Moral Courage In Leadership

Jan 15, 2014 1 Min Read

Within each of us lies an invisible divine compass called conscience. God concealed this compass somewhere within us to allow us to differentiate between right and wrong and help us lead an honest path in life.

Appreciate this compass, because logic and reason alone are insufficient resources to determine the right path.

People sometimes reason themselves into a completely opposite path than what their conscience points to, leading to the painful and heart-breaking question, “How did we get into this mess?”

But is conscience a practical approach for leaders? No one ever talks about conscience in school or around the workplace.

Many of us have been taught to decide based on “facts” not “gut feelings”. Many are taught to discount cash following flows, and apply Porter’s Five Forces instead of doing what they feel is right.

But what should a leader do when the facts point in one direction and the gut points in another?

How many of you have had the chance to work with someone that you would follow no matter where they go, simply out of your devotion, e.g. for who that person is?

Often, I can’t help but ask myself, “What does this person have that creates in others a willingness to follow them for who they are, not just their position?”

My bet is that the answer to that question is “Integrity.”

But what exactly is integrity? Some describe integrity as “doing what you say you’re going to do,” or, “integrity is what you do when no one is looking.”

According to Lee and Lee in their book Courage: The Backbone of Leadership, integrity is “acting for what is right.”

It means sticking to your principles. It is basically “doing the right thing because it’s the right thing to do.” It means leading from the “moral centre within.”

Integrity surely means acting with honesty and sound moral principles, and integrity definitely is important for a leader.

When a leader acts with integrity, his or her team learns to believe and have faith in his or her decisions, resulting in improved performance, results, and finally with everyone improving.

This in fact is the very purpose of leadership, to help people become a better version of themselves.

Take an example: What would you do if a key client or your supervisor asks or demands you to do something that you know is wrong?

The urge far too many people succumb to is to rationalise. The most common rationalisation is to convince yourself that your utmost responsibility is to your family and that you owe it to them to not risk any career promotion prospects.

The drawback is that it ignores a much bigger duty and responsibility to your family: to embody courage and good character.

This reasoning, on any day, trumps any argument of duty and responsibility to your family, yourself, your company and the society to do what is right and not take the convenient path.

The risks of asserting integrity to a client which prefers blind cooperation or a boss who prefers obedience are certainly real.

They might retaliate when they do not get what they want, which might make your life somewhat more challenging.

Nonetheless, moral courage is the much-needed guardian of conscience and character. The personal costs of putting your integrity on the line are so high, that looking at the long run it is worth taking the risk.

Once you go down the slippery slope of moral compromise, it becomes impossible to prevent the inevitable slide.

It’s like going just one degree off your internal compass. After some time, you’ll find yourself hundreds of kilometres away from where you intended to be.

Three acts of integrity

1. Discerning right from wrong.

Go to others for advice, particularly those who have demonstrated a level of wisdom greater than our own.

These people can be experienced teachers, mentors, colleagues or trusted friends who can help us to see and reflect about what is right and what is wrong.

At the same time we should also listen to our conscience. Doing actions that do not gel with our internal compass is a definite sign that those actions are wrong.

In addition to honouring our conscience, we also need to be mindful that our own personal needs are not the only basis to justify actions and decisions. We must constantly keep ourselves in check.

2. Acting for what is right regardless of risk to self. 
Too often we see decisions made that are clearly not in the best interests of the people at large. Rather, they serve the interests only of certain individuals.

Leaders of integrity continuously let others know what they think the right decision should be.

These leaders never force others to make decisions that clash with their sense of right and wrong.

They seek to promote integrity in others. They allow others to express their doubts and hesitations, and challenge the decisions being made.

They are also open to being persuaded that they could be making wrong decisions too. They value integrity and expect nothing less of those they lead as well.

3. Teaching others from that act of integrity. 
By displaying acts of integrity, we communicate to those around us that integrity is important.

We are sending this message that doing the right thing is the best thing to do and we should expect it from those we lead.

Mahatma Gandhi, the father of India, never held an official position. Instead, he led via moral authority.

He lived by his principles to garner the respect and confidence of others. Gandhi had the vision of India becoming an independent country and the people identified with him.

In our learning institutions and workplaces, leaders and managers may have formal authority by virtue of their position.

However, more often than not, they lack moral authority, which results in a broken culture.

If you live by your principles, despite having no formal authority, you can still influence the people around you and bring out the best in them.

If a person asks or expects you to do something inappropriate, the best (and most effective) way to safeguard your integrity is to refuse immediately, firmly and as tactfully as you can (without appearing self-righteous).

Instead of worrying about what that person might think of you, turn the table and let them worry about what you might think of them and how their request compromises their own reputation and integrity.

Raina Radzaif is a learning and development practitioner with a leading Malaysia-based multinational corporation. Click here for more articles like this. 

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This article is published by the editors of with the consent of the guest author. 

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