Ethics

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 Read and summarize the attached article in 750-1000 words. Use APA style for all assignments. 

The Role of Servant Leadership in Developing an Ethical
Climate in Sport Organizations

Laura J. Burton
University of Connecticut

Jon Welty Peachey
University of Illinois

Janelle E. Wells
University of South Florida

Evaluation of leadership as a necessary component to reform sport could be critical to fostering a more ethical
climate and reducing the frequency and severity of ethical improprieties within this context. However, limited
research has examined the relationship between leadership and ethical climate. Servant leadership, due to its
ethical component and people-centered focus, is a leadership approach that may best support development of
an ethical climate. The purpose of this study was to explore the influence of servant leadership on perceptions
of an ethical climate in intercollegiate athletic departments, with an examination of how trust and perceptions
of organizational justice indirectly influence the relationship between servant leadership and perceptions of an
ethical climate. Findings indicated that servant leadership was directly related to trust in leadership and
perceptions of an ethical climate. Further, both trust in the leader and procedural justice indirectly influenced
the relationship between servant leadership and ethical climate.

Keywords: ethics, intercollegiate athletics, leadership, trust

The sport landscape has been plagued with ethical
improprieties and scandals in recent years. There are
recent examples in U.S. intercollegiate sport (e.g., Penn
State/Jerry Sandusky child sexual abuse scandal,
academic scandals) and U.S. professional sport (e.g.,
National Football League alleged minimization of the
links between concussions and long-term brain injury),
and ethical scandals have also plagued international
sport at the highest level of sport leadership (e.g.,
Federation International de Football Association
bribery scandals, International Association of Athletics
doping scandals). Organizational climates that foster
unethical behavior among leaders, administrators, and
coaches seem to be more the norm than the exception in
sport organizations. In light of these recent ethical
scandals and many others, educators, scholars, and

officials both within and outside of sport management
have called for reform of sport organizations and
those that lead them (Lapchick, 2013; Lopiano &
Gurney, 2014). In essence, scholars are beginning to
call attention to the need for evaluation of leadership as a
necessary component for reform in sport organizations
and in intercollegiate athletics in particular (Burton &
Welty Peachey, 2013; DeSensi, 2014; Sagas & Wigley,
2014). More specifically, leadership is considered criti-
cal to fostering a more ethical climate within sport
organizations (Welty Peachey, Damon, Zhou, &
Burton, 2015).

Current leadership research is moving away from
the more traditional studies of transformational and
transactional leadership toward a stronger emphasis on
a shared and relational perspective, with a focus on the
interaction between a leader and a follower (see Wang,
Waldman, & Zhang, 2014). In addition, work by Welty
Peachey and colleagues (2015) has highlighted the need
to examine different types of leadership within the
context of sport organizations, beyond transformational
and transactional. Servant leadership has gained appeal
as a result of the myriad positive outcomes associated
with this style of leadership, most importantly the unique

Laura J. Burton is with the Department of Educational Leadership,
University of Connecticut, Storrs, CT. Jon Welty Peachey is with the
Department of Recreation, Sport and Tourism, University of Illinois,
Champaign, IL. Janelle E. Well is with the Department of Sport and
Entertainment Management, University of South Florida, Tampa, FL.
Address author correspondence to Laura J. Burton at [email protected]
uconn.edu.

229

Journal of Sport Management, 2017, 31, 229-240
https://doi.org/10.1123/jsm.2016-0047
© 2017 Human Kinetics, Inc. ARTICLE

focus on other-centered service (Neubert, Hunter, &
Tolentino, 2016). Servant leadership is different than
other approaches to leadership as it explicitly empha-
sizes the needs of followers, and also because this
approach emphasizes the ideal of service in the relation-
ship between leader and follower (van Dierendonck,
2011). Servant leaders focus on follower care and de-
velopment (van Dierendonck, 2011) and place the inter-
ests, needs, and aspirations of others before their own
(Greenleaf, 1977). Barbuto, Gottfredson, and Searle
(2014) define servant leadership as an “altruistic-based
form of leadership in which leaders emphasize the
needs and development of others, primarily their
followers” (p. 2).

Servant leadership is an alternative approach to
leadership, one without a primary focus on organiza-
tional outcomes. Organizational outcomes are still
important, but the emphasis is on developing and
empowering followers, and through this development,
organizational outcomes will be realized (Stone,
Russell, & Patterson, 2004; van Dierendonck, Stam,
Boersma, de Windt, & Alkema, 2014). Scholars have
advanced that this type of leadership should be explored
in sport organizations, including intercollegiate sport,
due to its ethical component and people-centered ap-
proach (Burton & Welty Peachey, 2013; DeSensi,
2014). In fact, ethics is at the core of servant leadership,
with its emphasis on integrity and trustworthiness (van
Dierendonck, 2011). Further, within sport organiza-
tions, developing an ethical climate, defined as employ-
ees’ shared perceptions of the ethical practices and
procedures of the organization (Victor & Cullen,
1988), is needed (Burton & Welty Peachey, 2013).
Limited scholarship, however, has examined the rela-
tionship between leadership and ethical climate in sport
organizations, which as noted earlier are in need of
reform.

There is also a developing body of research exam-
ining organizational outcomes associated with servant
leadership that have an ethical component to them,
all of which constitutes the ethical climate of an organi-
zation. For instance, servant leadership fosters trust in
the leader and the organization (Joseph & Winston,
2005; Sendjaya & Pekerti, 2010). In addition, organiza-
tions led by a servant leader are positively associated
with procedural organizational justice (Chung, Jung,
Kyle, & Petrick, 2010; Ehrhart, 2004; Walumbwa,
Hartnell, & Oke, 2010). Servant leadership could
thus be vital in establishing an ethical climate in sport
organizations, with trust and procedural justice as
factors indirectly influencing the ability of servant lea-
ders to do so. Therefore, the purpose of our study was to
explore the influence of servant leadership on percep-
tions of an ethical climate in one type of sport organiza-
tion, intercollegiate athletic departments, with an
examination of how trust and perceptions of organiza-
tional justice indirectly influence the relationship be-
tween servant leadership and perceptions of an ethical
climate.

Theoretical Framework and
Hypotheses

In this section, we detail servant leadership, highlight
research linking servant leadership in support of ethical
organizations and outcomes, frame the concept of ethical
climate, and propose potential factors (i.e., trust and
organizational justice) through which servant leadership
may operate in order to develop an ethical climate in
intercollegiate athletic departments. We also advance
several hypotheses.

Servant Leadership

The increasing number of sport management scholars
who have focused on leadership over the past decade has
highlighted the importance of this topic in sport (see
Welty Peachey et al., 2015). Leaders can shape the
norms and values of an organization and can therefore
create ethical norms that are able to guide the moral or
immoral behavior of the individuals or groups of in-
dividuals that they lead (Mayer, Kuenzi, Greenbaum,
Bardes, & Salvador, 2009; Schaubroeck et al., 2012).
Since its introduction by Greenleaf (1977), servant
leadership has re-emerged over the past 15 years of
leadership research as a theory of leadership that follows
an ethical or moral basis (Dinh et al., 2014). Work
conducted by Barbuto and Wheeler (2006) to develop
a conceptual framework for servant leadership supported
development of five constructs. First, servant leaders
have a desire to make a positive difference in the lives of
their followers and are therefore driven by an altruistic
calling. Servant leaders also practice emotional healing
by making a commitment to followers and demonstrat-
ing skill in fostering spiritual recovery in support of
followers suffering from hardship. Further, servant lea-
ders demonstrate wisdom as they are aware of surround-
ings and anticipate consequences, which allows them to
note cues from the environment and understand the
implications of these cues on their followers. By using
persuasive mapping, servant leaders have the ability to
use sound reasoning and mental frameworks to create
shared and compelling reasons for action. Finally, ser-
vant leaders demonstrate organizational stewardship as
they aspire for their organizations to make positive
contributions to society through community develop-
ment, programs, and outreach and by utilizing ethical
business practices (Barbuto & Wheeler, 2006).

van Dierendonck (2011) and colleagues (van
Dierendonck & Nuijten, 2011; van Dierendonck &
Patterson, 2015) have worked to more fully develop
and clarify the conceptual framework of servant leader-
ship. Through this work, six areas of servant leadership
were conceptualized, which include empowerment,
stewardship, authenticity, providing direction, humility,
and interpersonal acceptance.

Empowerment: Servant leaders foster an empowering
attitude in followers that in turn generates follower self-
confidence and provides followers with a sense of personal

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power. This type of leadership behavior encourages infor-
mation sharing with followers as well as self-directed
decision making, and it provides support and coaching
for innovative performance. Servant leaders fundamentally
believe in the intrinsic value possessed by each follower,
recognizing and acknowledging each person’s abilities and
what the person can learn (Greenleaf, 1998).

Stewardship: Servant leaders act as stewards as they
are willing to take responsibility for the entire organiza-
tion and put the interests of followers and the organiza-
tion over and above their own self-interests. Servant
leaders also act as role models and care takers, setting an
example for followers and inspiring others to act in the
common interests of all. The characteristics of steward-
ship are closely linked to the concepts of teamwork,
social responsibility, and loyalty.

Authenticity: Servant leaders demonstrate authentici-
ty, being true to oneself, both in public and in private.
Authenticity is about expressing oneself in ways that are
consistent with inner feelings and thoughts. A servant
leader’s authenticity is demonstrated by doing what is
promised, being visible within the organization, and lead-
ing with honesty (Russell & Gregory Stone, 2002) and
vulnerability (Luthans & Avolio, 2003). As noted by van
Dierendonck (2011), authenticity within the context of an
organization indicates a leader behaves in such a way that
the professional role of the leader remains secondary to the
primary role of the individual as a person.

Providing direction: Servant leaders provide direc-
tion by clearly demonstrating to followers what is ex-
pected of them. Within the context of servant leadership,
leaders provide an appropriate amount of accountability
for followers. Also, leaders customize directions based
on followers’ abilities, needs, and input. This type of
leading allows for new ways of getting things accom-
plished and creates alternative ways to meet old
problems, with consistent reliance on values and con-
victions when accomplishing tasks.

Humility: Servant leaders put their own accomplish-
ments and talents in perspective. Further, servant leaders
acknowledge that they can benefit from the expertise of
others and therefore actively seek out contributions of
followers. By demonstrating humility, a servant leader
puts followers’ interests first, provides followers with
support, and facilitates their followers’ performance. A
servant leader also demonstrates humility by retreating
into the background and not taking sole credit when a
task has been successfully accomplished.

Interpersonal acceptance: Servant leaders are able
to create an environment in which followers feel safe.
This includes creating a trusting relationship, so that
followers are able to make mistakes and still feel they
will be accepted. Servant leaders take and understand
another person’s perspective and are able to “walk in
another’s shoes.” They demonstrate compassion and
show empathy and forgiveness even when confronted
with arguments, personal offences, or mistakes.

Within the sport context, servant leadership re-
search has only recently drawn attention as scholars

have been primarily focused on transformational lead-
ership and the influence of those leadership behaviors on
organizational outcomes (Welty Peachey et al., 2015).
However, given that transformational leaders’ primary
allegiance is to their organizations, transformational
leaders view the personal growth of followers within
the context of what is best for their organizations
(Graham, 1991). Within transformational leadership,
there is the risk of manipulation of followers in order
to achieve organizational goals or to meet the leader’s
personal goals (van Dierendonck, 2011). In contrast, the
moral grounding of servant leadership, one that is not
included in understandings of transformational leader-
ship (Sendjaya, Sarros, & Santora, 2008) could help to
foster an ethical climate within intercollegiate athletic
departments and sport organizations more generally
(Burton & Welty Peachey, 2013).

Further, as transformational leadership highlights
only objectives of the organization as the primary motive
for leading, with an emphasis on “getting followers to
engage in and support organizational objectives” (Stone
et al., 2004, p. 354), this type of leadership is not ideal for
developing an ethical climate. With a focus only on
organizational outcomes, leaders can and do lose sight of
the needs of those they are leading. In addition, the
values held by transformational leaders influence wheth-
er they are moral or immoral leaders (Bass, 1985), and a
transformational leader can act in violation of ethical
norms by focusing on overriding individual interests to
fulfill organizational objectives (Parolini, Patterson, &
Winston, 2009; Stephens, D’Intino, & Victor, 1995).
When there is only a focus on organizational objectives,
decisions can be perceived to be in the best interest of the
organization but fail those individuals within the orga-
nization or those that it serves, including student athletes
within the intercollegiate sport context (Burton & Welty
Peachey, 2013).

Servant leaders’ values (e.g., acting ethically), in-
tentions (e.g., sacrificing for others), and behaviors
(e.g., support for followers) generate followers’ respect
and loyalty (Liden, Wayne, Zhao, & Henderson, 2008;
Neubert, Kacmar, Carlson, Chonko, & Roberts, 2008;
Sendjaya et al., 2008; van Dierendonck, 2011;
Walumbwa et al., 2010). This influence is unique in the
relationship between servant leaders and followers when
compared with other leader–follower relationships as a
result of the “attention, support, and care given by the
leader to encourage followers to view themselves ac-
cording to the tight-knit relationship they have with their
leaders” (Yoshida, Sendjaya, Hirst, & Cooper, 2014,
p. 1396). Thus, such morally grounded relationships
could help foster an ethical climate within sport orga-
nizations, including intercollegiate athletic departments
(Burton & Welty Peachey, 2013).

Ethical Climate

Scholars have advanced that ethical climate is a type
of organizational climate that captures employees’

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perceptions of the ethical policies, practices, and proce-
dures of the organization (Martin & Cullen, 2006).
Previous scholarship has demonstrated that an organiza-
tion’s ethical climate is associated with organizational
values and ethical behavior of its employees (Brown,
Treviño, & Harrison, 2005; Deshpande & Joseph, 2009).
In addition, prior research has found that an organiza-
tion’s ethical climate is related to a number of other
organizational outcomes, such as organizational com-
mitment (Tsai & Huang, 2008), voluntary turnover
intentions (Mulki, Jaramillo, & Locander, 2008), and
job satisfaction (Elçi & Alpkan, 2009).

Leadership behavior can be a critical determinant in
establishing an ethical climate within organizations
(Mulki et al., 2008). Leaders establish an ethical climate
by setting clear standards for employees and holding
them accountable to those standards (Mulki et al., 2008).
Further, and importantly, an ethical climate within an
organization can serve to mediate the relationship be-
tween leadership behavior and positive ethical organi-
zational outcomes (Eisenbeiss, van Knippenberg, &
Fahrbach, 2015). Ethical leaders are characterized as
“honest, caring, and principled individuals who make
fair and balanced decisions” (Brown & Treviño, 2006,
p. 597). In providing more detail, Treviño, Brown, and
Pincus Hartman (2003) described ethical leaders along
two dimensions—moral person and moral manager. The
moral person component of ethical leadership represents
an individual who demonstrates concern for others and is
approachable, which maintains strong similarity to the
description of a servant leader. The followers of ethical
leaders “can come to these individuals with problems
and concerns, knowing that they will be heard” (Brown
& Mitchell, 2010, p. 584). Further, the stewardship
demonstrated by servant leaders also matches the
concept of being a moral manager, “patterning their
behavior and organizational processes to meet moral
standards” (p. 584).

By acting ethically, servant leaders can establish an
organizational climate where acting the right way and
doing the right thing are valued, encouraged, and ex-
pected (Brown et al., 2005). Researchers are beginning
to examine how servant leadership is linked to ethical
leadership and how servant leaders can develop and
support ethical organizational climates. Within the con-
text of professional sales organizations, leaders demon-
strating servant leadership contributed to the creation
of an ethical work climate that fostered an environ-
ment of individual ethical selling behaviors by their
employees (Jaramillo, Bande, & Varela, 2015). In addi-
tion, Schwepker and Schultz (2015) found that servant
leadership improves employee performance, as medi-
ated through ethical climate. Finally, servant leadership
may be the most appropriate form of leadership to
facilitate the development of an ethical climate in
intercollegiate athletics due to its moral grounding and
emphasis on employee (follower) well-being (Burton &
Welty Peachey, 2013). Therefore, we hypothesize the
following:

H1: Servant leadership behavior as demonstrated by
the athletic director will be positively related to
followers’ (athletic department personnel) percep-
tions of an ethical climate in intercollegiate athletic
departments.

Trust in Leaders

Perceptions of servant leadership are positively correlat-
ed to leadership trust (Joseph & Winston, 2005). Addi-
tionally, a conceptual framework for servant leadership
has indicated that trust in the leader indirectly impacts
the relationship between servant leadership and organi-
zational outcomes (van Dierendonck, 2011). Trust de-
veloped by servant leaders had an indirect impact on the
relationship between leadership and development of
organizational commitment (Goh & Zhen-Jie, 2014),
and trust created by a servant leader facilitated an open
climate, built a helping culture, and was associated
with organizational citizenship behaviors (Ebener &
O’Connell, 2010; Hu & Liden, 2011). At the group
level, trust developed by servant leaders has demonstrat-
ed a positive influence on a work team’s support for
workplace innovation, regardless of the individual’s
level of support for innovation (Panaccio, Henderson,
Liden, Wayne, & Cao, 2014). This finding is noteworthy
and worth exploring in the context of sport organiza-
tions, as all employees may not agree on the necessity of
an ethical climate in their organizations (see the ethical
scandals detailed in the introduction). However, sport
leaders using servant leadership behaviors in support of
an ethical climate may have an influence on the beliefs of
their employees as a result of the trust in the leader.

As such, we posit the following:

H2a: Servant leadership as demonstrated by the
athletic director will be positively related to fol-
lowers’ (athletic department personnel) level of trust
in the athletic director.

H2b: Followers’ (athletic department personnel) lev-
el of trust in an athletic director will have an indirect
and positive influence on the relationship between
servant leadership as demonstrated by the athletic
director and perceptions of an ethical climate.

Servant Leadership and Organizational
Justice

There has been no research to date examining how the
decision-making process within sport organizations is
influenced by servant leadership behaviors and on how
the decision-making process impacts the ethical climate
in sport organizations. Scholars examining the decision-
making processes of organizations often focus on per-
ceptions of organizational justice (Mahony, Hums,
Andrew, & Dittmore, 2010). Organizational justice is
defined “as the fairness of the procedures used by leaders
to determine outcome distributions or allocations, and
the fairness of outcome distributions or allocations”

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(Kool & van Dierendonck, 2012, p. 424). The construct
of organizational justice (Colquitt, 2001) includes four
factors: distributive justice with a focus on the fairness of
the distribution of resources; procedural justice that
focuses on the fairness of the procedures used to distrib-
ute resources; and interaction justice, which includes two
factors—interpersonal justice and informational justice—
and focuses on “how decisions are enacted by authority
figures” (Colquitt, Greenberg, & Greenberg, 2003,
p. 166). The behaviors of servant leaders attend to the
needs of followers and provide a sense of interpersonal
sensitivity to followers, which supports followers’ sense
of justice (Mayer, Bardes, & Piccolo, 2008).

Within the context of intercollegiate athletics, scho-
lars have examined perceptions of organizational justice
in the context of administrations’ resource allocations,
coach satisfaction, and athlete perceptions of coaches
(Jordan, Turner, Fink, & Pastore, 2007; Kim & Andrew,
2013; Mahony, Hums, & Riemer, 2002). However, there
is a dearth of research regarding how leadership beha-
viors in sport organizations (and in intercollegiate ath-
letics specifically) are understood within the context of
fairness and justice procedures. Further, there is no
research that has examined how leaders in sport orga-
nizations who demonstrate servant leadership utilize
processes of organizational justice to support an ethical
climate.

In the general leadership literature, servant leader-
ship is positively linked to both components of interac-
tional justice as servant leaders enhance employees’
empowerment by supporting more honest explanations
of decisions and respecting employees’ contributions
to the organization (Kool & van Dierendonck, 2012). As
a component of interactional justice, informational jus-
tice addresses the fairness of procedures and the honest
explanation of decisions (Colquitt, Conlon, Wesson,
Porter, & Ng, 2001). In addition, the second component
of interactional justice—interpersonal justice—
addresses whether leaders treat followers with respect
and dignity.

Further, servant leadership is positively linked to
procedural justice in organizations, as this aspect of
organizational justice is focused on the extent to which
organizational processes and procedures are perceived as
fair and consistent with adequate input from followers
(Chung et al., 2010; Ehrhart, 2004). As noted by
Walumbwa and colleagues (2010), servant leaders are
best suited to positively influence procedural justice as
“they maintain consistently high ethical standards across
group members and seek input from and attempt to reach
consensus among employees on important decisions”
(p. 520). Further, procedural justice also contributes to
development of an ethical climate (Luria & Yagil, 2008).
If employees believe that decision-making processes are
fair and that various procedures in the sport organization
have integrity, are applied equally to all employees, and
are perceived as fair, then it stands to reason that
procedural justice should lead to an ethical climate and
improved ethical behavior on the part of employees.

Thus, procedural justice is a mechanism through which
servant leaders, who are adept at enhancing perceptions
of procedural justice, influence the ethical climate in the
organization. Given findings demonstrating that the
influence of servant leadership on fostering interactional
justice and procedural justice is critical to establishing an
ethical climate as described previously, we focused on
those aspects of organizational justice in the current
study. Further, due to a lack of empirical evidence
supporting the link between servant leadership and
distributive justice, distributive justice was omitted as
a variable of interest in our study.

Therefore, we propose the following hypotheses:

H3a: Servant leadership as demonstrated by the
athletic director will positively influence percep-
tions of procedural, interpersonal, and informational
justice by followers (athletic department personnel).

H3b: Procedural justice as perceived by followers
(athletic department personnel) will have a positive
indirect effect on the relationship between servant
leadership and perceptions of an ethical climate.

Method

Participants

A random selection of 285 athletic department personnel
from 151 National Collegiate Athletic Association
Division I athletic departments was contacted via e-mail
notification to complete an online survey. A total of 168
(N = 168) participants completed the survey for a re-
sponse rate of 59%. Of the 151 departments, there were
12 that included more than one participant in our sample.
Ninety-eight women and 67 men participated (three
participants did not indicate sex on the survey) and
represented the following positions: associate athletic
director (65), assistant athletic director (30), director
(19), assistant director (17), staff (32), graduate assistant
(3), and two participants who did not list a position. The
majority of the sample had between 1 and 10 years
(74%) of experience working in athletic administration,
with 40% having between 1 and 5 years of experience.

Measures

All scales were measured using a 5-point Likert-type
scale with responses ranging from 1 (strongly disagree)
to 5 (strongly agree). Servant leadership was measured
using van Dierendonck and Nuijten’s (2011) 30-item
servant leadership scale. After conducting a confirmato-
ry factor analysis (CFA), 21 items measured servant
leadership (α = .93). Ethical climate (13 items, α = .87)
was measured based on the scale developed by Cullen,
Victor, and Bronson (1993). Trust (7 items, α = .92) in
the athletic director was measured based on items devel-
oped by Robinson (1996). Finally, organizational justice
was measured based on the scale developed by Colquitt
(2001), which included 16 total items. Seven items

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measured procedural justice (α = .91), four items mea-
sured interpersonal justice (α = .91), and five items
measured informational justice (α = .90).

Procedures

Participants received an e-mail invitation explaining the
purpose of the study and requesting their participation in
the anonymous online survey. Two days following the
e-mail invitation, participants were sent another e-mail
explaining the purpose of the study and a link to the
online survey. Two weeks following the initial e-mail
invitation, a follow-up reminder e-mail was sent to
encourage responses.

Data Analysis

The efficiency of the self-completion questionnaire
properties, CFA, and proposed hypotheses were tested
using SPSS 22.0 and Mplus 7.31. Prior to analyzing the
data, inter-rater agreement was investigated. Data pro-
viding evidence indicating independence (e.g., rWG
values <.70) were the data represented in the sample of
168 participants and were the data used in the analyses
(see LeBreton & Senter, 2008). To examine the direct
and indirect hypothesized relationships, the Hayes
(2012) PROCESS mediation modeling macro for SPSS
was utilized. Analyses of total effect, direct effect, boot-
strapped bias-corrected 95% confidence intervals of the
indirect effect, and 5,000 bootstrapped samples were
evaluated. In the Hayes (2012) PROCESS macro analy-
sis, continuous predictors were mean-centered.

Results

Sample descriptive statistics and correlations are provid-
ed in Table 1. To evaluate the measurement model and
provide evidence of reliability and validity, a CFA was
performed (see Table 2). Some of the related yet distinct
servant leadership factors fell below the .50 cutoff and
could not be discriminated from one another (Kline,

2005), resulting in nine items of van Dierendonck and
Nuijten’s (2011) 30-item servant leadership scale being
removed. The remaining servant leadership item load-
ings ranged from .54 to .91, and the construct reliabilities
and average variance extracted values met or exceeded
the standard recommendations of .70 and .50 (Hair,
Black, Babin, Anderson, & Tatham, 2006; see Table 2).
Item loadings for the other variables ranged from .66
to .85 for procedural justice, .66 to .94 for interactional
justice, .71 to .91 for informational justice, .69 to .77 for
ethical climate, and .59 to .80 for trust.

The measurement model had reasonable fit (Kline,
2005) as indicated by values of χ²/df ratio (1.59 =
1557.57/979), comparative fit index (.91), Tucker–Lewis
index (.90), root mean square error of approximation
(.06), and standardized root mean square residual (.06).

Servant leadership behavior as demonstrated by an
athletic director was positively associated with percep-
tions of formation of an ethical climate in intercollegiate
athletic departments, in support of Hypothesis 1 (β =
0.62, p = .001). A positive relationship between servant
leadership as demonstrated by the athletic director and
trust in the leader was found (β = 0.84, p = .001), sup-
porting Hypothesis 2a. Additionally, trust was found to
have an indirect effect on the relationship between

Table 1 Means, Standard Deviations, and
Correlations Among Variables

Variables M SD 1 2 3 4 5 6

1. Servant leadership 3.60 .63 –

2. Ethical climate 3.54 .56 .62* –
3. Trust 3.79 .89 .80* .66* –

4. Procedural justice 3.42 .74 .76* .58* .73* –
5. Interpersonal

justice
4.11 .79 .67* .50* .76* .58* –

6. Informational
justice

3.62 .82 .79* .60* .79* .73* .71* –

Note. N = 168.

*p < .05.

Table 2 Servant Leadership Factor Loading,
Construct Reliability, and Average Variance
Extracted

Construct Item Factor Loading CR AVE

Accountability 6 .81 .85 .65

14 .83

22 .78

Standing back 12 .61 .87 .57

13 .91

20 .64

5 .80

21 .77

Courage 8 .54 .71 .56

16 .91

Authenticity 24 .59 .70 .59

17 .86

Empowerment 1 .71 .93 .59

2 .79

3 .82

4 .73

27 .75

19 .72

18 .75

29 .83

30 .83

Note. Standardized values. AVE = average variance extracted; CR =
construct reliability.

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servant leadership as demonstrated by the athletic direc-
tor and perceptions of an ethical climate. As such,
Hypothesis 2b was supported. A bias-corrected boot-
strap confidence interval for the indirect effect (b = 0.36)
of trust was entirely above zero (.200 to .561; see
Table 3).

Perceptions of procedural justice (β = 0.76,
p = .001), interpersonal justice (β = 0.68, p = .001), and
informational justice (β = 0.85, p = .001) by athletic de-
partment personnel were positively related to servant
leadership behaviors as demonstrated by athletic direc-
tors, providing support for Hypothesis 3a. Further,
procedural justice as perceived by athletic department
personnel was found to indirectly affect the relationship
between servant leadership and perceptions of an ethical
climate, supporting Hypothesis 3b. A bias-corrected
bootstrap confidence interval for the indirect effect
(b = 0.17) of procedural justice was entirely above zero
(.032–.260; see Table 3).

Discussion

This study provides important contributions to under-
standing how leaders can support an ethical climate in
sport organizations. First, our findings indicate that
servant leadership has a direct influence on fostering
trust for employees in sport organizations and that
through trust, servant leaders help support perceptions
of an ethical climate in that organization. Second, ser-
vant leaders act to support an ethical climate through the
mechanisms of procedural justice. These findings

contribute to leadership research in the sport context by
beginning to examine the processes of how leadership
can affect various organizational outcomes. In their
review of 40 years of leadership research in sport
management, Welty Peachey et al. (2015) highlighted
that most leadership research in sport management has
focused on the direct effect of leadership on various
organizational outcomes and has not examined in any
great depth the processes of leadership, including
the underlying mechanisms (e.g., organizational proce-
dures) and/or follower attributes and behaviors by which
leadership influences organizational outcomes. The
present study adds to the theoretical understanding of
leadership in sport by beginning to examine and unpack
this “black box.”

Findings of the present study support that servant
leadership behaviors as demonstrated by an athletic
director do lead to perceptions of an ethical climate by
athletic department personnel. This initial finding aligns
with emerging work that recognizes the unique attri-
butes of servant leadership as a style of leadership that
can foster an ethical work climate (Jaramillo et al.,
2015) and supports the proposition advanced by Burton
and Welty Peachey (2013) that servant leadership can
foster an ethical climate in intercollegiate sport and, we
would argue, in the broader sport context as well. By
demonstrating servant leadership behaviors, including
acting as a steward for their organizations and both
empowering employees and holding them accountable
for their actions (van Dierendonck, 2011), leaders of
sport organizations can increase the perceptions of an
ethical climate in their organizations. We do not suggest
that unethical behavior will not take place under the
watch of a servant leader, only that servant leadership
may help to mitigate this behavior through establishing
an ethical climate. In addition, we do not suggest that
servant leadership is the only leadership style that will
evince an ethical climate or other positive organization-
al outcomes, as there are characteristics of servant
leadership (e.g., authenticity and empowerment) that
are attributable to transformational and authentic lead-
ership as well.

Fostering an ethical climate in sport organizations
is critical as organizations that support such a climate
are negatively associated with employees making un-
ethical choices (Kish-Gephart, Harrison, & Trevino,
2010). Further, given that an organization’s ethical
climate has been found to be associated with ethical
values and behaviors of employees (Deshpande &
Joseph, 2009; Winbush & Shepard, 1994; Winbush,
Shepard, & Markham, 1997), it stands to reason that a
leader of a sport organization demonstrating servant
leadership can develop an ethical climate to help
mitigate ethical improprieties, issues, and scandals
that arise within their organizations. Our findings
support emerging research that finds a positive influ-
ence of servant leadership on formation of an ethical
climate and introduces the possibility that ethical
climates, as supported by servant leaders, can enhance

Table 3 Results for Mediation Hypotheses
2b and 3b

Path/Effect β SE

95%
Confidence
Interval

Model 1

c (Servant lead → Ethical
climate)

0.20* .10

a (Servant lead → trust) 1.20* .06

b (Trust → Ethical climate) 0.30* .07

c′ 0.56* .05

a × b (Mediation effect) 0.36* .09 .200, .561

Model 2

c (Servant lead → Ethical
climate)

0.40* .08

a (Servant lead → ProJustice) 0.91* .06

b (ProJustice → Ethical
climate)

0.18* .07

c′ 0.56* .06

a × b (Mediation effect) 0.17* .07 .036, .323

Note. Unstandardized coefficients. ProJustice = procedural justice.

*p < .001.

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ethical behavior carried out by personnel in sport
organizations (Jaramillo et al., 2015; Schwepker &
Schultz, 2015).

In an effort to better understand how servant
leadership influences perceptions of an ethical climate,
trust and organizational justice were examined. First,
with regards to the role of trust in the relationship
between servant leadership and perceptions of an
ethical climate, it was found that there was a positive
relationship between servant leadership as demon-
strated by an athletic director and trust in the athletic
director, and that trust indirectly influenced the rela-
tionship between servant leadership and ethical
climate. This finding supports previous work demon-
strating a positive relationship between servant lead-
ership behaviors and the development of trust in the
leader (Joseph & Winston, 2005). Trust in organiza-
tional leadership is important in many aspects of
employee and organizational outcomes. The ability
of servant leaders in the sport context to foster em-
ployee trust in leadership could lead to higher levels of
organizational commitment (Goh & Zhen-Jie, 2014),
aid in building a helping culture, and facilitate orga-
nizational citizenship behaviors among employees
(Ebener & O’Connell, 2010; Hu & Liden, 2011). Trust
is critical in fostering an ethical climate (Mulki et al.,
2008), and as the present study findings indicate,
servant leaders establish trust, which then leads to
support for an ethical climate. When considering the
processes that facilitate ethical climates in sport orga-
nizations, our findings note that servant leaders,
through their actions as leaders, both establish trust
with their employees and support perceptions of an
ethical climate.

All the previously mentioned constructs (organiza-
tional commitment, helping culture, and organizational
citizenship behaviors), which help constitute the ethical
climate of an organization, could indicate that employees
are behaving more ethically and that trust in the leader
positively influences this ethical behavior. It must be
noted that developing trust in the leader does not happen
overnight. Likely, it will take some time for a servant
leader to cultivate the level of trust necessary to facilitate
an ethical climate and subsequent organizational- and
individual-level outcomes. The length of time needed to
develop this trust is not known and presents an excellent
opportunity for future research.

Finally, our findings indicate that perceptions of
procedural, interpersonal, and informational justice were
positively related to servant leadership behaviors dem-
onstrated by the athletic director, in support of previous
work in business management identifying a positive
relationship between servant leadership and interactional
justice (Kool & van Dierendonck, 2012) and procedural
justice (Chung et al., 2010; Ehrhart, 2004; Walumbwa
et al., 2010). These findings contribute to our under-
standing of the mechanisms used by servant leaders to
help foster an ethical climate. Acting as a servant leader
is important, but it is also vital to establish procedures by

which employees recognize that the leader is providing
fair and equitable treatment (e.g., how resources are
distributed among employees) and that the leader is
demonstrating respect, is sensitive to follower needs,
and is fair in how employees are treated (Mahony et al.,
2010). In the context of sport, servant leadership then
appears to be critical in facilitating perceptions of orga-
nizational justice among employees, which could be
important in enhancing employee morale and motivation
and in mitigating voluntary turnover (Burton & Welty
Peachey, 2013).

Further, the present study demonstrates that servant
leadership also had an indirect effect on facilitating an
ethical climate through perceptions of procedural justice.
This finding makes intuitive sense, as procedural justice
has been linked with facilitating ethical climates in
organizations (Luria & Yagil, 2008), and servant leaders
appear to be adept at enhancing perceptions of proce-
dural justice. Our findings contribute to the understand-
ing of how servant leaders in sport organizations are
establishing an ethical climate in their organization by
attending to the needs of followers and providing a sense
of interpersonal sensitivity to followers, which facilitates
followers’ sense of justice (Mayer et al., 2008) through
the mechanisms of organizational justice. Further, our
findings support the proposition that when employees
believe that decision-making processes are fair and that
various procedures used in their sport organizations are
applied equally to all employees, then procedural justice
does lead to an ethical climate. This finding undergirds
the understanding of how servant leaders can support an
ethical climate by focusing on integrity and care for
followers, where the servant leader sees it as his or her
calling to serve others fairly and ethically first (Sendjaya
et al., 2008; van Dierendonck, 2011). The moral ground-
ing of servant leaders could be key for developing
positive perceptions of procedural justice (Sendjaya
et al., 2008). For sport organizations, then, servant
leadership can be important in facilitating both percep-
tions of procedural justice and an ethical climate, all of
which could help mitigate the ethical improprieties
prevalent in sport.

Theoretical and Practical Implications

From a theoretical standpoint, the present study has
contributed to our understanding of the importance of
servant leadership both in the sport context for develop-
ing an ethical climate and in how servant leadership
influences development of an ethical climate. Servant
leaders focusing on a call to serve employees fairly and
ethically must demonstrate these leadership behaviors
through organizational procedures that foster percep-
tions of fairness and equity. It is through these processes
of procedural justice and through trust in the leader that
employees come to perceive an ethical climate in their
organizations. The principal theoretical contribution
here, as mentioned earlier, is that this study provides
insight into the processes through which leadership

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influences outcome variables, a neglected area of lead-
ership research in sport management (Welty Peachey
et al., 2015). Indeed, the business management literature
has also advanced the critical need for scholars to engage
in further work investigating leadership processes
(Yammarino, 2013). The present study makes an impor-
tant and significant conceptual contribution from a
leadership processes standpoint, given that scholars,
sport managers, and others have been wrestling with
the best way to address the unethical behavior in sport
for years. Perhaps servant leadership is one way forward
to help restore the ethical imbalance by cultivating an
ethical climate through the processes of trust and proce-
dural justice.

Practically, these findings suggest several avenues
for consideration by leaders in sport. First and foremost,
as mentioned earlier, it would be beneficial for servant
leadership to be highlighted and supported as an impor-
tant form of leadership for sport organizations and a form
of leadership to facilitate ethical climates in sport orga-
nizations. This could include providing training to future
leaders (e.g., students in sport management programs)
through exposure to the tenants of servant leadership in
courses and in leadership development programs. Fur-
ther, highlighting those leaders who use servant leader-
ship as a model of fostering an ethical climate in sport
organizations could help expose current leaders in sport
to alternative approaches to leadership (i.e., more than
transactional, transformational). Based on our current
findings, leaders of sport organizations should also focus
on ways to enhance procedural justice within their
organizations. Care should be given to how decisions
are made, the process through which decision making
takes place, who is involved in this decision making, and
the transparency, consistency, frequency, and integrity
of communications from organizational leadership to
staff. If personnel believe that decisions and organiza-
tional procedures are fair, they will be more likely to
perceive an ethical climate, which could then translate
into positive organizational outcomes, such as in-
creased ethical behavior, organizational citizenship
behavior, and organizational commitment, though this
has not been empirically examined in sport organiza-
tions to date.

Limitations and Future Research
Directions

As all studies have limitations, we must outline several
here, which may have impacted our results and which
also provide a stimulus for future research and scholar-
ship. First, though we examined perceptions of an ethical
climate, we did not examine actual ethical conduct by
athletic personnel. An ethical climate has been linked to
ethical behavior in other organizational contexts (e.g.,
professional selling), so this may also extend to ethical
behavior in sport organizations; however, it was not
directly examined in this study. Future work should
explore the links among servant leadership, perceptions

of an ethical climate, and the ethical behavior of sport
organization personnel. Another limitation of the present
study is that we only focused on National Collegiate
Athletic Association Division I schools with this inves-
tigation, which limits the generalizability of the findings
to other National Collegiate Athletic Association divi-
sions or sectors of the sport industry. Thus, future
research must explore the relationships between servant
leadership, ethical climate, trust, and organizational
justice in other college sport contexts and in other sectors
of the sport industry such as professional sport, commu-
nity-based sport, and organizations working in the sport
for development sphere. Perhaps in some of these sec-
tors, such as sport for development, servant leadership
may be practiced more routinely and already have
good traction with fostering trust, organizational justice,
and ethical climates within the organizations (Welty
Peachey & Burton, 2016). Expanding this line of inquiry
in these directions will help provide a more robust
understanding of how these constructs operate in the
sport context.

Another limitation of the present study is the
possibility of same source bias. To address such bias,
the CFA results suggested our data were better suited
for our proposed measurement model in comparison
with a single-factor model. Further, Spector (2006)
concluded issues caused by common method variance
can be overstated and are seldom serious enough to
invalidate findings. Just the same, future research
should involve a wider method and sample of employ-
ees within an intercollegiate athletic department (and
in other sport sectors as well), from support staff to
equipment managers to coaches. It may be that per-
ceptions of the role of servant leadership in fostering
trust, organizational justice, ethical climate, and the
perceived associations between these variables might
vary with employees more distal from the leaders of
the organization, who perhaps interact more routinely
with another supervisor in terms of direct reporting.
These other individuals may actually have a stronger
influence on an employee’s ethical behavior than the
top administrator, given the pronounced and identified
influence of subcultures in organizational life (Schein,
2010). Further, links between the distributive justice
component of organizational justice and servant lead-
ership, though not empirically supported in work
outside of sport management, should be evaluated in
the context of sport organizations. Given that distrib-
utive justice focuses on fairness of the distribution of
resources, it would be of interest to better understand
how servant leadership, through its emphasis on stew-
ardship, supports an ethical climate by examining how
resources are allocated in sport organizations. Future
work should also evaluate how servant leadership
influences perceptions of ethical climate at the group
or organizational level, in order to examine how
ethical climate is perceived at the organizational level
and how this may influence ethical behavior by em-
ployees in those organizations. In a related vein,

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additional research should identify other outcomes of
an ethical climate that are fostered by servant leaders,
such as organizational citizenship behavior and orga-
nizational commitment.

Future research should also employ qualitative
methodology to help understand the “why” and the
“how” of the relationships among servant leadership,
trust, organizational justice, and ethical climate
(Creswell, 2012). Recent scholarship has also called
for the examination of antecedents to servant leader-
ship in the sport context (see Welty Peachey et al.,
2015), such as moral identity, compassionate love, and
lived experiences of leaders (van Dierendonck &
Patterson, 2015). Ascertaining how and why servant
leadership manifests in leaders would be an important
line of inquiry, as this would contribute to a more
robust theoretical understanding of how servant lead-
ership develops and operates in the sport context.
Finally, it may be illuminating to compare servant
leadership and transformation leadership with regard
to supporting an ethical climate. Previous work has
noted that both types of leadership contribute to
positive organizational outcomes (i.e., organizational
commitment and work engagement), though via dif-
fering mechanisms. Servant leaders contributed to
positive work outcomes through meeting followers’
needs, whereas transformational leaders did so by
leader effectiveness as perceived by their followers
(van Dierendonck et al., 2014). Athletic directors or
other sport leaders could be surveyed on their percep-
tions of how they exhibit servant and transformational
leadership behaviors, and then subordinates could be
surveyed to see how their perceptions correlate or vary
from their leaders’ perceptions.

Sport organizations continually face ethical deci-
sions, yet recently numerous improprieties and scandals
seem to have become more the norm than the exception.
The findings of this research are timely and offer a
starting point for investigating how unique attributes of
a servant leader can foster an ethical work climate. We
invite and encourage other scholars to extend the present
work along the lines of the future directions we suggest
or follow other related avenues of inquiry stimulated by
the current study.

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