By this time last year, powerful technological, political, social, and economic forces were already reshaping the world faster than we were able to reliably adapt — deepening divisions among us and intensifying anxiety within us. Many of us already felt an urgent imperative to elevate ethical and moral leadership in all sectors and levels of society because we saw how interdependent we are — how, more than ever, we rise or fall together.
And then a tiny invisible pathogen encircled the world, creating a global pandemic. But what started as a global health crisis quickly became a global humanitarian crisis, exploding into an economic crisis, and an unemployment crisis. It also became a more fundamental moral crisis, as it presented us with vexing issues and painful dilemmas, even the ultimate dilemma of trying to save lives versus livelihoods.
These crises also forced us to confront the many ways in which, although we were, as we were told, “in this together,” we were being disproportionately affected and harmed. And also to confront what was laid bare and revealed about persistent and pervasive inequality and racial injustice, both historical and modern day.
They also turned into a crisis of authority because in times of crisis, people, feeling vulnerable, naturally look to authority – to those in charge – for truthful answers, principled decisions, and bold, courageous action. And for hope, which comes from seeing organizational leaders bring out the best in people by inspiring collaboration, common purpose, and future possibilities. And yet, not enough of us got enough of what we were looking for.
While our democratic and capitalistic systems can’t function without leaders with formal authority, what really escalated this crisis is that many leaders occupying those formal positions — from business to politics to schools to sports — lacked moral authority. Leaders with moral authority understand what they can demand of others and what they can only inspire in them. For example, they can appropriately demand the truth, but they must inspire loyalty, principally by putting others first. They also understand that formal authority can be won or seized, but moral authority has to be earned every day by how they lead. The lack of moral leadership from those with authority — particularly during this time of multiple crises — further fractured our trust.
“Formal authority can be won or seized, but moral
authority has to be earned every day.”
With all of these crises simultaneously combusting, the urgent imperative for moral leadership we felt then surely must be felt ever more so now — to elevate and scale moral leadership in every level and sphere of society — teachers, CEOs, presidents, mayors, governors, media, hospital directors, school principals, and parents.
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 ethical 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.
There are three distinct kinds of truth that are under assault. The first are empirical truths. Facts, for example, like: do masks work or not? For some people, masks have become a cultural marker, a symbol of freedom or oppression. And for others, it’s just a practical device that either empirically works or does not at reducing the spread of disease. When we no longer agree on facts, we don’t have a shared reality. Without a shared reality, we lose trust in each other and in our systems and institutions. Without trust we cannot be united in purpose and progress as a society. We must work to restore trust in one another and in our institutions so that we can begin to share empirical truths once again.
“Without trust we cannot be united in purpose
and progress as a society.”
The second, are enduring truths about human nature. As Aristotle posited several thousand years ago, humans are social animals. Our ability to be physically social has been limited due to the pandemic, but while we have virtual social networks and platforms available to us, that does not necessarily mean that all of us utilized them or found ways to embrace each other in constructive ways through them. Technology amplifies our own echo chambers — either because we actively seek out like-minded groups or we are the unknowing participants in an algorithm that filters our content — we remain divided and isolated. Our lack of virtual common ground does not allow us to see one another in our full humanity, which corrodes trust. Our misuse of technology has impeded our natural inclination to be social. We must elevate enduring truths about our human nature and scale positive versions of them.
And finally, the most important truths that have been assaulted are moral truths — values like freedom and justice. Self-evident truths that we are all created equal. People around the world cherish freedom more than anything. But when people are in the grip of lies and misinformation, they’re not free. If you’re animated by a lie, even if you’re passionate, you’re not free. Only the truth can set us free. When we don’t share moral truths, trust breaks down, in the most vicious ways, tearing at our bases for shared associations and endeavors.
“Leaders we will remember from these crises
are those who put more shared truth into our
world, not muddied it. Those who put more
trust into our world, not eroded it.”
Without shared realities and truths, there can’t be social trust and there can’t be trusted institutions. And without trust, we can’t progress as countries, as companies, or as communities. Which is why the leaders we will remember from these crises are those who put more shared truth into our world, not muddied it. Those who put more trust into our world, not eroded it. Those who were animated by values — especially humility — to do the right things, especially when they were difficult or unpopular. Those who trusted people with the truth — however bright or dark. We will remember those leaders — the ones who told us the truth — because those are the ones who earned our enduring trust.
The pandemic simultaneously stretched the world thin, exposing our infirmities, and fused it together, collapsing spheres of society, the economy, and our personal lives into one. Given the central and permeating role business plays in all spheres, the imperative for moral leadership here is especially great. Social, religious, political, geopolitical, environmental, human, ethical, and even existential issues that were once considered tangential to doing business are now inescapably central on its agenda. Many businesses reacted to the pandemic by doing the right thing and putting people first. By putting people first, they not only earned trust, and inspired deeper loyalty, they also laid a path forward for their business consonant with the imperatives of a post-pandemic world. I hope many will see the wisdom of putting humanity at the center of their businesses in the future, too, with greater benefits for workers, the community, and shareholders. Good moral leaders will learn from these crises and pivot accordingly to move forward in a better direction. In a political leader’s case, in a company leader’s case, in an education leader’s case, that pivot will be anchored, hopefully, in truth and other deep human values — and then move in the new directions we’ll need in a post-pandemic world, where people’s expectations will have fundamentally changed.
We at The HOW Institute believe that our next national and global project is clear and inescapable. The long-term project, because it will take time, is to restore shared truth and foster trust everywhere, and in all institutions, in all organizations, in all communities. The integrity and resiliency of our system depends on it. Everything and anything else we hope to accomplish depend on it.
If truth and trust are the pillars supporting all future human endeavor, the good news is that every leader and every person in their communities — presidents and CEOs but also teachers, principals, mayors, and neighbors — can do their part to restore truth, to guard truth, and to engender trust. For global business leaders this means creating supply chains that are not just about speed and efficiency but about resilience and integrity. For leaders in education this means educating the heart of each student, where values like empathy and compassion reside. To quote Aristotle yet again, “Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.” And for political leaders this means prioritizing people over power. For all spheres of society, the common thread is that we must put people with moral authority in positions of formal authority. And once our pillars of truth and trust are strong again, we can get back to more effectively pursuing individual success, collective dreams, and ambitious goals, all within a more just and inclusive society. But it’s going to take moral courage and shared truths.
“For all spheres of society, the common thread is
that we must put people with moral authority in
positions of formal authority.”
Which is why The HOW Institute’s mission — to build a culture of moral leadership, principled decision making, and values-based behaviors — must be pursued with fierce urgency. The only thing that will save us, is if more people — of all ages, races, genders, and faiths — build moral authority in their respective realms and then use it to do big, meaningful things. As the great moral leader Martin Luther King Jr. said, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”
Please click on the image below and watch a short video to reflect further about moral leadership and learn how The HOW Institute is working to build and nurture moral leadership across society.
Thank you for being a friend of The HOW Institute. We are deeply humbled to be in common cause with you in our shared commitment to the society we envision. We look forward to continuing this journey together through 2021 and beyond.