The leadership quagmire: what did we get ourselves into?



What is the quagmire in leadership? The quagmire is caused by the lack of moral awareness and failed leadership. These two issues are at the heart of unethical and illegal behaviour in companies today.

Moral issues arise from one of two sources, i.e., one source being what is right versus wrong, defined as when a value is violated. If honesty is broken – someone has lied to you – or if fairness or compassion has been breached, those are pretty obvious. Those rear their ugly heads in a very obvious and clear way. The second source is what to do when it is right versus right, for example, when two core values come into conflict with each other, like if a leader is in a situation where one has to be compassionate and yet just,. How does one discern where that decision lies? Alternatively, respect and fairness – how do we recognise that distinction? Here is where leaders need to agonise, in a positive sense, over the decision. This is well worth the leader’s time to discern because it has a much more lasting effect than right versus wrong, because that is much more evident.

There are moral obligations for leaders. One must always put people first when decision-making. If people are your most valuable assets, are they a top priority in making decision of this importance? If not, why not? What does this ‘say’ to people?

As a leader, you have the right to disagree with behaviour, but never to go after a person’s self-esteem. There is a difference between asking someone ‘How could you be so stupid?’ and saying ‘Normally, you do not make this type of a poor decision, why did it happen here?’ The first approach attacks the self-esteem not just the behaviour. The second approach starts by affirming self-esteem while disagreeing with the behaviour.

Rules, laws and ethics apply to everyone, from the board of directors down to the new hire. There cannot be different rules for different levels of leadership. Everyone must play by the same rules. These rules include both the company’s mission statement and its values statements. If a leader wants employees to believe and live these statements, then the leader needs to model which one they want their people to live first.

Honesty has a key role to play here. If you have a short memory then you should always tell the truth. If you tell one lie, the chances are there will be more lies, and then you will likely forget what you lied about in the first place.

The second issue is failed leadership. Leaders need to understand that their position and title may grant them authority, but only a leader’s behaviour will earn them respect. Leaders cannot demand respect. It is only earned.

Morally aware leaders need to commit to moral principles that will provide continuity, consistency and commitment. Leaders need to develop a sensitivity and a realisation that there are risks involved in living out those principles. Yet if the leader is grounded in moral principles, are they willing to stand up for those moral principles and deal with the consequences? What is the leader’s ‘price to pay’ factor concerning their decision? Just because a leader can do something does not mean that the leader should. The question that needs to be consistently asked is what is the price to be paid for what you want to do? If you cannot pay, then you must walk away. What goes around always comes around.

There are many considerations leaders must bear in mind in order to keep their moral focus. They must re-examine the organisation’s mission statement and values statement to ensure they are still current and viable. Leaders must emphasise that staff must engage in ethical behaviour at all times. This is done by communicating the non-negotiable behaviours expected of all staff, but particularly the company’s leadership. The next step would be to identify any grey areas in the company’s goals and values. These areas should become new training topics for the leadership. This, then, would create the need to develop strategies to recruit, recognise and retain moral leaders.

Failed leadership and a lack of moral awareness are both conscious choices. Indeed, it is a rational choice. This is not by accident. Lack of knowledge may be unintentional; parties simply may not be aware that there is a moral dimension to be considered. However, failed leadership is a conscious choice. People choose to be dishonest. People decide to cheat. People choose to fudge numbers. That is a choice, and, as with all choices, there are consequences, good or evil. It is a leader’s responsibility to see what others do not see, to discern what others may not, and to act with fortitude, conviction and moral purpose. This is exemplary moral leadership.


Frank Bucaro is the founder of Frank C. Bucaro & Associates. He can be contacted on +1 (630) 483 2276 or by email:

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Frank Bucaro

Frank C. Bucaro & Associates

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