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Chapter 12: Technique 9: Leaders Create a Higher Moral Standard

Most people spend most of their waking life at work and want work to have a moral dimension. Everybody wants to do good work, to work for the common good and contribute to the success of the work community. Unfortunately, too many people have been led to believe that there is one standard for private morality and another for business morality and conduct (Nair, 1994). The fact is that moral integrity argues for one ethical standard, applicable in personal, social, economic, and all other aspects of life. Inner leaders provide that moral standard. Their task is to create it in themselves first, then bring it out in their followers.

Arguably, much government regulation of business and industry is a result of business leaders not accepting personal responsibility to ethically serve their clients. Some corporations, perhaps unwittingly, encourage a spirit of moral turbulence by rewarding executives who achieve economic goals by humiliating people, promulgating questionable policies, or stimulating subordinates through fear. A society driven by “responsibilities” is oriented toward service. One motivated by individual “rights” is oriented toward acquisition, confrontation, and advocacy. The first builds, the second destroys.


The word ethics derives from the Greek word, ethos, which means more than mere obedience to rule. It is also about character, how one feels about oneself (Blanchard, 1992), and reputation, how others feel about you. Being ethical means being moral. It means doing the right thing for yourself and for the greatest number of people. It is a matter of personal and professional character.

Character is a cluster of related ideas that includes morality, ethics, honesty, and humane values. It is knowing that the actions taken are right, that is, acceptable. Moral leaders learn to know good from evil. They understand that all people have the inalienable right of free moral choice. And they know that the irrevocable law of the harvest—restoring good for good and evil for evil— operates in life, including work life.

Woefully, some jobs ask leaders to sacrifice fundamental values (Gortner, 1991) at the altar of the expedient. Too often leaders are asked to accept a lower work morality as necessary to get things done in the real world of business or government. For example, politicians ask us to judge them on their policies, not their personal conduct. Social activists claim high moral ground for their programs and sometimes use violence to obtain their ends. Business executives do not want their day-to-day conduct examined, but ask instead that others evaluate them on their bottom line performance (the Enron debacle is a case in point). Journalists may maintain a personal commitment to truth but often succumb to the pressure to be first, and rather than wait for the whole story, and publish half truths. Or they print their biases as the truth.

Both the ends and the means of accomplishing the inner leader’s program goals are important, not just the ends. Many Americans measure the operational manifestation of morality by the Golden Rule: treating other human beings as we want to be treated. Moral leadership is a process, not just an objective. It is love in action. As we enter the twenty-first century, it is apparent that inner leaders are acquiring a new language of leadership, one where it is again okay to use all of the operative “S” words—soul, sacred, spirit, and sin, as well as structure, standards, strategy, system, and style.

Successful inner leaders have learned that they cannot be successful over the long term unless they base their relationships with those assigned to assist them on moral systems. Follower commitment comes after leaders demonstrate their moral code by their actions to institute procedures, techniques, and work processes that consider moral factors. These factors include how the leader handles differences of opinion about human worth, whether or not they highlight impartial analysis and inquiry, and how much they demonstrate caring for their followers.

The Basis of Morality: Spiritual Wholeness

Our work communities do not function well (Wheatley, 1992) when honesty and personal responsibility atrophy, particularly at the top or when leaders are content to focus for ten or more hours a day on only the mundane tasks and ignore their inner spiritual needs or those of their followers. The soul of the inner leader’s morality is love. Love—concern for the well-being of another—constitutes the basis of ethical leadership. Leaders love leading, love their work community’s products and service, and love the people with whom they work. Love accesses the healing and energizing powers of the leader’s spiritual core and recognizes that his or her leadership is a reciprocal relationship with all members of the work community.

Part of moral leadership asks leaders to create “corporate spirit,” a spiritual force that honors high performance, compassion, empathy for others, and individual contribution. It is illogical, therefore, to assume that when leaders come to work they leave at home their innermost core values and beliefs. Moral leaders deal with follower contentment, capacity, equanimity, detachments, and connectedness. When leaders liberate the spiritual content of their leadership, they unleash a powerful commitment to help the less fortunate, to be of service, and to respect those who are different.

Traditional values are waning in those work communities today that have not followed a solid affirmation of moral values. Nothing is filling the values vacuum. The 1970s and 1980s turned vice into virtue by elevating the unbridled pursuit of self-interest and greed to the level of social virtue (Etzioni, 1993). Leaders in the middle are sensitive to the nonphysical. They argue for a return to a society where some things are beyond the pale. All people, including coworkers, want a set of moral virtues, some settled beliefs and values that their work community can endorse and actively affirm—beyond which they will not allow themselves or others to go. This apparent change of position can be seen today in the move to be drug free in the workplace, in the demand to return to values of hard work for a fair day’s pay, and in followers’ desires for leaders to treat them with the same basic dignity with which they wish to be treated.

Moral Leadership

The higher leaders climb in the corporate hierarchy, the greater their burden of responsibility and their need to reevaluate themselves and their spiritual roots. And the root of spirituality is service. The infrastructure of inner leadership is based on the idea of moral leadership founded on service. It is uncompromisingly committed to the higher principle of selfless concern for others. Spiritual leadership rejects coercion to secure desired goals. It is noninterfering of human freedom and choices, though these choices may entail some painful decisions and shifts in priorities. Elements of moral and spiritual leadership include several elements that inner leaders possess and inspire in their stakeholders.

Sharing Meaning

The inner leadership task is more than physical structuring of people and functions that has occupied business managers throughout time. It includes formal relationships, of course; but, more important, the inner leader provides values, meaning, and focus to that structure. It is leaders (not managers) who focus the power present in work relationships on more than just productivity. These leaders shape the cultural surround within which the work community and its people operate. They provide direction, incentive, inspiration, and support to individuals and work communities if support is to be forthcoming. Inner leaders deal with the intimate core being of their followers as they also deal with their bundles of skills needed to do work.

Leadership is the integrating capacity in complex social interaction. The leaders others volunteer to follow will set the goals and determine the values by which the work community measures accomplishment. These values and goals also define the acceptable process, guiding the interrelationships between leader and led. They integrate the needs and activities of the pluralistic constituencies that look to the work community for support, assistance, and meaning. They tie together the disparate goals, measures of success, and strategic policies that govern work life.


In effect, true leadership is conferred by followers. The measure of leadership is not the celebration of the mind but the tone of the heart (DePree, 1989). Leadership over volunteers—the only kind of leadership there is—relies on moral rectitude. Moral inner leaders make followers feel powerful and able to accomplish things on their own. The model of spiritual leadership is not command and control. It is confer and network. The leadership process is an influence process aimed at transforming—changing—both people and system. Success in the twenty-first century will depend on how well leaders understand the role, the technique, the values, and the orientation of moral leadership. Inner leaders are influential in the work community and with each member. Unless the influence they exert is morally acceptable, followers will not follow, and leaders cannot lead. They will have to revert to managing others to get their work done.

Risk Taking

Moral leadership is done in activity, and action involves risk. Sometimes inner leaders need to challenge existing work and work community processes (Kouzes and Posner, 1987). They cannot always simply accept current work systems or existing structural relationships. Rather, these leaders are pioneers, often producing real change that meets people’s enduring needs regardless of the risk. Inner leadership is intended to convert, change, and transform followers to moral action. And change is always risky.

Risk taking is challenging the process (to use Kouzes and Posner’s words), not simply the existing structural relationships but the value system underpinning it. Moral leadership seeks to produce real change that meets peoples’ enduring needs. It enhances production and improves operational efficiency. It improves morale in work communities, fosters greater coordination across functional areas, and enhances relationships with and within the larger community and society.


Moral leaders are spiritually transforming. They enhance people’s moral selves, help confirm others’ beliefs in their own inherent self-worth. In the process, they help create a new scale of meaning within which followers can see their lives in terms of the larger community. Successful inner leaders influence change in the values, attitudes, abilities, and behaviors of individual followers. In this sense leadership is transformational of the people and their work community. Transforming leaders try to elevate the needs of their followers in line with their own goals and aims. In doing this, leaders pay attention to the individual by understanding and sharing in the realization of followers’ developmental needs.

Moral leadership is a change process that transforms both the stakeholders and the institution itself into something better than they were before. This transformation takes place in a consciously created and managed culture that prioritizes morality and focuses on the spiritual side—the heart—of the individual stakeholders. Of course there is some gamble that leading on the basis of moral standards may not work. Asking the leader to foster a specific moral dogma entails risk. The risk is that members will accept only the outward form, not the inner conviction necessary to true moral change. That is always a risk—that members will accept the tenets as an outward show, not have it written on their hearts. Inner conviction, patience, and predictable moral actions will ensure the leader’s success as a moral guide for the work community and its people. If leaders remain focused, if they are seen as authentic, success will come.

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