What is moral leadership, why is it increasingly relevant and how can I implement it? Barb Allen offers her insights introducing SCMLi - ebbf's new suite of moral leadership courses
With moral leadership mentioned time and again as a pillar of tomorrow’s virtuous enterprise, we wanted to know more about the topic and about how we can improve our success in being moral leaders at whatever level we might be in our organisation. So we we decided to interview ebbf member Barb Allen, one of the members of the team that produced and is now offering you the joint
ebbf question: You are completing your PhD in Conflict Analysis & Resolution for organizations with a research focus on Moral Leadership. How does this concept situate among other notions of Leadership?
Barb Allen’s reply: Interest in Moral Leadership is burgeoning as an increasing awareness that what we have previously conceived to be leadership simply isn’t working in today’s complex and highly interconnected world.
The term Moral Leadership resonates for this reason, I think, because people see the need for a broader understanding of what good leadership is. Inherent in the word “moral” is the idea of right and wrong, so we are looking for right leadership, but whose idea of right and wrong is the standard?
Defining what the right thing has proven somewhat elusive in the face of competing needs. It requires introspection, critical thinking and some robust dialogue with diverse groups, which takes a lot of work and an uncommon ability to lean into the discomforts of uncertainty, ready to explore and learn. Anyone claiming to have a definitive model or indisputable idea about what Moral Leadership is or isn’t, risks getting stuck in the same rigid mode of thinking that has gotten us into trouble in the first place.
And in this age of information overload, what’s out there is confusing. There is an abundance of instruction on myriad leadership styles all touting the pros and cons and enumerating descriptions of how doing A, B, C will get outcomes X, Y, and Z. While much of this material does offer pearls of wisdom, there is no coherent framework within which to contextualize these ‘pearls’.
As a consequence, leaders are left with a mish-mash of convoluted and often contradictory ‘best practices’ with random admonitions of “Do this. Don’t do this” leaving them confused and on a perpetual quest for the next silver bullet.
Chasing after Leadership in this manner is exhausting and in the end will not get the results so urgently needed.
To move beyond this fragmented approach, I believe we need to explore the universal principles that cut across all societies and cultures that provide a framework for some robust dialogue because what it means to be a Moral Leader is in a state of constant discovery. We need to be always searching and operating in a mode of perpetual learning if we want to get to true understanding.
ebbf question: It seems nearly every day a fresh corporate scandal is uncovered. In light of these emerging scenarios, right and wrong seem obvious to most people, yet poor judgment and bad behavior by leaders and their organizations continues. Why do you think this is?
Barb’s reply: There are many factors that contribute to these dynamics, but some of the biggest barriers to doing the right thing are in our own head. I’m referring to our mental model of leadership. Our default seems to be status quo thinking, but the way we think about leadership needs a serious overhaul. Here’s an example of the typical ‘leadership’ reaction to a scandal: Investigate, pinpoint the problem, impose a punishment, and then create a new rule to ensure it doesn’t happen again. While this response is understandable in some ways, it is inherently flawed because it is rooted in an out-dated way of thinking about leadership as a position of “power-over” others dictating prescriptions for what other people should or should not do. In contrast, Moral Leadership exemplifies “power-with” inviting those closes to the problems to collaborate in generating solutions. Until leaders break their own mental models that embody power-over, all the solutions they can conceive will remain flawed. So first we need to think differently about leadership.
Additionally, another factor contributing to unethical behavior comes from the corporate structure itself. Organizations are set up with policies and practices designed to get particular results, primarily efficiency in order to be more profitable in most cases. To a certain extent these are necessary goals, however the primacy of profit-making as the ultimate purpose of an organization inevitably neglects other fundamental human needs such as connectedness, a clean environment, contributing to the greater good, belonging, and personal growth and development. Neglecting acknowledgment of these needs and dismissing responsibility to try to meet them in some way generates a tension in organizations that results in alienation – the feeling of disconnect with the organization, its goals and leadership – exactly the opposite effect of what leaders want and need in today’s increasingly conscious marketplace.
Add to that society’s consumer culture, the belief that our happiness and purpose will be fulfilled by having more stuff, fueled by a convincing and relentless media telling us who we are and what we need to make us more worthy, and you’ve got a structural system with individuals on all sides directly “buying into” this version of reality. By mindlessly going along with it, we reify the consumer culture and lose sight of those things which will truly exalt humanity. Essentially we are all a part of the problem and we all need to be a part of the solution.
ebbf question: What is it going to take to interrupt these dynamics?
Barb’s reply: These old ideas and the structures we have built around them are ultimately unsustainable, so their breakdown itself is unfolding before our eyes and it will eventually interrupt these dynamics. But we don’t have to have a reactionary approach waiting and watching the breakdown with disbelief while thinking ourselves powerless.
Everyone has the capacity to be a Moral Leader and the ability to choose to exercise their power to create needed change. It starts with one person making a decision to change. Ghandi famously said, “Be the change you want to see in the world”.
Moral Leaders understand it starts with them. Among my favorite spiritual and moral leaders who was impeccably practical is ‘Abdu’l-Baha, who says this, “The attainment of any object is conditioned upon knowledge, volition and action. Unless these three conditions are forthcoming there is no execution or accomplishment”.
We all come to a place in our lives where we need to make a decision to “be the change” and when we do this, we have to first educate ourselves by building up our knowledge around what it is we want to change. Secondly, we need to call forth our inner moral courage and will to make that change. Thirdly, we simply need to take an imperfect step in the right direction. It’s not a silver-bullet or a quick-fix, but it is a sustainable practice that will reveal to us what else we need to know as we go forth.
ebbf question: Tell us about the new suite of Moral Leadership courses, what does it offer, who is it for?
Barb’s reply: This new suite of Moral Leadership courses is based upon the three conditions for real change.
It starts with the notion of Moral Intelligence, a course in which participants explore the arena of their own morality, understand their own moral compass and gain a heightened awareness of how this greater knowledge of their own selves can be integrated into their daily lives.
The second course, Moral Courage, builds upon this newfound knowledge of one’s own morality and explores the challenges in one’s own character to overcoming the barriers to honoring oneself and being morally courageous in difficult situations. It bolsters the will and confidence to change.
The third course, Moral Leadership, is the integration of knowledge and volition into the realm of professional action where participants will link their own morality to universal principles and learn the skills needed to bring about needed change both individually and collectively. Special emphasis in this course will be placed on developing consultation skills and the role of service to others.
The final course, Resolving Moral Dilemmas, builds upon the other three courses and hones the participants’ skills in addressing the complex moral dilemmas embedded in today’s challenging work environments by digging deeply into case studies and practicing all of the skills learned throughout the courses. I am so excited and honored to be a part of this endeavor!