This article is co-authored by Dr. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic and Dave Winsborough.
The business world is experiencing unprecedented levels of popular backlash against growing social and economic inequality, which the current pandemic seems to be intensifying. The COVID crisis has left millions of people in precarious health and financial conditions, with the more skilled segment of the labor market enjoying an unexpected and welcomed increase in work-life balance, keeping relatively productive while working from home, and a tiny group of Big Tech companies thriving.
HR is no stranger to these issues, as the recent corporate reaction to the brutal killing of George Floyd has shown, with the majority of large corporations issuing press releases to affirm that “;enough is enough”;, and the subsequent boycotting of Facebook advertisement by many big brands. In turn, a flurry of articles and social media posts -; many by prominent scientists and intellectuals -; lamented the alarming rise of “;cancel culture,”; implying that censorship and political correctness are threatening freedom, progress, and the fundamental values of the Enlightenment, so that we should not be so worried about the police, and more concerned by the thought police.
There”;s no doubt that the first half of 2020 has been eventful, if not awful. As leadership psychologists, we cannot help but to connect all of these events to, well, leadership. This has been evident since visible differences emerged between how organizations and societies appeared to manage the crisis, which can largely be attributed to the quality of their leaders. Great leaders stand out in a crisis, bad leaders are good at creating them, or making them worse. In our view, the current pandemic has highlighted important leadership deficits and dysfunctionalities, not just around competence, but also around integrity and moral leadership.
Modern HR displays a voracious appetite for the latest and shiniest leadership competencies, regularly updating corporate leadership models to incorporate current trends. Sadly, this rarely includes an appropriate discussion of the ethical or moral elements of leadership, unless when it is visibly lacking. Indeed, the importance of moral leadership is most emphatically highlighted when it goes missing. Leaders who have been exposed for stealing money (WorldCom), or cheating customers (Wells Fargo), fleecing investors (Madoff) rigging markets (Enron), or corrupting professional sports (FIFA). Typically, such events are the result of leaders who prioritize their own personal interest (e.g., greed, power, wealth, etc.) at the expense of their teams and organizations. We will not go into examples from the world of politics, because there are too many to mention.
Harvard professor Barbara Kellerman has shown that leadership is too often an individualist pursuit of status and money -; rather than being a resource for the good of the group. In contrast, moral leadership is seen in consistently making choices that demonstrate courage in changing the status quo for something better. Rather than doing the next thing right, moral leaders focus on doing the next right thing. Perhaps this is why so many of the moral leaders in history (Gandhi, Mandela, M.L. King) also had rebellious, anti-establishment, and anarchic reputations and sat uneasily within the power structures of their time.
Immoral leaders violate ethical standards, ignore institutional rules and regulations or promote or coerce others to behave unethically. As the sociologist Diane Vaughn points out, people can begin to act with good intent but become unmoored as groups accept and normalize deviance, or leaders tolerate or endorse unethical acts. But moral leadership is not simply the opposite of immorality. In fact, moral leaders sometimes take a stand against received wisdom or traditional norms, opposing the status quo with anarchic intentions, even if they end up replacing it with something better.
Moral leadership is best seen as an individual quality that one acquires through maturity. and maintains consistently, even in the face of opposition and temptation. The psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg described three ascending levels of moral development:
The most basic form of morality is behaving well in order to avoid the consequences of not following or breaking the rules.
A more advanced type of morality involves internalizing the norms of the group and exercising both self-control and concern for the rights and needs of others.
The most advanced moral leadership reflects principled reasoning based on universal values (how rational and impartial people would behave for the wellbeing of all).
Seen in this framework, moral leaders will not just need to demonstrate competence to perform well within a given system, perpetuating the status-quo, but have the necessary levels of integrity and courage to drive progress and replace the system with something better. In the context of organizational leadership, including for profit corporations, this will include: having a wide lens that includes the wellbeing of the many, the broader ecosystem, and the interests of the planet; base decisions and actions on a rational framework that is fair and transparent; tolerate short term losses and reject immediate gains in favor of longer term outcomes that benefit the widest number of people; resist acting solely for their own (or their friends”;) benefit.
For instance, New Zealand”;s exceptional response to the COVID pandemic is partly due to its distance from the rest of the world, but also as a result of Prime Minister Jacinda Adern”;s leadership. Adern rationally chose to close borders and enforce lockdown rules ahead of many countries, earning plaudits from epidemiologists for her rational actions. She also made clear trade-offs that prioritized public health over short-term economic pain, whilst showing empathy for what those tough calls meant for people”;s lives. As Van Jackson, scholar at Victoria University of Wellington and a former official in the Obama administration noted: Adern “;…; doesn”;t peddle in misinformation; she doesn”;t blame-shift; she tries to manage everyone”;s expectations”;
On the one hand, Adern”;s leadership style, decisions, and behaviors, seem almost too obvious to mention, flag up, or scrutinize. On the other hand, it is sadly more obvious that she is closer to being the exception than the norm, at least when it comes to demonstrating competent and moral political leadership during a global pandemic. In a normal world, we would not have needed a global health crisis to realize that people are generally better off when their leaders are honest, competent, ethical, and caring, but in our world…;
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