (or sincerity, unconditional acceptance of the other person);
  • unbiased response (in communication in the specific cross-cultural organizational environment);
  • initiative (proactive reactions are appropriate for groups);
  • benevolence (or goodwill needed more than usual, placed on the footing of the strengths of each participant)
  • support (personal and procedural, as well as prospective and unfolding caring on).

Cultural intelligence could be thought of as a „third dimension of moral leadership„, alongside moral character and moral manager which have been propounded in theories of social learning. Further precision and empirical confirmation of this idea is yet to be made. Intensive cross-cultural communication allows for this intellectual challenge and it can be „trained“ first in the field of educational practice.

Conclusion: guidelines for improving ethical leadership training

Ethical leadership in a cross-cultural perspective was considered in this text. The main conclusion is that cross-cultural and ethical competence today coincide to a great extent – they are needed in the conflict zones of intercultural interaction, in having a dialogue and making deals, in building networks and virtual partnerships, in balancing group interests and achieving acceptable standards in competition and cooperation. Cross-cultural competence is considered to be an aspect and manifestation of the emotional and social intelligence – a perspective imposed after the 90s in the theory and practice of business communication, as well as a mandatory component of businessman ethical competence (Berghofer 2016).

Second, by grounding leadership in social learning theories we stress that ethical leadership is a model of behavior which can be learned. Particular contextual factors have been identified that explain the cultural differences in understanding what it is likely to be a moral leader in business. Job context in direct and broader sense is important for understanding cultural features of moral leadership. Therefore, methods of case study, personal tasks, role plays, and biographical approach and examples should be widely applied in cross-cultural business ethics.

Third, this cross-cultural study of leadership confirmed the role of personal qualities of the leader, although culturally framed and rearranged. The cultured model of ethical leadership is always individualized by self-reflection on manager’s own moral character. In academic context, apart from interactive practice in training, a factor for ethical leadership can be highlighted. It is the considerable role of academic ethical culture and leadership examples of academics, university administrators, and lecturers. During their four or five years of study students (although they may not attend regularly or be alienated) absorb the behavioral pattern of a significant other. Special studies show (Heyneman 2011: 8-10; Evans et all. 2013: 674–689) the role of ethical culture of those leading institutions, and the special leadership qualities of their teachers as important role model for future career. Professors are (or are not) a suitable example for ethical leadership and this is not to be neglected even in the digital communication environment. Specific sociological research of academic leadership as a factor for the future managers’ leadership’s style is yet to be done based on the proposed conceptual analyses.

Here, as usual, the first rule to follow for improving ethical behavior is „you yourself become ethical“ – a condition sine qua non in education and training of moral leadership.


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