Morality in Leadership

Moral behavior requires understanding the difference between right and wrong, and acting accordingly.  However, right versus wrong can only be assessed in relation to a system of values.  But this does not mean that morality is relativistic.  If it was, we could not say any act is morally wrong since we would have to accept all value systems even those harmful to others.

Since people abhor the exploitation, manipulation, and destruction of life, we must acknowledge the existence of a universal set of (moral) values that are applicable to all of humankind. Obviously there is something in all of us that informs us of what is right in honor of life. In this light, moral issues concern a universal ‘we’ not what’s in it for ‘me’ or ‘us’.

Thus, to speak of moral behavior is to speak of behavior that is consistent with life-affirming values—values that are in harmony with the nature of all that is alive.  To lead morally is to make choices consistent with life-centered values and not values that are external in life. Clearly, morality has no meaning in a world of things.

Many mistakenly believe there are different values for different roles we assume in life.  The decisions they make in their role as a businessperson reference a different set of values than the values they reference in their role as a friend or parent.  While we would disapprove of those who discard their family or friends in an effort to elevate their status, position or income, many often applaud similar decisions in business—Wall Street cheering the elimination of people’s jobs.  Sadly they are oblivious to the contradiction.

Ethical Code of Conduct

The more our ethics in business differ from the life-centered values inherent in our nature, the greater harm we inflict upon ‘we’.  The more discordant principles of conduct and moral values are the greater the likelihood that life-threatening problems will occur.

Since people can’t live a divided life and remain whole, many become numb to their inherent humanistic values to avoid feeling conflicted.  Appeals to the practical material side of things seem to justify behavior that is incongruent with espoused-values.  Often, the mentality of the herd—a hiding behind ‘us’ often seen in say groupthink—predominates over values-based reason as a guide.

The ethical principles upon which our businesses are run must be aligned with the values upon which life is sustained.  The more we ignore or deny this the more harm we inflict on society, and inevitably ourselves.

As we turn the focus of our attention toward amassing things we lose touch with life itself, becoming alienated from our self and each other.  As alienation increases, we lose all perspective on living, and with this loss, our ability to make morally sound decisions diminishes.  Correspondingly, as this behavior becomes normative, we unknowingly become increasingly irresponsible.

Accordingly, we routinely disregard the long term—ignoring the far-reaching effects of a decision—for the sake of expediency in pursuit of profit.  In effect, the pursuit of material wealth is set against life it self.  We confuse means and ends as we foolishly elevate our material wants to the status of a right.

If an organization is to remain viable, its behavior must become unquestionably life affirming—a business of a different mind.  Those in authority must be integrative in their decision-making process by taking both multiple and far-reaching perspectives when choosing a course of action.  Specifically, deciding the right course of action among alternatives requires the guidance of a system of values.  The decision process must integrate life-affirming values and the material needs for economic sustainability.  It is not an either/or issue, nor is it a balancing act.

With profit not being enough for progress, the awakened leader realizes that action that marginalizes life is action that is detrimental to both the viability of humankind and the business enterprise—the latter depends upon the former. Morality is not contrary to sustaining viability, its foundational to it.

How can the moral bottom line and the material bottom line be integrated?

7 thoughts on “Morality in Leadership

  1. Long-term profitability depends on the kind of life-affirming leadership you describe so well in this and in your other posts. Aside from the ordinary human frailties, which can usually be coached into control, the root cause of the problem is the rapacity and associated short-term thinking of the investors, or rather, their institutional representatives. Actually, most of the investors, who are themselves employees with pension funds and 401Ks, are victimized by their representatives, who in effect encourage the short cuts, the short-term thinking, and the opportunism that we see so much of in management, especially these days.

    Here is the biggest irony of all, in my opinion: The interests of the greedy would be better served, not just over the long run, but over the medium, if organizational leadership were both life- and profit-affirming. In accomplishing the former, subject, of course, to the constraints of the latter, the yields would increase. Everyone really would be better off.

  2. I applaud what you both say but the influence of Milton Friedman still resounds through the board rooms of the world

    I include the first paragraph of his article in The New York Times Magazine, September 13, 1970. Copyright @ 1970 by The New York Times Company

    “When I hear businessmen speak eloquently about the “social responsibilities of business in a free-enterprise system,” I am reminded of the wonderful line about the Frenchman who discovered at the age of 70 that he had been speaking prose all his life. The businessmen believe that they are defending free en­terprise when they declaim that business is not concerned “merely” with profit but also with promoting desirable “social” ends; that business has a “social conscience” and takes seriously its responsibilities for providing em­ployment, eliminating discrimination, avoid­ing pollution and whatever else may be the catchwords of the contemporary crop of re­formers. In fact they are–or would be if they or anyone else took them seriously–preach­ing pure and unadulterated socialism. Busi­nessmen who talk this way are unwitting pup­pets of the intellectual forces that have been undermining the basis of a free society these past decades….”

    He then goes on to argue that businesses or corporations are not people with morals or social responsibilities. They are a different entities that should direct all their efforts to generating profit for the owners.

    If you think carefully about what he is saying, there are a couple of logic bombs and if our leaders accept his views then he is actually articulating a justification for greater regulation of business if we accept that a business has no moral or social responsibility.

    From a business point of view one of the most dangerous consequences of the business world rejecting moral and social responsibilty is that of lack of Trust.

    Lack of Trust between business and the consummer and Trust between one business and another.

    Lack of trust between bankers is one of the root causes of this global financial crisis lasting as long as it is.

  3. Yes Milty’s influence still lives on. I have a post forthcoming ‘responsible business’ that offers an argument in opposition of his position, which as you say is flawed.

  4. The human voice can never reach the distance that is covered by the still small voice of conscience.

    Like it or not, we all possess a conscience that speaks to us irrespective of our “location” – whether within the world of business or within our personal kingdoms.

    Denying our voice merely creates conflict within ourselves.

    Ideas that oppose the prevailing paradigm (like Greg’s) often create discomfort (and are frequently avoided) because they point to and highlight the internal conflict we feel when we buy into ideas like Milton’s.

    As they say, the heart (soul) has reasons that the mind can’t comprehend.

  5. Pingback: Responsible Business « For Progress, Not Growth

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