Susan Q Yin via Unsplash

Helpful Practices to Meet the Supply and Demand for Moral Leadership

Moral leadership is one of those topics that quickly generates head nods when it comes up in discussions.

We can readily agree, for instance, that moral leadership builds trust, elevates team behaviors and catalyzes organizational success. And we also can agree that while moral leadership is in high demand, it’s too often in short supply.

Those were among the conclusions in “The State of Moral Leadership in Business,” a bi-annual report by the HOW Institute for Society. This year’s version is 40 pages and is full of charts and graphs based on research that generally makes a strong case for what we already intuitively know.

While it’s great to have the data to back up the obvious, the most important pieces of the puzzle are the ones that speak to improvement: how do we cultivate moral leadership? Dov Seidman, founder and chairman of the HOW Institute for Society, put it this way: “The single greatest leadership challenge of the 21st century is … to nurture and develop moral leaders who lead with moral authority and ensure that these leaders, and only these leaders, occupy positions of formal authority at every level, sector, and dimension of society.”

That’s a big, audacious goal, and achieving it isn’t easy or else there would not be such a huge gap between the demand for moral leadership and the supply of moral leaders.

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The biggest challenge is that genuine moral leadership can’t be achieved by simply changing the behaviors of leaders. Moral leadership isn’t just something you do, it’s something you are. It requires an inner transformation and an unshakable commitment to identifying and prioritizing what’s right for no other reason than this: Doing what’s right is the right thing to do.

Leaders who don’t truly believe this might at times display the actions of moral leadership, but they can’t fake it for long. Eventually their self-focused, materialistic, or prideful motives will show themselves. And it typically doesn’t take followers long to spot posers.

If moral leadership is who you are, of course, you still have to put it into practice. You have to exercise the muscles of moral leadership to grow stronger and withstand the daily temptations to abandon your principles. And you will be tempted.

Thankfully, the report speaks to this, and it does so with a one-page summary that was my biggest takeaway from those 40 pages.

Initially, I mined their data and concluded that moral leaders provide honest answers, principled decisions, courageous actions, and hope for the future. That felt really accurate and aligned with my beliefs and experiences. Then I came to page 6 and the report’s roadmap of moral leadership practices. It went into a bit more detail while still aligning with all that I know and believe.

First, start with a pause. In other words, reflect on the situation, reconnect with your values, and rethink and reimagine the possible actions to take. The next six practices aren’t really a process that unfolds in any order. They are things leaders should do simultaneously: see the humanity in others, uphold ethical standards, act with courage, seek the truth, foster freedom, and demonstrate humility.

Leaders who do those things but have ulterior motives for doing them are still better than leaders who don’t do them at all. But leaders who believe deeply in the inherent value of those practices will have a deeper commitment to them when they are difficult to live out in real-world situations. And those leaders are more likely to apply these best practices with a sincerity that builds trust among followers.

So here’s my question: are you a supplier who can meet the demand for that type of leadership? If not, do you simply need to get better at the best practices? Or do you need a deeper transformation?

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