Date of Award


Degree Name

PhD Leadership Studies

Dissertation Committee

Hans Peter Schmitz, PhD, Chair; Antonio Jiménez-Luque, PhD, Member; Stanley J. Ward, PhD, Member


ethical leadership, accountability, leadership, self-development, feedback


This dissertation elucidates the concept of ethical leadership within the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Based on interviews with ten former senior-level officers from across different departments, the study analyzes how these leaders understand issues of accountability, self-development, and communication. The research also provides insights into their processes of sense-making and their methodologies for fostering ethical conduct amidst the complexities of intelligence operations.

Against the backdrop of the CIA's mission, structure, and norms, the study sheds light on the challenges and tensions inherent in the organization's operations. Through a thematic analysis of participant narratives, themes of moral cognition, personal values, and leadership strategies emerge, highlighting the nuanced interplay between individual ethics and organizational imperatives. One key finding is the emphasis placed by former CIA leaders on the importance of fostering a culture of care and respect among colleagues, even in high-stakes and stressful environments. Participants articulated the challenges and their commitment to upholding ethical standards while balancing mission objectives, underscoring the complexity of ethical leadership within the CIA.

The findings include an emphasis on accountability in ethical leadership, which encompassed both leaders and followers participating in the process of truth-telling to those in power, as well as the leaders' commitment to instilling standards by imposing sanctions when necessary. Moreover, accountability entailed leaders identifying with the leadership role by engaging with their own motivations to lead, which facilitated leaders' progression in self-development. These findings suggest a need for prioritizing the accountability aspect of ethical leadership as a foundation for advancing individual and organizational goals. The study's findings recommend consideration of ethics when applying complexity leadership theory's encouragement for leaders to engage with enabling styles of leadership. The study recommends enabling leadership engage with moral inclinations among individuals and support developing ethical standards within an organization.

Document Type

Dissertation: Open Access


Leadership Studies