Leadership Presupposes Morality

“A lot of what goes on these days with high-flying companies and these overpaid CEOs, who’re really just looting from the top and aren’t watching out for anybody but themselves, really upsets me. It’s one of the main things wrong with American business today.”
–Sam Walton

In a 1984 radio interview, the writer Jorge Luis Borges said: “People now only think about whether something is advantageous. They think as if the future doesn’t exist, or as if there is no future other than an immediate one. They act according to what counts in that moment.”

How right he was. I once worked with an eminent scientist who turned out to be a fraud. Quite apart from an appetite for Internet porn and a concomitant disrespect for female colleagues, he was also a managerial bully who hectored a younger scientist who had accurately peer-reviewed one of his sloppy papers. This much-lauded man of science lost his job, allegedly for administrative lapses, but the public was never made aware of any of the blatantly immoral aspects of his behaviour. Management clearly decided his conduct had hurt colleagues and the corporate culture enough without public revelations further tarnishing the brand.

The manifest harm done to people, the business, and the community in this case, and in countless others, makes it difficult to understand the all-too-common attitude of people on the make who ask: what does morality have to do with business? Names like Barings Bank, Enron, Libor, Madoff, Deutsche Bank, Siemens, Lehman Brothers, BP, and enough et ceteras to fill a book, make the answer seem obvious, but the attitude persists.

It is seen in high rates of cheating on MBA programs, and the admission by many executives that “bending the rules” is part of “the game”. And who in business has not come across racism, sexism, bullying, laziness, scapegoating, theft, fraud, disruptive behaviour, negligence, and dishonesty? So much for productivity and profitability.

The language of political correctness now tries to conceal the moral implications of behaviour that has caused harm, e.g. “taking drugs was inappropriate”, or “it was an error of judgment”, or “I regret having done that, but I’m putting it behind me, and moving on”, or “low self-esteem and continuous stress led me to do things I shouldn’t have done, but I’m only human, and I know I am not a bad person.”

The attitude is no doubt related to the moral confusion that clouds judgment throughout the western world. Consider the contradictions: the heirs of the Enlightenment sing the praises of rational debate at the same time as they allow political correctness to render honest argument impossible by making certain things unsayable; a society that celebrates porn and promiscuity pretends they are compatible with respect for women and concern for the good of children and the family; leading nations act as if it is possible to borrow their way out of debt; media interests argue there is no proven link between increasing violent crime and the glamorization of violence in the media, all the while insisting on the efficacy of advertising campaigns designed to influence behavior in all sorts of ways, e.g. “Don’t drink and drive”.

Of course, a lot of the confusion is explained by the rationally indefensible moral relativism that has seeped into the minds of the great majority of people in the West via state schooling, the media, and academia. The spurious notion of values as self-chosen moral commitments simply makes no sense.

What business would ever declare that it did not value integrity or hard work?

You can’t have a moral company unless you have moral people. In reality, all people are moral beings anyway, because even being immoral involves a moral choice. To say “there’s nothing wrong in what I have done” is a moral statement which itself calls for judgment. When you use words like responsibility, accountability, and obligation, you are referring to either a legal or a moral bond. And breaking the law is always a moral choice, whether right or wrong. A moral choice, on the other hand, may or may not, have legal implications.

A genial piece of folk humour from a more honest age puts things in perspective. Finlay Peter Dunne’s Mr. Dooley pointed out that “it must be good being good or everybody wouldn’t be pretending they were.” Typically, postmodern sophists sneer and say, “There’s no such thing as the good, other than individual choice.” So unless we can identify what is objectively good in human life, we’re condemned to life in the relativist swamp. Without a clear understanding of the good, there can be no ethics. The nature of the good is the central question of ethics, wrestled with by philosophers for millennia.

The answer of classical philosophy to this key question was based on the idea of natural teleology, all things being seen as naturally directed to specific ends in which they achieve fulfilment. The acorn is oriented by its nature to become an oak, a caterpillar to become a butterfly, a baby to become a fulfilled human being. Knowledge of a thing’s nature or essence reveals what is good or bad for it; the right soil and climate are necessary goods for the acorn to reach its goal, while fire and squirrels are bad for it.

In the case of human beings, intellect and free will, by which we know the good and can choose it, introduce the reality of moral goodness. As “dependent, rational animals”, we need a personal freedom that only finds meaningful expression in the context of benevolent relationships, we need knowledge of reality and the opportunity for creative enterprise, and we need nourishment, shelter, recreation, and security, in order to flourish. It’s stands to reason that people who are unwelcome, unemployed, uneducated, uninformed, uninspired, unrecognized, and unsafe are unlikely to flourish in the workplace or community.

As social animals, we find fulfilment in relationships, and to flourish we must promote social harmony. And since we only develop self-knowledge through relationships, honesty is indispensable in preventing self-deception and the welter of psychological deformities that issue from it. Of course, the lie is at the heart of all human misery, and is intimately linked to barbarism and violence. These are moral realities.

So the teleological worldview provides a firm foundation for a rational description of objective moral principles. However, the mechanistic worldview of modern philosophy rejected the teleological understanding of reality, denying that meaning and purpose were real features of the world. This was not a scientific conclusion; it was a metaphysical assumption that merely echoed a scientific method that excluded all aspects of reality that were not quantifiable.

As a matter of fact, it should be remembered that science itself is an inescapably moral enterprise. This is, of course, difficult today amid the frequent scandals and unseemly shouting matches that tarnish the image of the scientific community, and indeed science itself, and promote deep cynicism in the wider public. However, if science is about extending the frontiers of our knowledge of physical reality, that is, if it is about finding the truth as to how the material world works, then it has to be built on ethical guidelines, so that we can trust it implicitly. Moreover, if scientists reject the notion of ethical restraints on their work, then what more is there to say about the potential horrors of a nuclear holocaust, environmental degradation, or the clandestine use of humans as guinea pigs?

The father of modern philosophy, Descartes, gave us the idea of the autonomous self, disengaged from community and nature. Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau said self-interested individuals were governed by a social contract, making all relationships negotiable. Hume saw values as subjective, reflecting simply the preferences of the person doing the valuing. He believed moral attitudes emerge by virtue of their social utility. Kant’s Categorical Imperative, the idea that rational beings should choose to do only what could be accepted as a universal rule of conduct, failed to stem the tide of relativist, utilitarian, and contractarian ideas.

This mix, under the broad definition of utilitarianism – the greatest good of the greatest number – has become the morality of the majority. Moral issues are decided by calculating outcomes, the end justifying the means. Nietzsche’s influential “will to power” and the nihilistic attitude that says, “my will rules”, has made the mix even more toxic, and moral confusion all the more widespread.

As the ancients knew only too well, justice is based on either might or right. It either comes before the state, that is, it is based on natural law and makes moral claims on all people, or it is dependent on the state and defined by the laws of the state. If the might of the state holds sway, then there is no criterion by which the state can be judged, and the Hitlers and Stalins of this world cannot be condemned. Moreover, if the laws of the state are the accepted standard, then the only crime is being caught, and trust, the cement of any sound society is removed.

Smart and sincere secular scholars like John Rawls, Robert Nozick, and Jonathan Haidt have labored long and hard to articulate a convincing system of morality based on utilitarian and contractualist principles. Their herculean efforts, which more often than not echo traditional moral imperatives anyway, are ultimately inadequate because they have been unable to provide the unconditional authority, the compelling categorical imperative that Kant failed to provide, and that any system of morality ultimately requires if it is to have real practical effect.

Haidt himself, while reaffirming his contractualist beliefs, explicitly points out “surveys have long shown that religious believers in the United States are happier, healthier, longer-lived, and more generous to charity and to each other than are secular people. Most of these effects have been documented in Europe too. If you believe that morality is about happiness and suffering, then I think you are obligated to take a close look at the way religious people actually live and ask what they are doing right.”


Andre van Heerden
Andre van Heerden
ANDRE heads the corporate leadership program The Power of Integrity, and is the author of three books on leadership, Leaders and Misleaders, An Educational Bridge for Leaders, and Leading Like You Mean It. He has unique qualifications for addressing the leadership crisis. Since studying law at Rhodes University, he has been a history teacher, a deputy headmaster, a soldier, a refugee, an advertising writer, a creative director, an account director on multinational brands, a marketing consultant, and a leadership educator. He has worked in all business categories on blue-chip brands like Toyota, Ford, Jaguar, Canon, American Express, S C Johnson, Kimberley Clark, and John Deere, while leadership coaching has seen him help leaders and aspirant leaders in Real Estate, Retail, the Science Sector, Local Government, Education, Food Safety, Banking, and many other areas. Subscribe to my Substack HERE.

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  1. The ethical requirements related to leadership that immediately stand out are the behavioral ones of legality and respected rules, of transparency and fairness, of honesty. Exercising ethical leadership does not just mean having a sense of justice as an end in itself, but it also means bringing benefits to the leader, the employees, the company and the community. And it is a theme that is very much influenced by the historical, cultural, legal and economic conditions that characterize a certain context at a certain moment. There is therefore a contradiction in terms: it should be objective and rational but, at the same time, being values and culture-dependent, it can not but be affected by the historical, contextual and cultural framework within which we speak of ethics.

    • You make a very good point Aldo, but the emotivist approach to morality in the western world has all but removed the requisite basis for genuine community. Modern philosophy’s rejection of Aristotelian virtue ethics led inevitably to the moral confusion we see in the West today, and the complete inability to even conduct rational dialogue on ethical issues.

    • We need so many ethical leaders, for a leadership that is democratically credible and ethically inspired. “In our complex and globalized world, we need a new leadership, aware of the need for greater co-operation and co-responsibility, in every social context and at all levels.
      We must be able to form many ethical leaders, morally credible and socially legitimized. An ethical leader arises from active exemplary communities, having at their center the interest in the common good and respect for people.
      We need to offer young people so many genuine and enriching opportunities for socio-cultural and political experiences, on which they can confront and reflect, combining praxis and theories, models of life and principles of value. The socio-political regeneration of our society demands it and the young people have the right to it.

    • Exactly right, Aldo – sadly, our problem lies in the fact that “interest in the common good and respect for people” has been replaced by the detached individual of modern philosophy, for whom the only “good” is the exercise of his or her egoistic will.