Moral leadership means always putting people at the center of major decisions, seeing them in their full humanity with their own aspirations and concerns. This kind of leadership looks at trend lines, not headlines. It’s about stepping back and thinking more philosophically and deeply about the unfamiliar forces that are reshaping our lives faster than we have yet been able to reshape ourselves and our institutions. It’s about having the courage to pass judgment on where the future ought to go and having the humility to work with others to get that judgment right. Moral leaders wrestle, and even agonize, about what is right or wrong, fair and just, what serves others and what doesn’t. They acquire moral wisdom from viewing the world through a lens that magnifies their own actions, and by framing issues by how their decisions and actions impact the greater good. Moral leadership isn’t about moralizing. Moral leadership is rooted in, and guided by, a moral framework and set of principles that inform how leaders approach everything they do — how they interact with others, how they make decisions, how they manage and conduct themselves. In this regard, The HOW Institute for Society’s framework for moral leadership was developed to support leaders on their journey of moral leadership and toward building moral authority in the spheres where they are privileged to lead.
“Moral leadership is rooted in, and guided by, a moral
framework and set of principles that inform how
leaders approach everything they do — how they
interact with others, how they make decisions, how
they manage and conduct themselves.”
The hallmark of leading guided by a moral framework is the pause. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “In each pause, I hear the call.” The reason pausing is an act of moral leadership is that only in the pause, do we reflect on the world, the situation we’re in, and what we’re experiencing. We reconnect with our cherished ideals, deepest values, and shared norms. We rethink our assumptions about how we’re governing, operating, and leading, and then we can re-imagine better paths toward better futures. We can ask the deeper questions, such as: where is our societal immune system? Where is there enough social trust and cohesion so that people can look out for each other? And, finally, when we pause, we can look in the mirror and ask of ourselves, “What could we have done? What could we have done better? Did we take the path of least or most resistance?”
The kind of shock to our system that these crises have inflicted requires that we go back to the fundamentals, that we start by pausing to reflect on what we cherish. We cherish vibrant democracy. We cherish dynamic capitalism. We cherish healthy communities. We cherish living in a truly free society. We cherish the ability to pursue individual achievement and to reach for our dreams. And we cherish being able to do so as part of a larger global community. This is the system that we cherish.
And this system balances on the twin pillars of truth and trust.
And yet these pillars of truth and trust are crumbling because they’ve been subject to an unrelenting, longstanding assault. We’ve had breakdowns in truth and trust before. But today, we’re not just deeply divided, we’re being actively divided and fractured — by tools that make it easy to broadcast one’s own “truths” and to undermine real ones. Some truths have been assaulted with impunity, further disorienting and unmooring us.
“What makes a country or a community truly
great and sustainable is when its citizens or
members sign up to have a relationship with ideals
that are greater than themselves.”
What makes a country or a community truly great and sustainable is when its citizens or members sign up to have a relationship with ideals that are greater than themselves and with truths that are agreed to be so basic or fundamental (e.g. we are all created equal and everyone deserves to be treated with dignity) that they can be the foundation of a shared journey toward progress and prosperity — and of respectful disagreement along the way. When citizens, community members, or employees no longer share basic truths, they no longer have a unifying basis for continued association.