Analysis Of Edward Snowden In Terms Of Responsible Leadership

Aimed to tell the tale of history’s most significant whistle blowers, the biographical movie Snowden revolves around Edward Snowden, who is famously known for leaking classified information regarding the National Security Agency’s (NSA) illegal surveillance techniques. After sustaining an injury while training for the army and being deemed unfit for duty, Snowden moves on with his patriotic will to serve his country and joins the CIA. At the CIA, he learns about the foreign intelligence surveillance act which allows the NSA to spy on U.S and foreign citizens without their consent. Snowden then begins to question the system and the unethical and immoral practices being conducted during his assignments. After being disillusioned with the NSA and the CIA, Snowden decides to expose them by smuggling a micro SD card in a Rubik’s cube with classified data regarding his assignments and presents it to journalists in a hotel room in Hong Kong.

The character of Edward Snowden is portrayed as an individual with integrity and rightly pointed moral compass which allows him to maintain his motives towards value based ethics in the movie. He would identify closely to Ethical Leadership as his value based ethics surpass his duty and responsibility towards the NSA and the government. Ethical Leadership, which is known as, “The demonstration of normatively appropriate conduct through personal actions and interpersonal relationships…” (Brown and Trevino, 2005 p.120), is concerned with analyzing and then interpreting the situation and the context, and then deciding what is the right thing to do. As Edward Snowden is the one who identified the unethical conduct by the NSA and acted upon his own internal values and exposed the NSA, he displays role of Ethical Leadership. Although his actions were unlawful and subjectively wrong, it was the context of his actions which deemed them as ethical. These are signs of an ethical leader that acts on their ethical values without interference from external influences. Furthermore, we can observe that Snowden possesses various other qualities of Ethical Leadership as he acted upon what he morally believed was right, no matter the personal cost to him. Snowden’s character seems to be of an average American individual but became a target for the U.S government, which means he sacrificed his normal life with no chance of returning to it by putting his ethical values and moral principles above all and acted in order to preserve the basic human right of liberty and right to privacy. He had no motives towards any personal gains from his actions. He believed that no one was going to stand up against the NSA for their unethical actions and decided to take matters into his own hands.

When analyzing both the Responsible Leadership for performance model and the Responsible Leadership for Relations model we see that Edward Snowden inclines exceptionally intensely towards RLR. Apposed to RLP, primarily focuses on Leaders and followers within the organization and not towards the stakeholders. Whereas RLR states that the corporations should have the capacity to take decisions ethically in the honor of all stakeholders in the business, environment and society. RLR is strongly based on the ‘Stakeholder theory’, in which the Leader is viewed as the coordinator and manager of relationships between various stakeholder parties. The fundamental target of this view is to establish and maintain meaningful relationships and trust between the internal business network and external through partners and customers etc. This also displays leadership as a morally-strong position in which the decisions made should be ethically correct. Snowden’s decision to whistle blow on the NSA’s spying on innocent civilians, portray how he acted simply out his conscience, as his actions were not focused performance or the personal gain he would receive from it but rather he acted in favor of the affected stakeholders from the NSA’s operations. Snowden willingly turned down his simple life of a good home, a good pay and a family, just because he was not able to accept the disparity between his morals and the morals of the NSA. Snowden is shown as a person who holds a strong sense of relational intelligence, and also exhibits integrity and authenticity throughout the film as he himself decides to take matters into his own hands to move against the NSA by breaking NSA policy and leaking thousands of classified documents.

Edwards Snowden’s strong sense of ethical leadership can be explained by his history, as his enrollment in the army is where he started to obtain his leadership qualities. Furthermore when he witnesses the unethical spying of the local citizens, he begins to question both his and the NSA’s morals. RLR model Leaders, consider deeply the relations between stakeholders and followers and also the development of trustworthy and beneficial relationships. This is overtly seen during the film in the scene where Snowden smuggles a micro SD to his office to steal classified information. The scene portrays how Snowden sacrificed his freedom to protect the civil liberties of his fellow American citizens, and which is why some people picture him as a patriot because he believed his actions were according to the values that America was established upon. In accordance with RLR, his decisions relied on a moral and humane basis, due to which many believe that the way Snowden acted was ethical and responsible. These values are still deeply rooted within Snowden to this day, as in a Guardian interview he said, “I don’t want to live in a society that does these sort of things” (Greenwald, MacAskill and Poitras, 2013), which conveys his deep care for others and his vision of a better world. When focusing on RLR, certain qualities which develop what are called operational and leader roles are outlined, and Snowden’s actions exhibit all of these roles. A leader that follows RLR shall obtain the role of a custodian of values and resources, which is exemplified by Snowden when he sacrificed his freedom to protect the values he believes in.

However, others believe Snowden’s actions to be irresponsible as leaking classified information may hold a bigger threat to national security. This conveys the categorical imperative, as what type of world it be if everyone took actions on their own morals and ethics? Snowden believed he did the right thing but you cannot rule out something as unethical or illegal just because you thought it was the right action to be taking. RLR theory proceeds to sort the operational roles of a Leader as an architect of moral infrastructure, the change agent, coach and storyteller and meaning enabler.

Snowden certainly possesses the role of a change agent in the film as he acted solely as the force for change and creating a more moral infrastructure in the NSA. He taught his followers by leaking information to them and conveying how to release it. He also was described as leaving a ‘digital footprint’ just to protect his colleagues, family and friend from the investigation. As a sign of a clear conscious, he stated, “I have no intention of hiding who I am because I know I have done nothing wrong” (Greenwald, MacAskill and Poitras, 2013). The leak of the documents caused a worldwide debate regarding the NSA surveillance system and whistleblowing. In this situation, there are various stakeholders involved, all of whom which have a different opinion on the situation. Some say that Snowden is a traitor and should be held accountable and be prosecuted for his action. But on the other hand, there are many people that believe that Snowden is a hero and that he stood up for what was against his ethical values and morals and human liberty. It all is dependent on the context of the situation. In the context of society, to the average American citizen and the journalists who interviewed him, Snowden is a right and is a hero but in the perspective of his critics, his actions were irresponsible. This is because if the RLR theory is applied from the point of view of the NSA, then it seems as if he broke the trust and damaged the relationship by leaking the documents. This caused Snowden to become a fugitive as he was forced to flee to Russia to seek asylum in order to avoid punishment for the U.S government. He acted in a responsible manner as he knew there were various stakeholder that were going to be affected by the leaking of the documents and that U.S government would conduct investigation to find out who leaked the documents so he made sure that it was obvious that they were his actions. Snowden’s reasoning towards the end of the movie portray the context of his action and the effect they would have. It can be observed through the choice he makes to release the documents through the media as he believes that the journalists right to report. The journalists had the option to rather report the documents or destroy the evidence that was presented to them by Snowden and they being the followers of Snowden decided to show solidarity. As Snowden was fighting against the unethical injustice, the journalists were fighting for the right of freedom of speech and the right to report.

As mentioned throughout the essay, the contextual situation and the changing roles of the leader and the followers behaviors leads to responsible leadership behavior. In my opinion, context is imperative in order to judge an unethical or illegal act to an ethical one. Responsible leadership solely relies on the leader themselves as they are the product of the situational context. One of the various reason Snowden chose to go to the press was because the U.S government had failed to meet his ethical and moral expectations, which caused him to lose faith over the system and the government which had an enormous amount of influence over the citizens, and released the classified documents and left the ethical validation and understanding of the context to his followers. He develops and cultivates trustworthy and meaningful relationships which link his actions to the RLR theory. Many followers and critics are still debating whether the drastic steps taken by Snowden were that of a responsible leader. I would argue that it is imperative to focus on the context of his actions which make his actions ethical. For example, if the documents leaked by Edward Snowden were damaging and caused chaos which effected the national security and the context of his actions was damaging then more people would of the opinion that he is an enemy of the state. While this hypothetical action is similar to one he actually took, the context of action is what makes it ethical and moral.


  • Maak, T. and Pless, N. (2006), “Responsible Leadership in a Stakeholder Society - A Relational Perspective”, Journal of Business Ethics. Vol. 66, No. 1, p. 99-115.
  • Greenwald, G., MacAskill, E. and Poitras, L. (2013). Edward Snowden: the whistleblower behind the NSA surveillance revelations. [online] the Guardian. Available at:
  • Lynham, S. and Chermack, T. (2006). Responsible Leadership for Performance: A Theoretical Model and Hypotheses. Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies, 12(4), pp.73-88.
  • Snowden. (2016). [film] Directed by O. Stone. United States: Endgame Entertainment.
  • Freeman, R. and McVea, J. (2001). A Stakeholder Approach to Strategic Management. SSRN Electronic Journal.
16 December 2021
Your Email

By clicking “Send”, you agree to our Terms of service and  Privacy statement. We will occasionally send you account related emails.

close thanks-icon

Your essay sample has been sent.

Order now
Still can’t find what you need?

Order custom paper and save your time
for priority classes!

Order paper now