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Moral Leadership: A Pipedream?
by Lawrence E. Wharton


I contend there are large, possibly huge, numbers of leaders at all levels acting immorally on a regular basis. If you find this statement shocking, I am glad because I believe that my concerns address a major problem in today's work setting: leaders inadvertently sucking the energy out of people rather than clearing the way for them, and very little being done about it. I contend that such leader behavior is both immoral and highly unproductive for the organization, seriously diminishing its ability to realize its vision.

Employees have commitment and energy drained from them by inappropriate leader behavior. This paper is about that behavior, not leaders' role actions. The former addresses the what and how of interpersonal interactions, and the latter everything else a leader will do, such as make decisions, convene teams, allocate resources, organize, plan, etc. These two aspects of leadership are clearly connected, but they are different and need to be addressed separately because they have very different impacts on staff.

Most people would not question that leaders at all levels and in all organizations should be ethical or moral (for simplicity's sake I am using the terms synonymously, but will use "moral" for effect) in their actions. As part of this expectation a considerable amount of attention has been focused in recent years on a few large-scale ethical issues --- sexual harassment, bribery, poor product quality, pollution, intentional lying/misrepresentation, and discrimination are among those.

To address some of these important issues, universities have added ethics courses to business curriculums, and organizations have adopted codes of ethical behavior and instituted training in morality and ethics. Some organizations have even gone so far as to incorporate moral elements into their prime values, such as in respect for the individual. Additionally, a number of renowned authors have written about the need for ethical behavior of leaders.

Unfortunately, there is little to suggest that leaders are behaving any better now than they did before all the attention arrived. Certainly there have been improvements in some of the large-scale issues I mentioned above. Sexual harassment is lower, diversity is greater, and possibly product quality is better. But on a day-to-day basis I still see poor behavior on the part of leaders at all levels, behavior that I characterize as immoral. I believe such behavior continues to occur because there is:

  • A failure to see that the essence of leadership is moral behavior.
  • A fundamental misunderstanding about how moral actions arise and are inculcated in the workplace.

No doubt many leaders will be appalled and aghast that I am suggesting they frequently act immorally, something most people associate only with a small group of very bad actions. I understand this response, but the issue of leader behavior must be raised to a more challenging level of conversation and action for us to get a handle on the enormous damage done by many leaders, often very nice folks with the finest of intentions. To address the problems many organizations have around productivity, performance, and success, we must call attention to the behavior that obstructs, dramatically, insidiously and at a very deep level, an organization's drive to achievement. And we must act on that behavior. But to make the profound changes that must be made, obstacles to success from leader behavior must be called what they really are: immoral, because they do avoidable harm to others, and often to the leaders themselves as well.

The large-scale issues I mentioned above are unquestionably deserving of attention and action, but I think they are being dealt with in very low-leverage ways. Training, codes of ethics/morality, off-site retreats, the promulgation of organizational values, and books/articles are fine, but they are superficial efforts that generally lead to little or no improvement. Leaders act in morally sound ways on large issues only when they understand what it means to so act on small issues, and the leverage for this is in organization-wide leader self-understanding and self-control.

Moral Leadership

Being a moral leader begins at a very fundamental level, and it relates to how we treat people one-on-one, every day in the organization, often regarding the simplest things and interactions.

Morality is mainly about how we relate to and deal with others, but it also includes how we interact with ourselves, the respect with which we engage ourselves. Actions towards others do not have to reach the level of stealing from them or sexually harassing them to be immoral. I am arguing that many leaders act immorally at work and have no idea they are doing so. How can this be? In simple terms, it has to do with the fact that many leaders appear unaware of the motives underlying their behavior and of the impact of that behavior on others. Hence, they cannot adjust their behavior to reflect this knowledge. And many of those who are aware lack the will to make changes in their behavior.

Respect is the basis of moral behavior. Disrespect does harm to others, and we can say that any avoidable harm done to others is immoral. Unfortunately, defining respect in any precise terms is impossible as each of us has a somewhat different view or a different set of characteristics that make up respect. For example, I may consider respect to be telling people exactly what's on my mind, and you may think doing so in such a direct fashion is in fact disrespectful. Not only are there legitimate differences in how we use the word respect, the issue is further complicated by the fact that respect is not about agreement, or even liking the other person.

Some people assume that passionate disagreement is disrespectful. Certainly it can be if drivers or inappropriate style aspects are acted out (see below). But there are no reasons individuals and groups cannot disagree heartily and still be respectful. Given all this, how can we talk about respect?

Although a universally workable definition is not possible, we can talk about respect in a way that is useable and will produce the behavior we are after. But before addressing this I want to explore the main contributors to immoral leadership behavior.

  • Behavioral drivers.
  • Style.
  • Habit.
  • Intention.

Behavioral Drivers

These are the most powerful and usually the most dangerous of the contributors. We know that many, probably most, people have drivers or personal needs (usually but not always unconscious) such as the need to be right, to win, to be loved, to avoid conflict, to be perfect, to be appreciated, or to be successful. In themselves these are not necessarily problems, but they are when the drivers are large and cause behavior of which the leader is unaware and thus does not control, or of which the leader is aware but chooses to do nothing about. These drivers will come out most prominently when a person is under stress and perceives that the realization of a driver is threatened.

Consider what happens if as a leader I have a powerful need to win. What treatment are you likely to get if you are supporting a position or view different from mine? My need to win, if uncontrolled, takes precedence over everything: the need to be fair, the reasonableness and value of your position, and the situation's requirements. Executive-level leaders often justify the outcomes of such interactions as reflecting their greater knowledge and experience. Certainly that may have been part of what happened, but it is usually a much smaller part than leaders think. Executives are frequently unable to separate the impact of their drivers on their behavior from their cognitive appreciation of what happened, leading to justifications and rationalizations.

When a leader acts out her/his drivers, it is done so at everyone else's expense. I do not take your view, ideas, or position into account when I am hijacked by one of my drivers. In fact, I may have to actively undermine your position to accomplish my need to win, as one example. This is immoral leadership as I am not being respectful of you. As I mentioned above, whether I agree with your position is irrelevant. In fact, the more strongly I disagree with your position, or the less I like you, the greater the requirement for me to be respectful.

I know a leader who has a very high need to avoid conflict. What happens when this individual is faced with having to hold a staff member accountable? It just doesn't happen. When he is able to address the problem behavior or performance at all, the session and content are so watered down that it is useless in aiding the staff member to change. This manager rationalizes his behavior by saying something like he doesn't want to hurt the person's feelings, but in reality the need to avoid conflict trumped the leadership requirement of holding a person accountable. This is immoral leadership because the leader's obligation is to assist a staff member in changing behavior or actions, for the benefit of that person, the unit, and the others within the organization. Abrogating this responsibility demeans the staff member and the leader as well, thereby failing to bring respect into the situation.

Most leaders are passably moral when things are going their way, when their needs or goals are not being (or seen to be) compromised or threatened. It is far more difficult to act fairly and respectfully towards another when things are not so rosy. Consider a manager I am working with who has a high need to be appreciated, to be seen as worthy. When he senses the satisfaction of this need is in danger, he acts in ways that enhance the chances of being appreciated. If this means he has to misrepresent, make others look bad, boot-lick the boss, distract people with irrelevant issues, play the victim, or outright lie, that's the way it goes. In most cases he is totally unaware that he is doing these things, and these behaviors have one goal: his need first. All other aspects are a very distant second. Such leaders, as nice as they may be, are potentially very damaging to an organization because they do not know that they do not know. Immoral leadership.

If leaders acting out personal drivers are asked about their behavior, they are often unable to understand what the questioner is talking about. Their actions and the consequences for others are not conscious for them. In all likelihood, those leaders will get defensive at anyone raising even the possibility they were acting inappropriately. If a person has the temerity to suggest that such behavior is also immoral, the challenger may not survive the encounter.


In addition to personal drivers, style factors can play a powerful role in immoral behavior. We can talk about style from many different standpoints, including personal styles, such as internal or external focus (one aspect the Myers-Briggs Type Index assesses), and leadership styles, such as participative and authoritarian. Many leaders have focused on style factors as a way to better understand the job of leader, and how they can best use their style strengths and deal with their style weaknesses. Leaders have used techniques for themselves and their staffs to aid in the quality of interactions, team building, etc. These efforts assist leaders in understanding their personal styles of communicating, thinking, decision-making, etc., and their particular leadership styles.

Sadly, my experience has shown that very few leaders use increased style knowledge at all well. For one thing, people may have a proprietary sense about their style: "It's my style and you'll just have to take me that way." This means that people may use their styles as a way to get things from others, rather than as a way to understand and better work with others, particularly those with different styles. In other words, they stand on their styles. I think this is immoral as it says that my needs (in this case my style needs) come first, regardless of what you might need or the situation calls for. An example: a leader I am familiar with who acknowledges freely that he has anger outbursts. When staff tells him those are intimidating and lowering morale, he responds with, "Well, that's who I am and how I function." Immoral leadership once again.

Another example: a leader I have worked with has what is referred to as an "east coast in-your-face style." This has caused him enormous difficulties with peers and staff members, and has derailed at least one promotion. He sees no need to change or adapt, even in the face of evidence he is harming both himself and others. "It's who I am." Unfortunately for him and those who work for him, he does not realize that his style is not who he is, and that it can be changed. Of course, this leader's supervisor is also acting immorally by not understanding what is happening with his subordinate and assisting the latter in improving. The supervisor has indirectly allowed harm to come to others.

A second thing about style factors is they are very difficult to use in the workplace. Consider a leader I have worked with who was seeking more effective team energy and spirit from his group. He and the team members went off-site and took a style questionnaire, learning a good deal about themselves. Now comes the problem: The team members went back to the same workplace, with its culture and reinforcers that actually support the old, less desirable behaviors. While the leader understood more about his own style, he could not use it effectively with his team when pressures arose, when he was under stress. He lacked the awareness and discipline to use the new knowledge, two absolutely vital pre-requisites for using style aspects properly.

To make style awareness most effective, leaders have to analyze behaviors of theirs that actually reinforce less desirable outcomes. Unless these are changed, people will return to the same system and continue the same behaviors, no matter how much they know about their own and others' styles. Understanding and correctly using reinforcing systems is critical for developing moral leadership. A leader I know sincerely wanted collaborative efforts among his reporting managers, sending them to training on collaboration and demanding they assist each other. Unfortunately, he praised only those managers who did successful things on their own. Everyone got the message of what behavior he really wanted. The executive did not.

I am not suggesting that leaders (or others) do not have a right to their styles, only that their styles should not rule them. Certainly no one has the right to use style as a way to get what he/she wants, behavior that is surely disrespectful. The quality leader understands her style aspects, but she also knows that their manifestation is often inappropriate, and controls those impulses.

Thirdly, and connected directly to why style factors are so poorly used at work, is that they cannot be considered without also looking at personal drivers. Let's examine one leadership style: participative, normally considered valuable in work settings. A leader I have worked with has a very participative style coupled with a big driver to be liked. What could be a fine leadership style quickly turns into a disaster when, in a setting in which a participative style is definitely not called for, he resorts to it regardless. The leader's personal need for being liked trumps all other factors. The message (although this is usually vociferously denied) is that what makes him/her feel comfortable is what is correct. Certainly this can happen on occasion, but rarely. To make style examinations useful the leader also must become aware of his/her drivers, and must act on those.


Less powerful than either drivers or style, but still potentially immoral, are habits. These are behaviors we have picked up over the years that we are usually unaware of, but which are an important part of how we interact with others. They may be positive or not. For example, a leader's habit of saying hello to everyone in the morning is positive. A leader's habit of using jokes throughout meetings and obstructing work in doing so is negative. This is hardly the stuff of moral or immoral leadership, but everyone can see the impact even such small habits can have on others.

Consider the leader I know whose habit in staff meetings is to use bits of sarcasm. Nothing outrageous, but still sharp and cutting to those on the receiving end. My observations and conversations with him did not reveal any deep underlying drivers or even style issues. As we talked about how his staff meetings went he was very surprised to hear that people thought he used sarcasm, which he assured me was not part of how he operated. He saw all his interactions as jokes, as an attempt to lighten the atmosphere. This leader had also failed to note people's reactions to his little bites, and thus had no indication that anything was amiss.

As we talked about his behavior, he recalled that a boss of his many years ago had used this same technique. Apparently, this leader had acquired the habit without being aware of it. Since no one over the years had confronted him about the habit, it naturally went on unchecked. The revelations from my conversations with him and his subsequent discussions with his team allowed him to realize that his habit was damaging his staff's (and his) ability to function well.

We often acquire habits unconsciously and are thus unaware that we even have them. They are so much a part of us that we cannot see them at all. Certainly it is very hard to see that a habit of ours can hurt someone. Nonetheless, habits can be de-energizing to staff and others, and may often fall into the immoral leadership category when they are disrespectful. As with all other contributors to immoral leadership, the initial key is self-awareness and understanding.


The fourth contributor to immoral leadership is intention, wherein a leader consciously and intentionally acts in ways that harm others. These can take one of two main forms:

  • Behavior in which harm to others is accepted (perhaps even desired) as an outcome of a leader's action or as a vehicle to achieve something valued by the leader.
  • Behavior which is intentional (conscious and deliberate), and about which the leader has (or may have) good intentions, but does not see the harm to others.

Clearly any leaders who intentionally desire to harm others, or who do not care that such harm may occur, are acting immorally. Fortunately, I think there are few leaders falling into this category. It is my judgment that the majority of harm done to staff members or others is by leaders in the second category.

For the most part second category leaders are smart, committed, and often quite sensitive people. The problem is that they are (or appear to be) unaware of the negative impact of their actions. An example: I know a top leader who has 4 executives reporting to him. He states he wants them to be strong and collaborate, but he pits one against the other in both private and staff sessions. As a result, they are highly territorial, battle and undermine (albeit in underground ways) each other constantly and, as a group, barely tolerate each other. The top leader has told me he does this "pitting one against the other" intentionally so the organization will develop internal competition, which he deems very healthy and needed. The top leader sees none of the negative outcomes. Naturally, considerable damage is done to the organization and many of the folks in it (not just to the executives) by virtue of the top leader's behavior.

I do not know that he is not intentionally harming people, but my sense is that he is unaware. Having said that, there is an interesting outcome for the top leader: his executives are so busy setting themselves up and dealing with each other that they have no time to collaborate and challenge any of the top leader's goals and directions. Is the top leader unaware of this neat little outcome?

My conversations with this leader have made him aware that his tactic of pitting one executive against the other is backfiring in major ways, but he does not (will not?) see it. The information is rejected and he rationalizes his behavior. There is no question in my mind that this is immoral leadership.

Another leader I am aware of speaks highly and dramatically about the need for trust among the various parts of the organization. He articulates this beautifully and forcefully. Regrettably, he is the organization's biggest trust problem, and cannot (will not?) see it. His method of dealing with direct reports is to create a climate of fear and uncertainty, which he fiercely denies exists. He is both very bright and very erratic, moving from one change initiative to another and allowing no time for the organization to consolidate the gains from the last one. He is offended that people are not always "on-board," and that they often resist his directions. This leader punishes people in open forums for any dissent, no matter how carefully and respectfully phrased, or beneficial the comments, even though he talks endlessly about increasing trust and openness.

In this leader's mind, he is advancing the organization, and is at a loss to explain why there is resistance, and why people in the field do not understand that HQ has their best interests at heart. He is unable (unwilling?) to see the complexities of the situation and his own huge contributions to the trust problems. The interesting thing about this leader is that he is undeniably sincere about the trust issue. He is totally unaware of the impact of his contradictions, and is doing considerable harm to staff - immoral leadership.

Last example: A leader who frequently throws staff into a tizzy by demanding, at a moment's notice, information or reports very difficult to put together with much longer time frames. She puts staff into a crisis mode in which people literally scurry around practically bumping into each other to get the job done. Rarely is the information demanded used at all, and even more rarely is the short time frame needed. While the turmoil is going on, solid work is left undone and the leader is seen as totally unreasonable with little understanding or concern for what staff have to do and how they can best get it done. Morale is low and productivity, as you might guess, similarly low. She compounds the problem by "beating people up" about the work that did not get done while they were scurrying around getting her demands met.

This leader actually thinks she needs what she requests from staff. But she is unwilling to examine that assumption. Nor is she willing to see what harm is being done to staff and to their work by her behavior.

These are all examples of leaders who are acting intentionally, and as far as I can see without malice or any desire to harm others. Nonetheless, they are in fact harming others and their organizations as well. They are acting immorally.

The Contributors

These four contributors to immoral leadership behavior are certainly not the only ones. For example, I know a very bright and normally very kind leader who periodically goes around the table at a meeting of her executive staff and berates them, not horribly, but enough to make people feel embarrassed at the least. Everyone gets a share, almost as though she wants to be an equal opportunity abuser. It's very difficult to tell what is happening, especially as this behavior does not come very often. Even so, the behavior is immoral in that people are being harmed. And just consider things like sulking, rigidity, crankiness, unfairness, playing the victim: these are relatively small forms of behavior that can have a negative and harmful impact on others. My point is there are a large number of ways that leaders can act immorally, and I have covered only those major categories that I think have the largest impact and which I have seen occur often and dramatically.

It is clear the four contributors cannot be seen as absolutely separate, and I talked above about the connection between style and drivers, as one example of connection. Similar connections may exist for any of the four.

Consider a leader I have worked with who is a highly energetic and forward thinking individual. Her style is to move very quickly in directions she feels the organization should go, and this orientation has some major benefits. She is also visibly energetic, often finding it difficult to sit still for any length of time. While this latter behavior has not been a problem for staff, its combination with a high need for control has caused trouble. She is constantly running around (literally), looking over people's shoulders, finding fault everywhere, and attempting to do everyone's job for them. All this has resulted in lowered morale and productivity, and with increased turnover. Immoral leadership.

Another leader I know has a strong style need around precision of language. In itself, given the sloppy use of language we see today, this should be a good thing. And it would be if it were not also connected to a habit of sarcastic criticism. Anyone whose language does not meet the leader's required level of precision is in for a tar and feather treatment, usually in front of others. Holding people to quality use of language is fine, but doing so with sarcastic methods is unwise and demonstrates disrespectful behavior.

These examples are not profound illustrations of immoral leadership, yet they serve to show two things: the contributors are frequently connected to each other, complicating the process of uncovering what is happening, and even small issues such as these contribute to a level of disrespect. And it is precisely such small aspects that need attention, as they can often become much greater.

When I talk about the contributors, I am generally not referring to individual instance or events, but to on-going patterns of behavior. The leverage for change with any person or group is first, to see and understand the patterns. Second, leaders must determine what reinforcing mechanisms are at work that encourage the behavior. And there are always reinforcers: no behavior is repeated unless there is some kind of payoff. Find the payoff and you have found the leverage for change.

The Search For and Use of Information

One highly significant aspect of immoral leadership is that leaders caught by the contributors do not engage in a fruitful search for information that will assist them in dealing with the potential immoral behavior. All of the examples I have used in discussing the contributors to immoral leadership have the potential to be dealt with if the leader seeks information about what he/she is doing, how it is viewed by others, and what he/she can do to adapt. This information is essential to developing a respectful environment, and it is by far the most difficult thing that most leaders will ever do. As I stated above, acquiring the information demands that leaders engage others about their own behavior and its impacts on others. Leaders must constantly question their own assumptions, and ways of seeing the world and acting within it. This is best done with others, not in a closet safe from critique that is the most valuable information they can get. I will provide more thoughts on the search for information in the next section.

An interesting outcome of any leader's failure to seek information about his/her own behavior is that those same leaders are unlikely to seek information about what is really happening within the organization; these leaders are prisoners of their own world view, and their inability to escape it usually has to do with needs, styles, etc. It, too, often results in immoral leadership.

Leaders frequently fail to make themselves aware of problems existing within their units or organizations that are compromising the ability of staff to get great work done. Many leaders make the assumption that if they hear nothing, all is well. I know a CEO who has 6 vice-presidents reporting to him, two of whom are abusive to staff in some way, one of whom is a conflict avoider, par excellence, and a fourth who is truly incompetent. All four of these individuals are sucking energy from their staffs, but the CEO is blissfully unaware. He has no reporting or feedback mechanisms to gain this information. Of course, to even a casual observer the signs are completely visible. He cannot see them because his frame of reference does not include room for this type of information. I consider this immoral leadership because people are being harmed (not to mention great work is suffering) and he is choosing, if unconsciously, to do nothing about it.

Another leader I know thinks he is getting the information he needs about what is happening in his organization. He goes around the table with his direct reports and asks them what they "really think" about an issue. Mostly they agree with the leader, in some cases almost slavishly so. He thinks this is good feedback. Having established a slight climate of intimidation, although his words express otherwise, he is going to get nothing that will make anyone in the room look bad or upset the leader, but he is unaware of that. He imagines himself to be participative and open, and he isn't even close. People are being harmed at one level or another in the unit. Staff members have told me that his lack of awareness often translates into sub-units battling detrimentally for resources and gain. People in these units trying to do great work are impeded because of this unaddressed negative competition, and are often treated badly when trying to rectify problems arising because of the conflicts. This is immoral leadership.

Lastly, another leader I know actually solicits information (occasionally) about things that may not be going well. He appears very receptive, being a good listener, and he even asks clarifying questions. The person bringing the information is thanked and, naturally, leaves the meeting feeling quite good. Unfortunately, nothing happens. The leader chooses to do nothing with the information, but he never tells this to anyone. Of course, by now everyone in the place knows his "openness" is a sham, and he is back to getting information that makes him feel good, but compromises the organization.


We are now back to the issue I posed earlier: what does being a moral (respectful) leader mean? Respect is one of those things that falls into the category of, "I can't define it, but I know it when I see it." Aside from all the characteristics that can be used to define respect in one way or another, we can talk about three absolutely critical components:

  • Understanding one's motives, both conscious and unconscious.
  • Being aware of one's behavior patterns and how they impact others.
  • Controlling any impulses that adversely affect others (e.g., personal needs).

A leader's motives include both conscious aspects, such as desiring to achieve a particular goal, and unconscious aspects. The latter are particularly powerful because they are deeply based in a person, and are not at the level of awareness. Examples of unconscious motives are any of the personal drivers, the desire to protect or defend oneself, and the need to escape a fearful situation.

Motives drive behavior. Everyone's motives can impact others, and a vital key to development in a leader is to become aware of those impacts. A leader can do this only by asking those for whom his/her behavior may be troubling, mainly (but not only) those who report to the leader. The leader cannot control what he/she cannot monitor, and the leader cannot monitor what he/she is unaware of.

Impulse control is the final piece in the puzzle. Knowing about oneself is necessary but not sufficient. Controlling disrespectful behavior requires intense concentration, as the default settings are old and well established. Thus, leaders must pay very close attention to what is happening to them (monitoring) so they can be aware when a problem behavior is about to present itself, and then control that impulse.

Embodying all three of the critical components in daily work is enormously difficult, and requires relentless practice and lots of mistakes, but the payoff for this effort is substantial.

I have argued that respect is the basis of moral behavior and that one cannot act morally in one's interactions with others if respect is not present. But as we have seen, respect cannot be precisely defined because there are too many legitimate views and interpretations. Still, we can get to the behavior we desire. My experience tells me that a leader who works hard at cultivating the three critical components in his/her behavior will automatically be respectful, no matter how the word is defined.

The three critical components do not come about by accident, or even with the best of intentions. They come about only if we are willing to engage with others, those with whom we interact and who are impacted by our behavior. In a sense this requires that we are able to control our normal defensive reactions even before the understanding of our motives or behavior patterns is complete. This demands courage and discipline, for we will be under great stress. We will likely receive information from others (particularly direct reports) that will be contrary to how we see our actions and ourselves. But we must have this information. It does not mean others are absolutely correct, only that they have a perception of us that we need to examine very carefully and address. Others' perceptions of us did not arise in a vacuum. Something we did or said caused or contributed to it.

High Standards and Accountability

Quite a few leaders, when I have posed to them the concepts presented above, have complained loudly that I am recommending a system in which employees have to feel good all the time and the boss is always the culprit, a chronically misbehaving devil. They further argue that such a system denigrates the whole idea of high and demanding standards, and the accountability that must go with those.

These are unquestionably valid concerns. Let me say right up front that I see no contradiction at all between having a respectful work environment and one characterized by high standards and solid accountability. Having both is indeed possible. The problem is not in having high standards or strict accountability; it's in how those are put into play, if at all, by leaders. Consider the executive I know who has very high standards, ones entirely in keeping with his organization and his industry. Unfortunately, his manner of conveying those standards, and in holding people accountable, is abusive. Or recall the leader I mentioned earlier who has a real fear of conflict. His standards are high, but only in his words, not in his actions. He articulates fine standards, but when it comes time to hold folks accountable for them, he folds.

Leaders have told me they occasionally get very angry at a person's poor work or errors. Leaders may justifiably feel anger about a staff person's mistake. Once again, feeling anger is not the problem. The problem is acting it out in ways that are disrespectful. Can a leader express anger and frustration without letting drivers, style aspects, etc., get in the way? Absolutely, but doing so requires powerful self-control.

Being respectful is often associated by people with helping them feel good. This is not what respect and moral action are about. Certainly people treated well are likely to feel good, but that is not the aim of leader moral behavior. A leader could act very respectfully and still have a person be upset and angry, or experience hurt feelings. If the leader is truly being respectful, embodying the three critical components, those hurt feelings, etc., are not his/her problem. Like leaders, staff members are prone to their own issues around drivers, style, etc., and may very well become captured by one of these elements in the midst of a stressful interaction with the boss. In most cases the most important thing for the leader to do in this situation is to control his/her behavior and, where, appropriate, call the person on his/her behavior.

Moral leadership entails providing people clear standards and holding them constructively accountable. Not doing so, for whatever reason, can be seen as immoral leadership. In fact, I argue that not holding a person directly and constructively accountable is among the most reprehensible aspects of immoral leadership. A breakdown of moral courage.


True moral behavior can be a part of every organization's functioning, but it demands that the small, frequent interactions that occur every day are characterized by respect. Most folks, including leaders, agree heartily with this idea. What they fail to understand, and which is why we still have lots of immoral behavior among leaders and staff, is that they must focus their efforts in a new direction and look at things they have considered irrelevant or even dangerous.

The new "things" they have to look at are:

  • The nature and quality of interactions between leaders and their followers, and how those need modification.
  • The degree to which leaders monitor their behavior and the impact on others.
  • The use of that monitoring to control behavior.
  • The presence of reinforcing aspects that encourage respectful/disrespectful behavior.

Leaders are not psychoanalysts and should not try to be. It is not a leader's business what drivers a person has or whether he/she is aware of them. It is the leader's business whether and how those drivers are acted out, and this can be described objectively and non-judgmentally. This a leader can work with. If, through the leader's efforts, a person becomes more aware of what is happening "inside," fine. If not, that too is the person's own business. But the lack of awareness, or even agreement, does not mean that person may continue inappropriate behavior.

Seen in larger scope, top-level leaders must not only embody (properly act out and model) the value of respect through self-awareness and self-control, they must know how leaders below them are acting those out, and have both formal and informal systems of assistance to leaders who are not in the "moral place" yet. These requirements are demanding in the extreme. They call on leaders to look at themselves and their organizations in ways they have not done before, and which will likely produce information they don't want to hear and with which they may disagree mightily. Further, there must be different and more comprehensive feedback methods that tell the full story about how subordinate leaders are really behaving with their staffs. The efforts some organizations have put into play to address this, such as 360-degree feedback procedures, can produce valuable information. However, that information is often ill used if it conflicts with unexamined assumptions and mental models, or provokes the acting out of personal needs for which there is no accountability.

As part of a 360-degree feedback process, I provided a senior leader information from a questionnaire of his direct reports regarding his leadership skills and behavior. Unfortunately for him the results were less than stellar, indicating that his staff had a very low level of trust in him. He responded with anger and total disagreement, defending himself vocally. Whatever his personal needs were at that moment of stress, he failed to use critical information to improve himself and to aid his staff in producing great work. Immoral leadership.

Perhaps the most significant way senior executives can inculcate moral behavior into the organization through its leaders at all levels is to take modeling to the next level. Each leader must engage directly with those leaders that report to him/her. That engagement requires the supervising leader to learn, from personal experience with the direct report, how the latter actually behaves. This requires, for example, the supervising leader to be in meetings with the person supervised to see how things go. Since people in such settings are likely to be on their best behavior, the leader also needs to talk with the direct report leader's staff, either in the form of personal interviews or short surveys. Obviously, for this to work the supervising leader needs to have established an environment of trust. Otherwise, no one will tell him what he really needs to know.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the supervising leader must pay very close attention to how those leaders reporting directly to him/her behave under pressure. Personal needs, etc., pop out when leaders are under stress, and moral leadership is easily compromised. This information is invaluable. No matter how wonderfully leaders tell their bosses they behave, they must be seen in stressful situations to get a full and real picture. Some of these situations can be created directly by the supervising leader engaging with the direct report in challenging, but respectful, ways around how the latter behaves.

Failure and Misunderstanding

At the start of this paper I stated that immoral behavior continues to exist within our institutions because of two things: a failure to see that the essence of leadership is moral behavior, and a misunderstanding of how moral actions arise and are inculcated into the workplace.

Leadership is not about "technical" (or job) knowledge, it is not about titles, and it is not even about great visions, as valuable as those are. It is about having followers, those who willingly work their hearts out to get great work done. People do not bring willingness and dedication to the job accidentally; they bring those because of how they are treated. My thoughts on moral leadership are about how the leader treats others, most dramatically about respect. Much can be demanded of people and accountability can be very tight, but without respect the leader will not have followers, the leader will not have the highest levels of energy and commitment that arise only from within the followers. So, leadership at its most fundamental is about engendering respect within the organization, top to bottom. This is moral leadership.

The "misunderstanding" I mentioned at the start of this paper comes down to this: some changes in people's behavior can be brought about through training and other assistance, including legal sanctions, as the improvement in women's managerial opportunities and the increasing diversity efforts in the workplace attest. But these actions do not mean people one-on-one will necessarily behave more respectfully; they may just be more subtle or careful. The tone set within an organization for moral behavior comes from the leadership at all levels, but most particularly from the senior leaders. Certainly some of that tone comes from offering women more advancement opportunities and by developing a more diverse workforce. But from my experience a larger portion comes from the way in which leaders treat others (followers, peers, their own bosses) on a daily basis, and which non-managerial staff usually mimics. And this is all about respect.

For moral leadership to work its way through any organization, the way leaders behave and the way people treat each other must be the focus of an institution-wide, senior leader-driven approach. Without this systemic view, pockets of moral leadership may exist, but the system as a whole will not support it. Moral behavior arises and is inculcated into the workplace only through the actions of leaders, top to bottom. It will not occur because top leaders tell us they insist on having moral leadership, through training, cleverly worded values statements, cross-institutional forums about respect, high-priced consultants, or pleas and exhortations by leaders. Moral behavior (respect) must be demonstrated at all times by all leaders, in every interaction throughout every day. Those at the top, those with the highest level of responsibility for ensuring leaders act morally, must begin the effort with themselves. Senior leaders have little credibility with staff when the former articulate fine sentiments on work place interactions and respect, but do nothing about either their own behavior or that of those leaders below them.

Is moral leadership on any large scale a pipe dream? I do not know, but I know that people with understanding, commitment and will can bring about a profound level of change that encourages moral leadership. The difficulties are enormous. The shear momentum of so many leaders in so many organizations acting immorally, even if in small ways, is daunting. Will the challenges be met and overcome? Only each individual leader can answer that question. Are you one of the few who can reverse the tide?


The Author


Lawrence E. Wharton is a partner of a leader behavior consulting firm (Wharton and Roi) that focuses on the connection between leaders' behavior and unit/organizational effectiveness. The firm has worked with clients such as Costco, Boeing, Oregon Dept of Health, The Oregon State Bar, Sharp Microelectronics, Portland Community College, The Casey Family Program, and many others.

Contact Lawrence E. Wharton, MBA at 3931 E. Skyline Dr. Tucson, AZ 85718, Phone: (520) 577-0823, Fax: (520) 577-3644, and visit .

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