Moral Character Matters, and It Matters Most of All at the Top of Organizations

drew-graham-349640-unsplash*This is a guest post authored by Dr. Nicholas Emler, Professor of Psychology at University of Surrey.

Social organizations generate immense power and great benefits. Today, we rely on social organizations to support every facet of our lives—from food production and distribution to water supply and waste disposal to the provision of health care and national security. However, that power can also be a source of massive harm.  It therefore matters whose hands control the levers of this power. And moral character matters immensely at this level because leaders have significant discretion to act, discretion denied to people lower in the organizational hierarchy.

There are some distinct moral challenges associated with the exercise of organizational leadership; unfortunately, some leaders are not up to these challenges.  This essay identifies seven moral challenges of leadership, and concludes by suggesting that moral failure may be commonplace at the top of social organizations.

The first and most elementary moral challenge concerns the fact that leaders occupy positions of trust; they are entrusted with managing the material resources of the organization. As criminology clearly shows, theft depends on opportunity and most societies are arranged so as to minimize the opportunities available to known delinquents. But matters are very different at the top of organizations; the opportunities and temptations – of personal enrichment at collective expense — can be huge and the strength of character to resist those temptations is often lacking. Think of Enron executives, Bernie Madoff, Jacob Zuma, or virtually any Russian oligarch.

The second challenge arises because leaders occupy positions of power – over subordinates—and the temptation is tyranny. People often have reasons to dislike others and wish them harm. But they seldom act on their wishes because aggression is not free; victims retaliate and the law intervenes. In criminological terms, there are credible deterrents. But as we move up organizational hierarchies, the deterrents become less credible and the cost of aggression fades away. Consequently, bullying, sexual predation, persecution, torture and mass murder can result. The examples here begin with Harvey Weinstein and Robert Maxwell (head of a British publishing empire and notorious bully) and extend to Hitler, Stalin, and Mao Tse Tung and the horrors they perpetrated.

The third moral challenge is based on the fact that leaders are in positions of authority, and are, therefore, responsible for maintaining fair procedures for administering justice.This might seem to be a benign challenge, but not managing it properly can be very costly to organizations. People care about justice—the fairness of the procedures to which they are subject and the outcomes they receive. And when they perceive matters to be unfair, they withdraw their commitment to organizational citizenship, a commitment on which all organizations depend. This leads to depressed morale, lowered motivation, and resentment-driven sabotage. However, the literature on organizational justice mostly concerns how the recipients of justice react; it tells us little about how to deliver justice in a manner acceptable to those recipients.

The fourth challenge reflects the fact that social organizations tend to embody a particular set of values. Think about the claims of competing candidates for political office; there will typically be a contrast in the values they endorse, for example, freedom versus equality. The elected candidate then has an obligation to promote those values. Leaders need to be clear about their value priorities. Without being clear about their values, they risk decision-making paralysis.

Fifth, organizations exist to do something, and achieving that mission is the responsibility of the leadership. Mission failure is also a moral challenge; mission failure is all too often due to incompetence. However, the problem ultimately is not the limited competence of leaders but their failure to acknowledge their limits. Complex organizations require expertise beyond the capacity of any single individual and good leaders have the humility to recognize this and seek expert advice from others. Bad leaders refuse to admit any limits to their omniscience. The results can be corporate collapse and financial ruin for thousands of investors, the catastrophic failure of health care organizations, battles lost with massive casualties, the economic ruin of entire countries (think Robert Mugabe), and mass starvation.

Sixth, leaders have a moral obligation to avoid collateral damage when pursuing the organizational mission. Much of the literature on corporate crime documents this moral failure. It is estimated that on the job injuries resulting from unsafe working practices are 7 times the injuries resulting from criminal assaults. Avoidable deaths from occupational accidents and diseases are between 5 and 7 times as frequent as deaths by homicide. In addition, evidence collected by US federal agencies show that about 20 million Americans a year are injured or killed by unsafe consumer products. Corporate executives may not intend these consequences but they are foreseeable, and often foreseen; the Ford Pinto and Thalidomide are but two examples.

The final and perhaps most difficult moral challenge to meet, is to use the opportunity provided by leadership of a powerful organization – most notably but not only a nation state – to do good, to address grievous wrongs and injustices, to root out corruption and oppression, and to face down tyrants. The list of leaders rising to this challenge is depressingly short. One reason may be that the complex causal linkages in social systems are difficult to grasp and interventions designed to fix one problem often have other unintended but damaging consequences.

Why are we so often poorly served by our leaders? Some of the reasons are noted above – the corrupting consequences of opportunity, the lack of effective deterrence, etc. But another reason lies in processes of leader selection. The extensive psychological literature on leadership selection and evaluation is largely irrelevant because it assumes the selection process is rational and empirical—e.g., assessment center methodologies. In most real organizations, however, people are chosen for positions of leadership through selection processes that are heavily top-down. And in top-down selection, politics and technical competence often trump questions about the moral integrity of candidates.