The Reflective Function

The Reflective Function: A Key to Emotional Freedom[i]

How do we rise above the emotional storms that can erupt during times of change, strain, and struggle in order to get at the heart of the issues and find a constructive path forward? Whether this is applied to oneself, to relationships, or to events in a large-scale organizational initiative, this competency, emotional self-regulation, is often what makes the difference and distinguishes exemplary leaders. 

Image by Tsung-lin Wu

Image by Tsung-lin Wu

I’ll begin with an anecdote shared by Stephen Covey years ago. It portrays an emotionally charged social situation that we can use to gain insight into a powerful approach to emotional self-regulation called "mentalization."  As you will see it employs a special kind of reflective function, which can be learned and leads to greater emotional freedom and relational leadership competence.

A Human Situation

Renowned leadership author Stephen Covey shared a personal experience about riding the subway in New York City and becoming annoyed with the disruptive behavior of some young children who were running, jumping, and making noise. Meanwhile, their father simply sat there saying nothing. Finally, in growing frustration, Covey turned to the man and asked: "Sir, could you please control your children?"

Many of us can immediately sympathize with Covey: We are exhausted and on our way home. All we want is to be left alone. How inconsiderate of this guy to let his kids run wild in a confined public space. What is he thinking? We are offended and resent this father's neglect of basic parenting responsibilities. It’s all we can do to contain our annoyance and moderate our tone when we finally speak up.

Then Covey throws us a curve ball: The man responds as though awakening from a deep sleep. His stunned expression conveys confusion. He struggles to orient himself to the situation at hand. Then he speaks haltingly, "Oh, I guess I was not watching. We were just at the hospital. Their mother just died. I guess they don't know what to do with themselves, and I don't either."

Wow, talk about awakenings! Suddenly Covey sees things very differently. His feelings of annoyance now seem trivial, embarrassing. They shrivel into insignificance. His mind is flooded with feelings about this poor man, his heart is softened. What Covey earlier saw as rude indifference he now recognizes as shock and trauma. Covey calls this sudden shift in perspective a paradigm shift.

Call it what you wish, the disclosure is jarring and its effects are transformative. Even as second-hand experience for the reader, the power and impact of this story is stunning. We so easily sympathize with Covey's feelings of annoyance and his resentment of the father's inaction. We so readily accepted his attributions of inconsiderate behavior to this man—"how could this man be so rude?"

Covey's initial attitude was governed by norms of propriety and considerations of what was due him, Stephen Covey, as a fellow passenger. In that moment he does not wonder what might be going on with the man that would explain his actions. The father is objectified. He's merely a fellow passenger, and he and his obnoxious kids are being "bad" passengers, a source of annoyance.

Then suddenly all these assumptions are shattered. The emotional meaning of the interpersonal situation is transformed. A new set of values and norms now apply. It is no longer a matter of common courtesy among subway passengers. Offense at the violation of such perfunctory rules evaporates as Covey is drawn into this person's raw and early moments of bereavement and loss.

Covey finds himself sharing the bereaved man's confusion, caring less about how his children might be "misbehaving" and more about how he might comfort or help the man. His emotional attunement to this man's inner world activates norms of compassion, caring, and yes, patience. Time is suspended. This has become a moment to restart engagement, realign priorities, and connect with another human being if only to the next station stop.

The Reflective Function

First, I must say that I admire Covey's candor and willingness to confess to what some may regard as petty annoyance. Such disconnects and misunderstandings happen. We know from studies in human development (attachment) that even in a well-bonded infant-mother relationship there are many moments when the pair is out of synch. What differentiates a secure attachment is its capacity and commitment to repair ruptures, to restore connection.[ii]

Now, let's go to the heart of this example of human interaction, for it offers us some important insights that are equally relevant at home, at work, and in the community. And for those who seek to lead and lead well, I believe these insights should be of particular relevance and importance to you. After all, not only do leaders succeed by establishing and maintaining alignment with stakeholders, but when it comes to leading change, attunement to issues of the heart becomes especially crucial.

A colleague from whom I have learned a great deal, David Wallin[iii], has distinguished three levels of consciousness available to us in waking life: 1) embeddedness, 2) reflection, and 3) mindfulness. In the anecdote Covey shares with us, his initial social-emotional reactions arise from a state of embeddedness. He is in the grip of his own intensifying emotions and projects onto the father a role (rude passenger) and attitudinal characteristics (indifference), which justify his own reactions.

It's important to observe that we all do this regularly. That is, we evaluate and respond to others and social situations from an embedded level of consciousness. In most cases, it is not problematic, our reactions are more or less appropriate and proportionate to the external situation. However, as we see in Covey's story, our assumptions and attributions about others are not always accurate. In his case, Covey is shaken from his embeddedness by a rather dramatic disclosure from the man. This prompts what we might call "implicit" reflection and re-evaluation.

This reflective function places our social-emotional feelings and the associated assumptions and attributions that underlie them before us, questions them, making them problematic: "Wait a minute, this situation is very different in meaning than I thought. I was way off the mark! Oh my God, this poor man." In this reappraisal of the situation Covey is implicitly recognizing that the man is acting from his own unique subjective life experience, which is very different from Covey's. The man’s behavior is mediated by his state of mind, i.e. trauma, shock, confusion, disorientation.

This mode of reflection could also be more deliberately invoked ("explicit" reflection) by recognizing beforehand that a situation, e.g. a discussion about change with organizational stakeholders, is likely to evoke strong emotions from others. Anticipating this, we might expect that others may react from a state of embedded consciousness. Their reactions may be defensive, i.e., intended to protect them from what they perceive to be adverse effects of change. We might also anticipate that the tension of the situation could arouse our own anxiety and excite our own defenses.

In the embedded state, we believe that whatever we feel fully and accurately represents the objective state of affairs; it is the full story. In the reflective mode, we act from an awareness that each person experiences a situation from their own subjective point of view. We also recognize that each person's viewpoint is energized by feelings (desires, fears, worries, aspirations) and by the values that they believe are at stake (dignity, respect, fairness). A reflective attitude thereby opens a space for addressing these differences, giving them their due. This reflective function is central to an adaptive capacity of the person known as mentalization.

Mentalization, a concept coined by Peter Fonagy[iv] and his colleagues, has been defined as "keeping one's own [mental] state, desires, and goals in mind as one addresses one's own experience; and keeping another's [mental] state, desires, and goals in mind as one interprets his or her behavior."

An even simpler way of thinking about it is as the capacity to see oneself from the outside and to see others from the inside. It is particularly helpful when seeking to understand feelings. Mentalized affect provides us with a full and accurate grasp of the meaning and the importance of feelings, ours and those of others.


On the one hand, life would be a tedious affair if we had to deliberate or reflect on every action we took or each feeling we had in the course of a business day. Therefore, I want to reinforce that operating from an embedded state of mind is normal and healthy. Moreover, when we do mentalize, it need not always be explicit or deliberately initiated. The key to judging the quality of our emotional self-management is to appraise it from a pragmatic point of view: Is it working for us and for others?

On the other hand, the capacity to explicitly mentalize one's own and others' feelings, aspiration, values, and goals can go a long way toward promoting constructive problem solving, collaborative stakeholder relations, and resilience at the individual, team, and organizational levels. It is through explicit practice that one's implicit ("natural") mentalizing skills grow—mentalizing is action[v]; it’s something we do. And it can be incorporated into developmental interventions such as coaching, team development workshops, or change leadership programs.

I haven’t said much about the third of level of consciousness, mindfulness. Suffice it to say that it provides two vital functions: 1) a restorative function in meditation, which helps moderate our baseline emotional intensity; and, 2) an attentional function, invoked as an attitude in a helping relationship. Jon Kabat-Zinn defines this second function as, “the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present, and nonjudgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment to moment.”[vi]

Contact Information:

As always, we're happy to discuss any questions you may have about how the topic in this blog might be relevant to you, others in your organization, and your ways of being helpful to them. Contact me by phone at 401.885.1631 or by email at


[i] This article draws upon research and practice in clinical and developmental psychology, which I have adaptively applied to developmental coaching and leader development in the workplace. As such, its use may imply needs for further training for those who approach the practice of coaching from outside professional psychology.

[ii] Indeed, it is by working through and repairing ruptures that relational competence is gained. E.g., see Safran J. & Kraus J. (2014). Alliance ruptures, impasses, and enactments: A relational perspective. Psychotherapy, 51 (3) 381-387.

[iii] Wallin, D. (2007). Attachment in Psychotherapy. New York: Guilford Press. Another good source on the practical application of attachment theory in helping relationships: Costello, P. (2013). Attachment-Based Psychotherapy: Helping Patients Develop Adaptive Capacities. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.

[iv] Fonagy, P., Gergely, G., Jurist, E., & Target, M. (2002). Affect Regulation, Mentalization, the Development of the Self. New York: Other Press.

[v] Allen, J. & Fonagy, P. (2006). Handbook of Mentalization-Based Treatment. New York: Wiley.

[vi] Siegel, R., Germer, C., & Olendzki (2008). Mindfulness: What is it? Where does it come from? In F. Dionna (Ed.), Clinical Handbook of Mindfulness. New York: Springer.



Agency: a vital aspect of leader identity development

There is no more emblematic aspect of leadership, especially in the West, than our freedom to choose, to initiate purposive action, and to persevere and adaptively change our approach to the goal in the face of resistance or opposition. All of these qualities are expressions of human agency and they’re especially vital to anyone in a position[1] to lead.  

It is tempting to stop right here, relishing the power and productive force of this personal quality, but it’s proper expression and systemic effects require us to consider more. As Oliver Wendell Holmes was wont to say, it’s simplicity on the other side of complexity that is most valuable! Let me explain. 

Deconstructing Personal Agency for Leaders

First, there is the rational component. Agency implies the rational capacities of self-consciousness, the ability to formulate purpose and goals in the context of means-end problem solving, and the will to choose and act. Let’s call this instrumental reason.  

Second, there is the normative component. Agency implies judgment concerning the “oughtness” or appropriateness of purposes, goals, and actions, usually with respect to some standards of what is good, right, and proper. Let’s call this moral reason.  

Third, there is a social-relational component. Agency as a self-conscious function of instrumental and moral action implies attunement to others (stakeholders in the widest sense) who will be involved in and affected by our actions. Let’s call this relational reason

Fourth, there is a deliberative component. Agency is informed, prompted, and guided by two kinds of mental processing, intuitive and ratiocinative[2]. The former is our immediately felt sense of things, and the latter reflects our analytical mind at work. Let’s call the reflective use of both integrative reason

Life-long development yields a broadening and deepening of experience. It advances learning, and creates opportunities to mature rather holistically in all aforementioned aspects human agency. This is a kind of adult identity development that produces wisdom, prudential judgment, and moral virtue in leaders. It is a multi-dimensional picture of what excellence looks like in mature executive[3] agency. 

Cultivating Agency in Emerging Leaders

You can readily see that agency as a single quality of the person, of the leader, is and can always only be an abstraction. In reality, it involves multiple modalities of mind that arise from the interplay of diverse qualities of the person, i.e., moral development, personality and interpersonal tendencies, cognitive style and abilities, and openness to learning. So cultivating a mature quality of agency is a messy task, which each person must navigate…but not alone. 

That is the reason we have designed our approach to emerging leader development as we have. Here are a few design principles (thesis points) we have found to be essential:

  1. Holistic development of the person as leader takes time (we believe six months) to really get traction for the individual, and to manifest at the organizational level.
  2. It requires a deeper level of self-examination than is implied by a review of competencies alone (thus we developed the Leader Identity Questionnaire™).
  3. It must involve a focused application and integration of insights and developmental action (therefore we include a special kind of business-relevant action learning).
  4. It calls all to participate (not only HR, but management, supervisor, coach, coachee, and the cohort), and it yields developmental and performance benefits to all.
  5. It requires a simple, practical approach to measurement in order to validate impact, show management it works, and to bolster commitment to invest and stay with it.  

A half-baked approach, one which over-emphasizes action at the expense of insight, or one that promotes EQ without connecting it to consequential action, may help some, but it will miss the mark that we are aiming for. And what is that? We believe that early-career professionals today must have a sense that they all have an opportunity to grow and advance professionally and to mitigate the risks of job security, which they know all too well after witnessing 2008. Organizations must do more to build real commitment by delivering on these expectations in practical, sustainable, and sincere ways.  

Let's face it, we can’t guarantee lifetime employment to those we recruit and wish to retain. But we can assure them through our actions (including our emerging leader development program!) that everyone has a fair chance to grown, learn, and advance. We can demonstrate this best when we are confident enough – and this is where piloting and validating the program comes in – to insist on management involvement, and when we link development to really important work, work that makes an obvious difference. 

Absent these indicators of sincere action, it will look like window dressing! 

It's our belief that most organizations need some outside help to make this happen. Our approach is to connect with and complement the internal HRD resources of the client organization. We also recognize the need to adaptively shape the fundamental design principles of our research-based approach to the unique features of the organization. We strongly recommend that you keep these considerations in mind as you engage your chosen external resource for an emerging leader development program in 2017.


[1] It makes no difference whether one is in that position because of being appointed to it (formal leadership) by management or simply because he or she is best qualified and situated to assert the leadership required in the moment (informal leadership). In fact, it is this situational assertion of leadership that would seem most needed given the nature or our “flat” world of commerce and the flatter structure of our organizations. Indeed, it is these considerations that argue in favor of the approach we take to developing your crop of emerging leaders.

[2] Ratiocinative refers to the more analytical, logical mode of processing information, which checks for consistency and coherence, i.e., in the simplest form, that 2 +2 = 4 and ≠5, and in an appraisal that the facts do or don’t support the conclusions drawn. It includes both inferential and deductive reasoning, all modes of mental activity that are mediated rather than immediate or unmediated acts of knowing.

[3] I use the term “executive” here not to denote a position of authority in organizational hierarchy, but to identify a functional capacity of the person that enables excellence in leadership. Such excellence in leadership, of course, implies that it creates systemic effects such as a contagion of intelligent, morally virtuous, organizationally healthy and productive action.  

Contact Info:

You are invited to contact the author directly with questions or comments. He can be reached by email or at 401.885.1631.

Emerging Leader Development Webinar

I am using this blog to announce a 40-minute webinar on November 30th, which presents an innovative, scalable approach to emerging leader development - something I've been thinking about for years and finally go around to building this past year. In this blog you'll find a bit more about the point of view with which we tackled this challenge, more on the content we'll cover, and what you can expect to get from the webinar.

The Business Case for a Programmatic Solution

Given all that has been published on the Millennial generation - how to recruit, retain, and develop the best talent in this segment of the population - I spend less time making the point that focusing on them is a priority for HR executives and HRD professionals. Rather, I try to characterize key themes that we must be mindful of when conceptualizing the problem (challenge) and the solution.

Demographic/Generational Facts:

  • More than 1 in 3 American workers today are Millennials (Pew Research, 2015).
  • Millennials are diverse – more immigrants, more women, and more people of color.
  • They came of age in uncertain times, less security and greater need to be self-reliant.
  • They must do more to create the security, loyalties, and opportunities they want.

Implications for Management:

  • Get real about promises, i.e., unconditional fairness versus unconditional security.
  • Get personal, i.e., notice who they are, affirm differences, form bonds of attachment.
  • Get practical, i.e., scalable development strategies that rely on their initiative.
  • Get smart, i.e., build on what you and they learn about cultural “stickiness”.   

Opportunities for HR Leadership:

  • Innovate where it matters, i.e., get line management involved, tailor solutions.
  • Leverage best resources, i.e., a vital few external partners + one unifying strategy.
  • Capture learnings, demonstrate validity, i.e., measure and report impacts.
  • Be the “Convener in Chief,” i.e., less focus on procedure, more on insight & results.

Contact Info:

You are invited to contact the author directly with questions or comments. He can be reached by email or at 401.885.1631.



Making Something of Yourself as a Leader

George Washington resigning his commission in 1783, later becoming the first president elected in 1799 by unanimous agreement. 

George Washington resigning his commission in 1783, later becoming the first president elected in 1799 by unanimous agreement. 

Yes, it is a distinct feature of our nature as human beings that we are self-constituting in regard to our moral identity.[1] Indeed, in this respect, philosophers of all stripes would agree with Jean Paul Sartre, "we are condemned to freedom." Because most of prefer to revel in our real or desired freedom from the limitations others would place upon us, we may chafe at the word “condemned” in Sartre’s adage. But upon reflection we observe that our choices make us responsible for the consequences of our action.

To paraphrase Sartre again, even not to choose is a choice. And that more than anything might explain the sobering use of the words “condemned to freedom.” We are, then, making something of ourselves in each moment of life based upon the choices that are reflected in our attitudes, actions, and their moral consequences. Why do I single out moral consequences? Because they are most consequential of all. Once we’ve lost our moral integrity as a person, it’s difficult to command moral authority as a leader.

Okay,” you say, “that makes sense, but what does all of this mean in more immediate, applied terms for those of us who lead or aspire to lead others?” How do these basic considerations about human agency and moral identity have implications for leadership and leader development? Don’t we believe in a separation of church and state? Aren’t we so diverse and pluralistic as a society that discussing morality has become a bit sensitive? Can’t we just agree on shared values? 

I cannot answer all of these questions sufficiently in this short article, but allow me to respond to them in some measure in the course of proposing a way that we can and should bring moral identity front and center in the discussion of leader development and organizational vitality.

A Classic View

When Socrates[2] said "the unexamined life is not worth living", he was exhorting a special kind of moral mindfulness and inquiry. Like his student, Plato, he believed that the good and the true converge. By knowing the truth of what lies before us, around us, within us, and between us and others, by examining it all transparently and rigorously, we are more able and more likely to choose the good and live a life of honor, a quality we attribute to virtuous leaders.

Honor is a quality that continues to distinguish excellence in leaders today. It separates them from the crowd. It is something bestowed on the leader because his or her actions warrant the attribution of this honorific status. Yes, honor may be subjectively striven for by leaders, living up to an ideal, for example. But it is not like latest fashion in power neck ties. What is determinative in its valid attribution is that such attribution come from others, those the leader has affected by his or her leadership.

But why is this characteristic of honor so important? Because in modern democratic societies, just as in the democratic city state of ancient Greece, the power of leadership is granted and respected based upon the moral authority of the leader. Why? Because as citizens and constituents of organizations, we are free moral agents, and we want leaders whose integrity and intentions we can trust. In politics, we vote based on such considerations, and in work life we join or leave organizations based upon them.

[In light of our recent rough-and-tumble presidential campaign, you may be inclined to see this point of view as naive, idealistic, or at least less true in practice than in our highest aspirations. I will not address that argument directly except to say that our ideals do ultimately matter, and never more than when we have occasion to appraise whether our leaders live up to them or not based on experience.]

Authenticity – A Modern Twist on Leadership

The ethic of authenticity, as it’s been labeled in recent moral philosophy, can be either dismissed as a form of moral relativism, i.e., follow your own norms and values whatever they may be. Or it can be taken more seriously[3] as a calling to examine your values and beliefs in order to more fully understand what they mean and imply, where they come from, and why they feel so precious. As a leader, taking this more thoughtful path will encourage you to give greater consideration to those you lead.

In the management literature, authentic leadership is conceptualized as being true to oneself, and it has been operationalized with the claim that authenticity can now be measured: “Simply expecting leaders to be more authentic and to demonstrate integrity will be ineffective if tools for measuring these aspects of leadership are lacking. Indeed, in lieu of sound means of measuring these constructs, it is very difficult to fairly hold leaders ethically accountable.”[4]

I genuinely respect the constructive aims of this literature, especially its intent to give greater attention to the moral aspect of leader development. But, I believe there is much more to the moral dimensions of leader identity development than we can “measure” by using theoretically formulated constructs as proxies for the phenomenon itself. I believe that moral identity as it applies to leader development can only be adequately surfaced and shaped through the much messier means of in-depth conversation.

A feedback instrument that provides a relevant sampling of how self-perceptions and the perceptions of others compare on a variety of variables, which reflect authenticity in a leader’s presence and behavior is no doubt helpful. And feedback on variables that shape one’s moral development and expression of authenticity may be even more helpful when the purpose is to examine in conversation and understand the intra and interpersonal dynamics that help or hinder one’s moral development as a leader.

In any case, my point is that assessment data acquired through a measurement tool of whatever kind is only a starting point for conversation. Why is conversation so important? Because it is through language and conversation that we individually and jointly generate meaning, discover truth, and discern what is good, right, and proper, and why. Before there were any sacred documents or emancipating insights and wisdom in book form, these ideas were passes on and revitalized in conversation.


Every time we examine what feels right or wrong, good or bad, proper or improper, we are challenged to discover how those intuitions and feelings link to other frameworks of meaning, sources of meaning that reveal a common ground. That is why when we take time to talk and listen with others regardless of their differences in upbringing, ethnicity, gender, or age, we will inevitably find shared values. We are all human beings, divided by traditions but unified when we dig deeper into what we stand for and why.

Authenticity in this view, is not simply declaring what we feel or believe; rather, it is revealing what we think, feel, and believe as a starting point, and knowing that others also have their sincere feelings and beliefs. Authenticity, if it is to have moral authority, must not simply be limited to walking one’s own talk or being true to one’s own values and beliefs. As leaders, we must find common ground and appeal to goods, right actions, and norms of propriety that are valid and mutually revered by all.

It is in taking on and staying with this challenge, especially when times are tough and trust and solidarity if so vital to our success, that leaders make something of themselves. They further shape their identity and form their character.[5] They reveal their honor. The also reveal an authenticity that consists in being true to what we believe, what we stand for, purpose and values that the leader herself has had a hand in helping others discover and come to share through conversation.   

Contact Info:

You are invited to contact the author directly with questions or comments. He can be reached at or phone at 401.885.1631.

[1] See Self-Constitution: Agency, Identity, and Integrity by Christine Korsgaard (2009), Oxford University Press: Oxford, UK.

[2] Socrates, was perhaps the first moral philosopher. He died in 399 BC, having never wrote a book. He believed that moral philosophy best occurs in conversation, dialogically, a point I will return to a bit later.

[3] See Sources of Self: The Making of the Modern Identity by Charles Taylor (1987), Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA.

[4] See Walumbwa et al (2008). Authentic Leadership: Development and Validation of a Theory-Based Measure.  Journal of Management, 89-126. I would add, accountability and responsibility are distinct values. The former concerns our duty to management, how they measure our performance. The latter concerns how we stand with respect to shared ideals of what is good, right, and proper; I believe it counts more in appraisals of authenticity.

[5] For a similar point of view on the deeper linkages between identity and moral development in leadership see Freeman & Auster (2011), Values, Authenticity, and Responsible Leadership. Journal of Business Ethics, 15-23.


Moral versus Moralistic: A vital difference and a role for leaders

Good Morning Oberallgäu by Markus Trienke

Good Morning Oberallgäu by Markus Trienke

Morality and the Moral Life

Anything moral concerns our sense of what is good, right, and proper. Our moral sense is normative, it signals intuitive impressions of oughtness. It may be enlivened when we encounter innocence, kindness, and courage. It may also be offended by meanness in language, tone, and actions. In either case, this is only one half of the moral side of life, namely, our intuitive recognition and emotional response.

The other half of our moral life consists in what we do with our intuitive impressions of oughtness. It is a gift that we are given immediate awareness that something of moral consequence is at stake. And it is also a burden of responsibility to use these "data" wisely, for our actions generate still further moments of moral experience and action that affect others, that shape our character, and that may become a force for good.

A Difference that Makes a Difference

My title, Moral versus Moralistic, concerns in particular this responsibility for using our moral intuitions to good ends. Although our intuitions are effective in awakening us to the moral, they are not in and of themselves a prescription for action. This is where heart requires the support of mind, especially our capacities for practical judgment - practical here means guidance of proper conduct, doing the right thing.

As a descriptor, "moral" differentiates those actions that serve the good. They serve a transcendent good, a good that represents a good for all, for all of us as persons, as a community, as a people, and as a species. There is something selfless in such virtuous action. "Moralistic", on the other hand, characterizes actions (i.e., judgment, words, and overt conduct) that serve egoistic aims born of resentment and self-loathing.

We can distinguish moralistic tendencies by the often angry and aggressive feelings that accompany them. We should recognize this experience, moralistic reactions, as a pre-moral phase of processing feelings that are confused. We need not be harsh in our self-judgment or judgment of others upon noticing moralistic reactions. Underlying them are often feelings of fear and insecurity, which must be answered.

Moralistic reactions judge and condemn too quickly. They are the rushed defensive acts, which, like the fight or flight reactions of our autonomic nervous system, seem to serve a self-protective purpose, but in reality simply reveal a brittleness in our character. It signals a need for pausing, breathing, and reflecting: "What am I feeling, and why is this feeling so intense?" In time, a moral truth and appropriate action may emerge.

Processing our Moral Intuitions

Taking our immediate intuitions of moral meaning and even our defensive, moralistic reactions as data that signal something of consequence is never an error. It's what we do with them that counts. Do we give them the considered thought they deserve? Do we notice the mixture of positive and negative emotions and seek to understand them? These questions are important to address when something important is at stake.

We've been given a wonder gift of reflective self-governance, but in truth it is not fully "self'' governance. Morality is inherently social, it expresses norms of oughtness that apply to all of us. An important implication of the social nature of morality is the benefit we gain from clarifying the data of moral intuition in conversation with others. Leaders frequently distinguish and define themselves by how they seize such opportunities.

A Special Responsibility for Leaders

Why leaders? Because leaders are at their best when they help us clarify not only our strategic direction and tactical goals, but also when they help us reaffirm our sense of purpose and the greater goods that lend nobility to our actions. This happens through conversation, a patient style of conversation in which we help one another articulate what at first we can only feel, but which we can later make explicit, know, and share.

When each of us is able to voice this experience on matters of importance, we usually seem to find common ground before long. The same North Star in the one sky overhead emerges. We come to understand one another more fully. We find even more reason to collaborate and redouble our efforts to achieve a mission whose worth is now more compelling than ever.

Contact Info:

You are invited to contact the author directly with questions or comments. He can be reached at or phone at 401.885.1631.