In today’s era, moral leadership has perhaps become one of the most glaring examples of academic oxymoron. Once was the time when the leaders were looked upon as apostles of high moral integrity and credibility. However, of late, with ever escalating number of cases of unethical conduct of leaders in political and business arena, common man is left to ponder whether moral leadership really exists on the planet.
A leader is the one who shows the way to the masses toward achieving a set of goals doing the right things the right way. Unlike a boss merely acting as a charioteer the leader steps down at the level of his team members to contribute to the force pulling the chariot. And since the leader directly impacts his team’s performance, he needs to have high moral standards. And it becomes more important because it is the leader’s ethical principles that influence the followers’ values, beliefs and behavior; and it is the followers who actually work to achieve any organization’s objectives. Hence, moral leadership is a very crucial topic, be it any sphere of profession.
But what is moral leadership? Before beginning to delve deeper into moral leadership, let’s first discuss what makes a moral leader. In my view, a moral leader is the one who stands firm with an unwavering commitment to his moral integrity and moral responsiveness. Such a person’s activities are always intimately aimed to a particular conception of ‘Good’. A lot many things shape up a moral leader. Honesty is one of the elixirs of moral leadership. How can one expect a leader to be of high moral standards when he can’t be honest with his own team members? Moreover, a moral leader needs to be fair in his outlook, transcending all barriers of religion, creed, sex etc. Unbiased attitude to all people from diverse backgrounds lays the foundation of moral leadership.
What more? An ethical leader should be brimming with self-confidence within but must never forget to possess overt humility. Gandhi had a large number of followers but maintained a very low profile and led a frugal lifestyle. Moral leadership also demands a leader to take responsibilities for the work to be undertaken by the team. An irresponsible leader not only mars the team’s performance but also leaves his followers with nothing effective to learn from his bad example. And if a responsibility has been taken up once, the leader ought to leave no stone unturned to fulfill his commitments. A leader who shifts blames to others is certainly a person quivering on the moral grounds.
There have been times when leadership roles have awakened the evil inside an individual, with the latter turning into a haughty and stubborn dictator. Such a person not only humiliates the core essence of a team, but also is a threat to the self-esteem of other individuals. Moral leadership has it in its core values that a leader must always show respect to his fellow team members irrespective of the roles they play. A business tycoon who can’t speak well, abiding the common principles of mannerism, with his peon can’t be held in high regards at any cost, no matter the size of the organization and wealth he commands. And yes, a leader should not be contented with just his self moral uprightness but should also strive to stand up against the evils existing in the society. A leader must be like Malala, the girl who stood up for the right of women to education and surged ahead as an author of positive change in spite of the lethal bullets she had to survive. Just think what would have been the scenario if she had not shown courage and had bogged down to the threats of the Taliban.
There is a need of moral leaders in nearly every culture, every profession on the earth. However, the world is severely lacking such leaders. So much so that a research project by Nair stated that there is a widely held view for leaders, especially those in business and political arenas, that there is not even an iota of the sense of idealism in them. With the media churning out ever increasing reports of corruption by university presidents and clergies, the species of moral leaders seems to have gone highly endangered, if not extinct. Corporations are constantly busy in devising strategies to outperform their rivals in this cutthroat competition scenario. The case is same for political leaders across the globe. Submitting to such pressures translates to immoral practices by the leaders to stay afloat in this highly competitive world.
However, one cannot alienate oneself from moral leadership especially if one understands its significance. After all, it is the leaders’ ethical conduct guided by his moral principles and integrity that lends credibility and legitimacy to the vision of the organization. Sans moral leadership, an organization is like a body bereft of a soul. How can one expect a body to sustain itself without a soul? Take for instance, the case of James Burke of Johnson & Johnson, who launched a credo survey after the Tylenol crisis. His highly ethical conduct helped his company to earn a very positive reputation, which further helped the company to reinforce its brand image amongst the public which it risked losing if proper steps had not been taken by Burke. On the contrast, Al Dunlap of Sunbeam lied to his employees and financial analysts. He was condescending, arrogant and disrespectful of his employees. That further crippled his company and led to his ultimate downfall.
So that is how moral leadership directly affects the organization. In my perspective, a moral leader is the one who leads mostly by example and occasionally by speaking. Martin Luther King, who launched a crusade for equal treatment of blacks in the US, was one of those kinds. There had been many dormant voices against the oppression of blacks but no one other than King stood up so firmly against the evil practice that is what portrayed him as a moral leader. In my viewpoint, a moral leader should never feel timid to take a stand on the questions of ethics and morality and especially on the questions concerning justice. Leadership for me is defined by words and equally by actions.
Another idea that I would like to bring home is that a moral leader ought not to subvert the paradigm. It is really unwise to tread the path laid down by our forefathers, even if the path leads us to doom. An ethical leader must break the laws the laws and conventions, if such regulations perpetuate situations that may be systematically wrong and need rethinking. Even Jesus’ action of healing on the Sabbath broke the law prevalent at that time. The leader needs to follow the supreme law above all other laws. Moral leadership requires a leader to go against the status quo and to stir up the masses against the moral contradictions of the society and ask questions that are right there in everyone’s mind but not being asked by anyone.
A moral leader must transcend self-interests to serve others and help others grow up to his position. And he must also remember to be accountable to his followers in the incidence of any wrongdoing. Bill Clinton had been accused of infidelity and sexual liaisons. However, some sections of society were confused whether to respect him as a moral leader for his past acts or disregard his exposed sins he committed in private. As Malcolm said, “wrong is wrong, no matter who does or says it.” I fail to understand how can we hold Clinton in highest regard for his self-admitted crime? If this is what we expect from our administrators, what will be the quality of the next generation to assume the reins of leadership?
A leader must develop, articulate and uphold highest moral standards. A business leader needs to communicate ethics principles and show zero tolerance for ethical violations, or else the actions would repel the prospective customers. In other professions too, the leaders must preach and profess ethics even when the world is not looking at them. After all, it has always been moral leadership that has proved to be the harbinger of a new era with the followers having developed a more rational look towards the issues of concern.
The exigency of the hour is for our leaders, in a myriad of professions, to adhere to the hallmarks of moral leadership. The society is equally responsible to promote moral leadership and censure the immoral leaders. Moral leadership is the essence of an intelligent civilization and is inevitable for a sustainable society.
University Institute of Engineering and Technology
Panjab University, India