Leadership Presupposes Morality

In reality, managers and many of the people they deal with – staff, clients, peers, suppliers – are burdened by the moral confusion. Confirmed in their nihilistic worldview by movies, TV, and social media, and frequently dysfunctional relationships, many people lack empathy and compassion, and in some cases this can border on the psychopathic. Unsurprisingly, people like this tend to be resentful of authority and are often disengaged in the workplace. Devoid of a knowledge of history, they lack vision, and can be quite fatalistic about the eternal present they inhabit, being driven largely by instant gratification, and by extension, money. In short, all kinds of relationships, not only work-related ones, are bound to abrasive and unreliable when they involve people in this state of mind.

The kind of life they lead can hardly be thought of as human flourishing. Moreover, the right of the individual to choose that is today held up as the only unquestionable good is exposed as utterly fraudulent for the simple reason that people in that state of mind are ill-equipped to make rationally informed choices.

People who blindly reject the classical worldview as old hat, should pause to reflect on the fact that frequently used terms like authenticity, integrity, vision, strategy, progress, and teamwork are all teleological concepts. Moreover, managers find that cutting through the confusion by recourse to enduring truths of natural morality promotes harmony and productivity.

Increasing numbers of secular academics agree with Alasdair MacIntyre’s point that the breakdown of ethical discourse in the West stems from the failure of modern thinkers to put a purely rational ethics in place of the traditional morality that was based on natural law. The current confusion is prompting many to reconsider the Aristotelian virtue ethics of the teleological worldview, seeing human beings as having a natural potential for mental and moral excellence, and recognizing the moral implications of that understanding.

In 2005, a Harvard Business Review article reported “an emerging global consensus” in business ethics. Working from 23 source documents, including codes of conduct from the world’s leading corporations, the team of researchers gleaned 130 precepts that they distilled down to just eight basic principles. They admitted surprise at the remarkable consensus, and the fact that the eight basic principles echoed classical ideas on ethics and law. They also conceded that a world-class code is no guarantee of world-class conduct.

In essence, the eight principles identified i.e. the fiduciary principle, property principle, reliability principle, transparency principle, dignity principle, fairness principle, citizenship principle, and responsiveness principle, boil down to two ancient injunctions regarding human relationships – honesty and justice. And those two injunctions are rich in implications for managers.

Explaining the dynamics of moral choices, C S Lewis likened ethics to a fleet of ships. First, the ships must avoid collisions, which equates to social ethics. Next, they must be shipshape and avoid sinking, which relates to personal virtue. And finally, they need to know where they are meant to be going, which is about their ultimate purpose in life. In our world today, there is plenty of guidance on the first issue, next to nothing on the second, while the third is buried in the moral confusion that spawns the unhappiness of our deeply troubled society.

Unethical behaviour in business does untold damage: people are hurt, productivity and profitability suffer, the law is scorned, moral failure further perverts the lives of the perpetrators, and free market capitalism suffers yet another suicide attack. It is absurd to have our work, something so crucial to human flourishing, actively eroding our humanity.

Is it really too facile to say that the way out of the morass is plain to see, but that most people simply don’t want to accept the reality. The modern West prefers not to address the ultimate questions relating to the origin and nature of human rationality on which its very existence depends. The result is the corruption of reasoning and debate, and a descent into the abyss of irrationality, manifested in the epidemic of psychological deformities, social dysfunction, and political chaos.

Cut it any way you like, but if you want civilization, you have to have objective moral norms based on unassailable absolute principles.


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.

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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.