Ethics Forums

The Moral Challenge to Today’s Leadership
Richard O. Mason

America’s new, and most poignant, “day of infamy” raises deep questions about leadership.  As a nation we look as never before to our leaders to create and achieve a new vision in this tormented world.  But it must be a moral vision and our means of achieving it must be moral as well.  Moral leadership must strive for noble causes such as improving human well being or realizing the goals stated in The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 

Morality is often assumed in descriptions of leadership.  One of our leading thinkers, Warren Bennis, sums up it up as follows.  They are  people “who know what they want, why they want it, how to communicate that to others to gain their support to get it.”  And, they are able to mobilize others to struggle toward their shared aspirations.  Moral leadership requires something more: securing improvement in the human condition through one’s own and other’s efforts. 

By the traditional account, Osama bin Laden is an effective leader.  He wanted to make a horrific statement to the United States and did, for reasons we cannot fully fathom but must be clear to his baneful mind.  Bin Laden’s compelling reasons undoubtedly included resentment against the United States and what we stand for.  “A race of such men of resentiment,” Nietzsche observed, “is bound to become eventually cleverer than any noble race; it will also honor cleverness to a far greater degree.”  If nothing else the terrorists were clever.  Our leaders must respond with equal shrewdnesss

The transplanted Saudi has been especially effective in enlisting others to create a global cell-structured organization that he uses to communicate his wants.  The resulting information net is robust and redundant.  Knock out one cell and the others adapt. 

Incredibly, bin Laden and his cohorts have been able to entice hundreds of talented young men to spend several years of their lives in waiting, learning a distinctive skill, such piloting large aircraft.  Only to be triggered on command to employ that skill by smashing a plane, laden with passengers and fuel, into some of the world’s largest buildings.  At least 19 of these followers, some of whom apparently had families and promising careers, were calmly and steadfastly loyal to the cause, although they knew with certitude that their lives would come to a fiery end. 

This is a remarkable feat of leadership, but it is based on a bad morality.  Unguided leadership is just raw power.  As Nietzsche also reminds us the higher the level of power the greater the possibility that it can be used for evil as well as good.  To wit: Hitler and Stalin.  Ethical leadership needs a moral compass. 

What is true North for this compass?  According to the Declaration of Human Rights we should assure “the inherent dignity” and “the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family.”  In William James’ vision, moral leaders should try to bring about “the very largest total universe of good.”  In our quest for justice we must not compromise these sacred values, although our notions of freedom and security will never be the same. 

What steps must be taken?  A few simple rules will not suffice given the complex, pluralistic, uncertain world in which we live.  The moral challenge we face  today is several fold.  First, we must affirm our moral vision. 

As a society we must begin to develop a retinue of moral leaders of all ages and persuasions.  The clash of civilizations we are dealing with covers the globe and will be with us for a long time 

We must encourage our current leaders, beginning with President Bush and radiating out to all citizens, to temper our rightful moral outrage with moral wisdom.  The mythic leader is an infantry first lieutenant rising out of the trench and pointing to the enemy.  Today there is no one single source of evil at which to point.  This evil is marbled throughout the world.  It must be rooted out one small unit at a time.  Doing justice requires many cell-sensitive rapiers rather than a massive bludgeon.  Instead of a few large moral decisions – invade Normandy, drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima – thousands of globally distributed and frequently unique moral decisions must be made, often in parallel. 

Each leader’s moral character will be our bulwark. 

Where will these leaders of character come from?  Our educational system is our first line of defense and offense.  Character formation begins in early youth, first in the family, then in our schools.  Traits like honesty, integrity and regard for the sacredness of human life begin there.  Local organizations like the Dallas Coalition for Character and Values are working to help meet this need. 

Moral development continues, indeed for many it takes significant strides, during the college years.  One gains powerful knowledge and leadership skills as part of a university education.  It is essential that students also learn to use this power for moral ends.  Programs at the U.S. Naval Academy, West Point, Duke, and SMU, among others, are geared to do this.  Business also is addressing the issue .  Metroplex based  companies such as EDS, TI, Southwest Airlines, TXU, ATMOS Energy, Help International Inc., and The Container Store have crafted programs to assure that their employees behave ethically and treat their customers and fellow employees with respect. 

In light of the challenge of the Al-Qaeda network, however, all of these noteworthy efforts must be expanded. 

In searching for an overarching principle for building character and guiding distributed moral leadership in today’s fractionated world, leaders will do well to follow Aristotle’s maxim: always act towards the right person, at the right time, in the right place, in the right amount, and in the right way. 

Richard O. Mason I

Director, Cary M. Maguire Center for Ethics and Public Responsibility


Carr P. Collins Distinguished Professor of Management Information Sciences, E. L. Cox School of Business, SMU.