The Myths of Moral Leadership

According to the HOW Institute for Society, which surveyed 2,305 people from a wide range of industries and organizations representing all levels of responsibilities, the demand for moral leadership in business and, by extension, the world at large is greater and more urgent than ever. But despite this urgent demand, there is an unfortunate lack of such moral leadership. 

This isn’t just a philosophical or moral problem; it’s very much a business and economic problem, as well. This is because organizations with strong moral leadership quite simply perform better across a range of outcomes

Part of the problem is that there’s a fair amount of confusion about what moral leadership actually looks like. This is obviously important since it’s only when we have a clear understanding of what moral leadership looks like that we can accurately assess whether it is present or absent in any given organization, as well as what can be done to cultivate it. 

What Moral Leadership Looks Like

It might be useful to start by clarifying what moral leadership is not. A common misconception is that it’s a way of leading that conforms to your own personal view of what’s “moral.” For instance, perhaps you believe that a moral leader should put the needs of their followers above their own. This is certainly one form of moral leadership, but it’s not the only form. 

There’s nothing wrong with having your own viewpoint of what’s moral, but it’s important not to confuse that with moral leadership.

Moral leadership is simply the act of identifying a clear set of values, communicating what those values are to followers and potential followers, and then leading by those values. Even if those values are different from your own, it is still moral leadership — it’s just not your preferred type of moral leadership. 

To use an easy example, imagine a company where leadership makes it clear that maximizing value for shareholders is the absolute top imperative, prioritized over all other concerns. Needless to say, there are many people who wouldn’t feel drawn to such an organization, but there are some who would. So long as leaders are transparent and honest about their values and not misleading followers, they would be exercising moral leadership. 

In this case, it would be a specific subtype of moral leadership known as authentic leadership. From the perspective of authentic leadership, it’s far better for leaders to be honest than to give lip service to values to which they may not be genuinely committed. Such leaders are seen as being trustworthy by those who share their values. In what’s called the attraction-selection-attrition cycle, those followers will often reward or punish leaders in various ways according to how well those leaders reinforce their own stated values. 

There are two other subtypes of moral leadership: ethical leadership and servant leadership. Ethical leadership conforms more to the values that most people view as desirable traits in human interaction, such as decency and fairness, or what could be called normatively appropriate behavior. Servant leadership prioritizes the highest needs of others (e.g., their safety, well-being, and autonomy) over the leader’s self-interests. 

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Thus, much of the confusion over moral leadership is due to people confusing ethical, servant, and authentic leadership. (These types of moral leadership are not mutually exclusive, by the way, and can coexist in the same leader at the same time.) 

Promoting Strong Moral Leadership 

To establish strong moral leadership in any organization its first necessary to answer a number of questions, not just at the highest leadership levels but at all levels of the organization:

  • Who are we?
  • What do we stand for?
  • Why are we in this business?
  • Who are the stakeholders that matter to us?

Once leadership has clarified the moral issues they stand for, they must invest the resources to translate these values into observable company culture training. Moreover, the training must not consist of boring PowerPoints and packets that no one reads. It must emphasize converting values into employee practices. While there’s no question that the leaders of a company must set the example of living out the company’s values, it is really when employees themselves are also actively practicing those values that moral leadership is felt most strongly.

Still, it’s worth pointing out that the larger the company, the more likely that there will be a heterogenous assortment of outlooks and ideologies present. Herein lies another important component of moral leadership — the ability to have a dialogue with employees who may not share the same values. Sometimes, this can result in a parting of ways if a degree of moral consensus can’t be reached. But often all that is required is a reframing of the values in a way that appeals to what the employee in question cares about. 

The art of skillful reframing can sometimes lead to nothing less than a transformative display of moral leadership, as in the case of Darcy Winslow, who, during her tenure at Nike, passionately addressed the lack of shoes and apparel made for women compared to men. Despite barriers and resistance from within the organization, Winslow used her reframing power to help stakeholders see the positive promise of untapped possibility as opposed to just focusing on what “should” be done.     

It’s quite possible that the perceived lack of moral leadership isn’t because organizations are not stating their values in their mission statements and such. Rather, it may be because they’re not training and practicing those values in ways that convey moral leadership. Therefore, it behooves leaders to clarify their moral values and, most importantly, to marshal the resources to translate those values into observable culture at every level of their organizations.

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