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The need for moral leadership


"Management is the science of doing things right, while leadership is the art of doing the right things." If you have ever taken management or leadership courses, or read books on the subject, you have no doubt heard this statement. My focus in this essay is on the second part, "doing the right things."

If there has ever been a time for leadership that stresses the rightness of what we do, that time is now. One has but to read the headlines, or watch the news on TV to get a sense that there is an absence of moral leadership in the world, and we are paying dearly for that lack.

What I see when I look around is a seeming fondness for technical solutions, quick fixes, and short term focus that leaves the real problems to fester. Banks backed risky mortgages, sought money to bail themselves out, then apparently hoarded the money meant for loans. Government officials who had a responsibility to regulate an industry in the public interest, instead accepted gifts and favors from that industry.

Here in the U.S. and abroad, we see daily examples of "leaders" taking the low road and leaving their countries or organizations in ruin. Over the past several decades, even religious institutions (where one would expect moral leadership to be the standard) have demonstrated in many instances a lack of "rightness" in leadership.

If we are to survive as a species, it is long past time to put moral leadership back at the top of the agenda. Leaders have to be willing to take the risks of doing what is right rather than what is popular. This was brought home to me recently when I spoke on the role of leadership in organizational transformation at a Lean Six Sigma conference in Washington, DC. During the question and answer session after I spoke, one of the participants said that while what I said sounded good, it could be dangerous to one’s career to apply the principals I advocated. I was taken aback at first, but then realized that she was right. Moral leadership is risky, because it means shaking people out of their comfort zones, and asking them to accept personal responsibility rather than rely on someone else to solve their problems. It challenges tradition, and provokes fear. But, if an organization or a nation is to make true progress, it is necessary.

From the White House to state house to the Cub Scout den house, we sorely need leaders who will shake us out of our comfortable tradition and pull us kicking and screaming into forward progress. We need people who are willing to put the common good ahead of personal comfort. We need people with the right stuff to do the right thing.