George Floyd, Derek Chauvin and Leader Accountability

Key Takeaways:

  • People hold leaders to a higher level of accountability than everyone else.
  • In particular, people want leaders to be moral and civil.
  • When leaders are moral and civil, it elevates followers to be moral and civil as well.

On April 20, 2021, ex-Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was found guilty of the murder of George Floyd. In the wake of the verdict, Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison said that the verdict was not justice because justice implies restoration. Rather, it was accountability, which is the first step toward justice.

Senator Bernie Sanders expanded on this by saying that the verdict “…delivered accountability for Derek Chauvin but not justice for George Floyd.” He added that “real justice for him and too many others can only happen when we build a nation that fundamentally respects the human dignity of every person.”

There is still much to be done to tackle systemic societal racism, and change must continue to be enacted. In light of the news about the recent verdict and the continued fight for justice and equality, we have been thinking about how we as a society judge our leaders and if they should be held more accountable than others.

Do we hold our leaders to a higher standard than non-leaders? And, if we do, what is the impact of leaders acting morally and ethically?

In a recent study, Jeremy Frimer and Linda Skitka investigated how individuals perceive leaders’ public actions compared to those who aren’t formal leaders[1]. Specifically, their study examined the standard to which people hold leaders in a political context. Participants evaluated the Twitter posts of hypothetical political leaders and the results of this study indicated that:

  • Compared to non-leaders, participants judged leaders more negatively when they acted uncivilly toward others.
  • This was consistent regardless of the gender or political affiliation of the person evaluating the leader.

Therefore, it seems that we want leaders to be “better” than what we expect of others.  But why is it that we hold leaders to a higher standard?

Drawing on tenets of authentic and ethical leadership (which we have previously written about), Michelangelo Vianello and his colleagues examined the relationship between leaders’ and followers’ moral behaviors, specifically focusing on “moral elevation” [2]. Moral elevation refers to the emotional response one has to witnessing morality in others, resulting in an increased likeliness to focus one’s own thoughts and motivations on others rather than themselves.

In their study, Vianello and colleagues found that the behaviors of leaders who acted morally strongly elicited the emotion of moral elevation in their followers. This suggests that leaders who act morally and ethically can positively affect their followers by motivating and inspiring others to act in altruistic ways.

As can be seen across the two studies, people hold leaders accountable for a high standard of moral behavior — and that moral behavior can elevate followers to be moral as well. Though there is still much to be done in the fight for true social equality, like the jury in Derek Chauvin’s trial, we must continue to hold our leaders accountable for their words and actions. Leaders need to remain cognizant of their impact and potential to do good.

One step at a time, leaders can help shape more inclusive and equitable environments for all.


[1] Frimer, J. A., & Skitka, L. J. (2020). Americans hold their political leaders to a higher discursive standard than rank-and-file co-partisans. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 86.


[2] Vianello, M., Galliani, E. M., & Haidt, J. (2010). Elevation at work: The effects of leaders’ moral excellence. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 5, 390–411.


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April 29, 2021 at 8:40 am
Teresa Kutcher

This does not surprise me as holding leaders to a higher standard is a Biblical principle and a benchmark of discipleship.


Here at Lead Read Today, we endeavor to take an objective (rational, scientific) approach to analyzing leaders and leadership. All opinion pieces will be reviewed for appropriateness, and the opinions shared are solely of the author and not representative of The Ohio State University or any of its affiliates.