Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

A Call for Moral Leadership

Travis Kalanick (Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP, File)

Travis Kalanick (Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP, File)

Changing norms

Ann Skeet

Ann Skeet is the director of Leadership Ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.  Views are her own.

Changes in law happen at a precise moment in time—when a legislature acts or a court decides.  Changes in ethics are harder to pinpoint.  How do we know norms, providing context for ethical decision-making, are changing?  In part we can tell by what is tolerated in society, even when it’s not considered acceptable broadly. People in leadership positions have influence by virtue of their roles to cue others about what is acceptable at a given point in time.  There is no doubt these people are sending different cues now than those provided just a few years ago. 

Previously, I could not have imagined a state legislator in any state saying of another that he was going to “put a bullet in your head” or “get you on the way to your car,” but such comments were reportedly heard between legislators within the same political (Democratic) party in Texas just a few weeks ago.  Nor would I predict that a member of congress could get elected following an act leading to a guilty plea for assaulting a reporter on the eve of the vote.  But this how Mr. Gianforte, a Republican from Montana, goes to Washington. 

Several years ago, I could not have imagined a board failing to remove a CEO filmed berating an employee in the way Travis Kalanick did, even a private company where the CEO is the majority stockholder. Kalanick finally stepped down Tuesday after a shareholder revolt, but the Uber board seemed to ignore evidence of leadership issues that had been occurring for some time. Board members unseating founders once they have exceeded their limitations is a storyline in many successful, long-lasting, and profitable companies, but it was not the case at Uber. 

We can look back at legal decisions made decades ago and consider them now unethical because norms around, for example, civil rights, individual rights, and corporations’ roles in communities, change over time.  Case law is reviewed and new laws made so the laws of the land catch up with the ethics of the day, though often laws are still considered baseline behavior; following them will prevent punishment, but not necessarily lead to actions considered ethical.  

Can we say now that ethical leadership is enough?  If norms are changing dramatically and quickly, people in influential roles clearly feel they can behave differently than they could in public life not many months ago.  Scholars and pundits can cite the deep divisiveness of the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign and tone at the top of corporations as bellwethers for ethical behavior.  If such divisiveness leads to people acting immorally in the name of their point of view then this is not   leadership.  

Perhaps the call for ethical leadership is not enough.  Perhaps we should settle for nothing short of moral leadership.  I define moral leaders as people in influential roles who are at ease with the notion of right and wrong and people who understand the power of their example.  While what is considered ethical can shift with context and be defined within traditions and professions, moral behavior describes actions that are considered right, in a binary right-wrong selection pool.  For example, shooting people practicing for a baseball game would be simply wrong. 

In his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Lives of Moral Leadership, written almost a generation ago in 2000, Robert Coles said: 

We need heroes, people who can inspire us, help shape us morally, spur us on to purposeful action—and from time to time we are called on to be those heroes, leaders for others, either in a small, day-to-day way, or on the world's larger stage. At this time in America, and in the rest of the world, we seem to need moral leadership especially, but the need for moral inspiration is ever present.

Nearly twenty years later, this is still true.

Jun 21, 2017

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