Pumping the Brakes with Morality in Leadership


In much of the literature that I read on leadership, scholars advocate for modern day leaders to possess greater morality. Their zeal in taking this position is understandable given the recent prominent examples of poor leadership in action. As a society, we do need to cultivate a higher standard of leadership in order to overcome many of the problems that plague our existence. Whilst I believe that morality can play a role in moving leaders in a positive direction, I have doubts about its potential to effect the change that we want to see in our leaders.

Morality is defined in the Oxford Dictionary as a ‘particular system of values and principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong, or good and bad behaviour’. In terms of leadership that incorporates this definition, a moral leader would take noble action to uphold the values that they believe are reflective of what is good and what is right. If they value teamship as a marker of a good organisation, then they will structure teams to carry out its work. If they believe that it is right for their salary not to be exorbitant compared to other executives in the company, then they will take a pay cut.

While very few of us would have a problem with this leader promoting teamship or earning a reasonable salary, we might take issue with another leader who possesses a different moral framework. This other leader might not think twice about laying off hundreds of employees because in his or her mind that is what is good for the company, or they might righteously believe that an extravagant salary is warranted for someone in their position.

Here, it is important to realise that morality, which has an intellectual foundation, is largely subjective. What I believe is good or right from a moral perspective may be different from what your moral framework tells you is good or right. We also see these disparities at work in religious and cultural ideologies all the time. Some societies favour individualism while others embrace a collectivist model, and they each denounce the other’s social structure as morally deforming. In the religious context, morality is sought to be grounded in philosophical or spiritual truths, but with the indoctrination that is perpetuated at the institutional level, much of the morality which emerges is self-serving and not reflective of what these spiritual truths are.

Instead of resting at the shallow point of morality to guide our leadership, I would advocate for a journey to the deeper level of spirit, where we can meaningfully connect with our intrinsic goodness and use that as a guide in determining what decisions to make. In my research looking into the role of a lived calling in driving leadership behaviour, one of my significant findings was that in the process of aligning with our spirit to live our calling, we will naturally manifest goodness in a leadership context.

Why then should we settle for applying artificial notions of moral goodness or righteousness that are constructed in our minds? If your mind is anything like mine, it is quite prone to error and confusion, and this is particularly the case when I live in the company of my ego. Where the spirit brings clarity that illuminates truth, the ego brings unnecessary complexity which obscures it. We see this at work in debates about such things as gay marriage. The spirit says the solution is simple; love is all-encompassing and doesn’t limit itself to a particular form. The ego in response will complicate matters by arguing against these types of unions because they are morally unconscionable, for example, or because they don’t fit within a particular belief system. Asked to provide a basis for their ego-based perspective, the dissenter will inevitably reveal a clumsy thinking process that doesn’t challenge or move beyond what they have been taught is right at an intellectual level.

As it concerns the debate about the role of morality in leadership, I would put forward that if morality is to take any part in the leadership journey, it should take a back seat to the workings of our spirit. While the journey to connecting with and expressing our spirit can be more arduous, the quality of leadership that it offers is just what our modern needs demand. Relying on notions of morality is a lazy way to lead others, much like fundamentalism is in its blind acceptance of something as true, in the absence of prior critical exploration. Wisdom in leadership requires the mind to meet the heart with an openness of inquiry. What will we learn when we allow the spirit to teach the mind what it does not know? That we each possess the innate leadership capacity to do what is right and good, and we don’t need to rely on a moral framework to navigate that terrain.


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