What is the moral gauge for leaders?


Financier Worldwide Magazine

May 2019 Issue

Socrates and Plato both taught that knowledge and virtue are summed up in the phrase: if one knows what is right, then one will do what is right. Virtue is a kind of knowledge in that deeply ingrained habits guide one’s action. Therefore, the goal of the moral life is to cultivate the very best character one can.

If we use this as a ‘gauge’ for leadership today, what would it tell us? Maybe it is that leaders do not examine deeply enough the moral dimension of their actions or decisions, or that those leaders who exemplify this ‘gauge’ are few and far between. Or could it be that too much other stuff gets in the way, such as covering your own back to protect your job, or focusing solely on shareholders, for example. Or is that morals are not on the radar, or a belief that morals have nothing to do with business? All are dangerous, and people can see the effect of a lack of moral leadership.

Do leaders personally know what is ‘right?’ If so, according to what standard? For what reason and for what result? Leaders need to take time to discern their own morals, understand how they bring them to the workplace and why. Whether they do or do not, there is always a price to pay.

What are leaders’ deeply ingrained habits? The only way to judge this is to observe a leader’s actions and the effect on the people around them. Habits become ‘second nature’. A leader does not even have to think about them. They are automatic consideration and an integral part of decision making. The real issue is: are they positive or negative?

The goal of the moral life is to cultivate character. What are the keys to character development? Character is built on three concepts: (i) who you are – the virtues one has acquired, especially honesty and integrity; (ii) what you represent – one’s ability to recognise moral issues and choose the ‘good’; and (iii) how you act when no one is watching – this denotes the degree of moral internalisation.

These need to be an integral part of all values-based leadership development programmes.

One of the critical issues in keeping the moral gauge pointed in the right direction is ongoing, practical and interactive ethics training. However, bland training seems to be the norm, which is no longer acceptable.

Bland training is a ‘one-shot’ deal that fails to provide skills to help change behaviour or just settles for knowledge transfer, i.e., ‘let us get everyone in a room and tell them what they need to know’. It should be evident that this type of training does not work. It may fulfil a requirement but has little to do with attitude and behavioural change. There is very little substance.

Training that is not bland needs to start with these questions: What needs to be done? Why does it need to be done? How and who should do it, and why?

Effective values-based training is an ongoing process with simple, practical requirements that always provide knowledge transfer. When fully utilised, this transfer helps to change behaviours. The result of any quality values training is to assist people in making better choices, and thereby change their attitudes and behaviour.

Effective values training is all about the transmission and application of wisdom, not just knowledge. Knowledge is the ‘stuff’ (information) whereas wisdom (practical use of knowledge) is what you do with it. Bland training is solely knowledge-based, with limited behavioural application.

Another critical issue is to understand the moral challenges for leadership in 2019. Here are four: First, what does it mean to you to be moral? You need to define it, not just for yourself but for your people. You need to embrace it and consistently promote and live it. Second, what guides you morally? List the values that you internalise and prioritise them in order of personal preference. Third, have you made it a priority to help your people think morally and ethically about their work? This is not just a training activity but a proactive process of moral thinking that encompasses and is a significant part of all training initiatives. Finally, how well are you training your people in moral reasoning, moral theory and ethics?

This process needs people trained in ethics, ethical thinking and moral reasoning. It should be viewed as an investment, not just an expense. A proactive approach creates an environment of trust, that will be ongoing, all inclusive, open to discussion and focuses not just on the common good, but the greater good as well.

Consider the following questions. Is ongoing training for all employees provided on moral and ethical decision-making techniques? Do your mid-level management leaders receive additional moral and ethics training to the rank and file? How does your company express and reinforce its moral commitment to ethics to all employees? What support systems are in place to help employees deal with moral and ethical issues? And are employees encouraged to question their leaders when asked to do something they consider to be wrong?

To ‘see’ what your employees think about morals and ethics, consider three questions to ask them anonymously: How would you rate your personal ethics and moral compass? How would you rate your manager’s or leader’s morals and ethics? How could we improve our company’s ethical and moral culture?

From a C-suite perspective on the moral gauge, leaders might also want to reflect on these issues. First, how old is your mission statement and values statement? If older than three to five years, it is time to revisit, reflect and reposition, as the world has changed since they were created. Second, do you have a code of ethics that is distinct from your code of conduct? If not, why not? Third, a code of conduct only deals with behaviour. A code of ethics deals with the values, morals and the ethics behind any behaviour. Fourth, how do you, as a leader, ‘walk the talk’ regarding the values you profess? Remember, people listen with their eyes, not their ears. Fifth, how are the values and morals you profess, communicated to your employees? Finally, is the ‘moral gauge’ an integral part of all training and education?

All this does not happen overnight. It takes a commitment, creative planning and a practical approach to training and education in ethics, and moral reasoning to create the moral gauge for an entire organisation.


Frank C. Bucaro is the president of Frank C. Bucaro, LLC. He can be contacted on +1 (847) 778 5498 or by email:

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