Leadership, Self-Interest, and Morality

Some models of leadership, like Servant Leadership and Transformational Leadership, emphasize ethical propriety and morally good behavior as critical factors. Moral virtue plays a motivational role, usually by means of providing inspiration linked to some greater goods that people have reason to care about. There is at least an implicit invocation of virtue in Jim Collins’ Level Five Leadership and in Authentic Leadership as well. But none of these theories exclude self-interest as a motivational factor. So, how are we to reconcile motivations of self-interest with morality in business and in leadership?


 Let’s Keep This Simple

Francis Hutcheson (1694-1746), an important Scottish moral philosopher whose work influenced Adam Smith and David Hume, not to mention our founding fathers in the U.S., observed that there were some who believe that self-interest is the only ultimate motivator of human behavior. And he described the goods associated with motivations of self-interest as natural goods. They are things that satisfy our bodily needs and things we want to own or possess, material goods (property) or immaterial goods (power or pride).  

Hutcheson did not disagree with the fact that human beings have such interests, only that they are not all that motivates us. He and others, like Adam Smith, the father of capitalism, believed that our noblest virtues rise above our capacities, skills, and abilities to acquire natural goods. We are also by nature able to know and value moral goods. They are the goods that are known through our “moral sense,” just as we recognize color through our visual sense or harmony through our auditory sense. A 20th century philosopher, Max Scheler, would say that it’s a “felt” sense" through which we know these moral values. 

Moral goods, then, are those qualities that we admire and praise in others or in ourselves that concern our capacity to act from benevolence, love, kindness for the benefit of others individually or for the public. We recognize and attribute moral virtue of this kind to contemporaries, but also to those who lived in the past and whose generous actions have been memorialized. We attribute it to them as persons, free moral agents. The difference between the natural and moral motivations, of course, is that the latter require a bit more cultivation. 

That is not to say that our moral sense is any less fundamental to our nature, but it does reflect a higher level of maturity. In fact, it is this further development of our nature that most distinguishes us as a species. And it involves a capacity for doing good and doing evil. The difference between Hutcheson, Smith, and others who believe that we have a moral sense and those, like Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), who believe only in self-interest, is that the former believe that the moral sense, like the intellect, must be cultivated, and if we only affirm motivations of self-interest, we discourage moral development.  

Morality and Ethics Today

Let’s call Hobbesian moral theory a pessimistic view. Those who advocate it believe that human beings place self-interest above all else and that order must be imposed from without. Order and fairness can only be assured through the coercive force of laws, and rewards and consequences. To quote Hobbes, “Man is wolf.” Absent constraints, anarchy will prevail.

Those who follow Hutcheson’s version of moral theory are more hopeful. They believe that all human beings have the capacity to develop and be guided by a moral sense. And they believe that this enables them to appreciate moral principles and kinder, other-focused qualities of behavior, i.e., benevolence, love, and caring. Indeed, the fellow-feeling that binds us as families and communities includes concern for the next generation, for destinies that extend beyond our lifetime.

Both of these moral theories find counterparts in contemporary society. Leaders whose moral inclinations favor the Hobbesian view may use language that includes references to moral values, but it’s largely lip service. What they really rely on are incentives, rewards, and promises of future opportunities. When they use moral language to praise ideals it may be to manipulate. Their appeals to unity are only for a unity that lasts as long as needed to achieve their desired pay-off. Hiring, firing, and promotions are driven by how much the person hired, fired, or promoted can pay-off. 

But, you ask, “Isn’t that the way commerce and the market economy is supposed to work? No one is expected to be paid, retained, or promoted if they don’t deliver results, right?” A simple affirmative or negative response to these questions won’t suffice. Life is more complicated than that. If we believe that our market-based economy is based on competition and self-interest, and that what makes our firm a great place to work involves a sincere interest in the well-being of all, then allocating more attention to moral virtue may be of equal value.  

How Moral Goodness Makes a Difference

I remember hearing an executive vice president of manufacturing say, “Layoffs represent a failure of management.” I know, that sounds like days past when companies still promised lifetime employment. But it wasn’t that long ago, and this leader truly believed that layoffs can indicate a failure and that such failures have moral consequences. Therefore, he generally struggled more than some to ensure that they hired and trained people for success. These decisions mattered. As a result, people were fully committed and capable.

Of course, there are limits to how completely management can keep a promise of job security. But when the sense of moral responsibility for employees is a true and operative value, it shows. There’s a moral balance to the firms values. Leadership is concerned about both natural goods and moral goods. And if they fail in their work, they pay a price too. But in the end, with everyone equally committed to success and to each other, the odds of success are usually much greater!

Does Brief Coaching Work?

Conventional wisdom suggests that a six-month coaching program is the most realistic option. It’s long enough to foster assessment-based insight into self, others, and situation, and it allows sufficient time for learning and adaptive change to take root through extensive practice. Of course, there are those who may recommend programs of longer or shorter duration. But is time really the critical factor? 

What I describe in this article is an innovation that I developed based upon over 20 years of experience in coaching and organizational consulting, but it also draws upon my parallel career in clinical practice. As you’ll see, these two areas of practice, both involving assessment-based and goal-directed change, contribute to my conceptualization of what makes THE difference in coaching outcomes. 

Recent Innovations

Adaptive change in any sphere of life is generally thought to take about 90 days. But that assumes the best of all circumstances: motivation, insight, skills acquisition, and persistent iterative effort. Of course, those conditions seldom prevail and converge to produce success, at least not without expert guidance and support. So, that’s what I’ve been working on by applying recent innovations in clinical research. 

Specifically, I’ve turned to a particularly challenging arena of change, overcoming chronic depression. They label this kind of depression persistent depressive disorder for a reason; it’s proven to be resistant to treatment. That is, until a psychologist by the name of Jim McCullough entered the picture. Over the course of two decades, he designed a learning-based approach that incorporates a unique combination of features, and it’s been found to be effective for most people in 16 weeks.    

In case you didn’t already know, most theory and practice models used in coaching originated in clinical and social psychology, e.g., EQ, resilience, personality theory, and systems theory. So, turning to clinical research for insights on how to effect change in patterns of thinking, feeling, motivation, and relating to others should not seem too unusual. Nevertheless, some translation is required, and it was really a vital few catalytic factors of Jim’s approach that I found made the difference. Let me summarize them:  

  1. Goals are usually operating in our actions, but often they’re unconscious and unsupported by the attitudes and behaviors that enable us to realize them, so we’re less likely to be effective.

  2. Legacy mindsets, habitual ways of thinking, feeling, and relating to others are rooted in beliefs, expectations, and behaviors that were shaped early in life, and they worked for us then.  

  3. When we seek to change, it’s the specificity of insights, understanding, and action plans rather than general ideas that best guide our acquisition and application of new skills and practices.

  4. Learning from practice involves describing a recently experienced encounter, what happened, what was going through our mind as we experienced it, how we acted, and how it came out.

  5. In the situation analysis we have a concrete example of how patterns of thinking, feeling, acting, and interacting generate outcomes, and we can specify what helps and hinders efficacy.  

  6. The expert (therapist or coach) must help clients learn from this experience by helping them see how they contributed to the outcome, whether it was a desired or disappointing outcome.

  7. This same learning can then be applied to future situations, targeted relationships and situations that are directly linked to the client’s role, goals, actions, and her success in executing them.

  8. Learning of this kind is iterative, and it requires a bit of “tough love” and candor from the coach, usually in the form of difficult questions, feedback, all provided in a nonjudgmental attitude.

The Role of the Coach

Jim McCullough recommends a style of disciplined personal involvement. Translating this to coaching, he is saying that the coach should not be playing it safe or telling clients what they want to hear. Coaches should offer their personal experience of what it feels like to be in the client’s presence, what it’s like to interact with them. The coach should appropriately challenge clients to look at how their attitudes and actions help explain the outcomes they are currently experiencing.  

The role of the coach is to help the client see what they are missing, and to see it in ways that generate insight but also arouse motivation. The sincerity, positive intentions, and trustworthiness of the coach is established up-front in the assessment process. It happens as the coach demonstrates that he or she understands who the client is and how her life experience has shaped her. Trust is further reinforced by being respectful and honest when providing feedback. 

What I’ve found, is that when I take time at the outset to learn about who the client is and how her personal history has shaped her, and when I engage with disciplined personal involvement, we’re able to get further faster. It’s because we are working more effectively as partners in the process. And when our work is connected to the specificity of real-world challenges, we tackle the vital challenges more directly and learn more quickly. Given that approach, yes, a 90-day program can work!

Coping with Infidelity in Professional Couples  

Couples seek therapy for many reasons, but among the thorniest issues are those involving infidelity. Of course, circumstances vary widely, so it’s difficult to isolate on causes that are equally relevant for all. Given that, I’ll focus on themes that emerge with some professional couples that have been married for some time (i.e., 10+ years), with demanding careers, for whom these issues arise after having children.  

They may have met in college or graduate school. They became fast friends first, and they never imagined that would change. Both were career-minded and imagined living a life of significance, healthier and happier than that of their parents. They recognized one another as good, bright and hard-working persons. They felt heard, understood, and supported. They shared a vision of life.  

Then, as the demands of their careers pulled them into individual tracks of ambition and responsibility, and as they began to have children, their friendship suffered, intimacy too. It wasn’t fully conscious yet, but they had become rutted in role-based “necessities” of duty and obligation. A shift occurred from a vital pursuit of happiness to accountabilities to children, home, and career – life felt burdensome. 

The Sources of Disenchantment

The relative ease with which life’s demands were managed in the early, pre-parental years were gone. Back then, there was more time, unpressured and less distracted opportunities to talk. Everything was easier then, even though financial resources were limited. So, what had their success really purchased? 

The couple was left feeling that life had somehow gotten away from them. They were overwhelmed and learning that feelings are a complex and nuanced form of meaning, confusing enough to experience let alone to articulate. It was easier when there was more breathing space, when they could get away for a weekend of hiking or big-city stimulation. Sometimes that alone without talk was enough. 

Taking on work-related duties, struggling to realize career aspirations, life became more serious. Then, with kids and parenting added to the mix, along with the financial demands of mortgage, child care, and interruption to a second income… It all added up to a loss of the enchanted vision of life they had in the beginning. Exchanges became strained. Soon they decided it just wasn’t worth the effort to argue. 

They began wondering “is this all there is?” Exhausted by work strain, stressed by unrelenting demands, and lacking the friendship they once provided one another, they began to foreclose on the possibility of making things better. But settling is not very satisfying is it? Thus, arises the restless yearning.  

Desperate Delusions

For these couples there is seldom a desire to abandon one’s partner. Very few had seriously considered divorce even as they began to look elsewhere for affection. Intact bonds remained that coexisted with urgent needs for emotional intimacy. They could not see a way to reconnect within the marriage. It’s a cognitive, emotional, and moral quandary that they’re unable to resolve, it looks impossible. 

That’s where the desperation comes in. It may be equally felt by both members of the couple. But neither is able to frame the issues, broach the conversation, and make them “discussable.” They’ve learned (come to believe) that contentious tones, demanding voices and fault-finding quickly follows. So, they conclude, “I can’t meet my needs here; the situation won’t allow it.” 

What they believe they cannot achieve in reality, they seek to address through fantasy and delusion. Yes, there’s also the sense that they deserve something more and better given how hard they’re working. So, they seek “justice” through a kind of “let’s pretend.” They want to believe that there’ll be no harm as long as no one finds out. Sometimes drinking helps contain the cognitive dissonance. It’s regression in service of play, to invoke Freud, and a symptom of arrested development in the marriage. 

The Bubble Bursts, Work Begins

When the truth comes out a period of crisis ensues. Soon it becomes clear that the act of infidelity only ruptured a relationship that was already suffering from deep, long-standing strains. Upon reflection, both knew things were not going the way they wanted them to. In some cases, partners had even taken separate bedrooms, started vacationing separately, becoming more roommate than spouse.    

But the initial disclosure brings jolting pain. Anger, embarrassment, and betrayal are only a few of the emotions that should be expected. It’s not a victimless act. The aggrieved party is deeply hurt. And the unfaithful party frequently suffers a different shame and loss of self-respect that he or she must endure without much sympathy while seeking redemption and forgiveness. 

The saving grace for many of these couples is that they usually have reason enough to at least attempt reconciliation and repair. And if they seek help soon enough, before acting out their emotions in ways that make their problem even more difficult to address, their odds improve immensely. Because they are bright and hard-working, they may be able to use that ethic to persevere with the task at hand. 

Containment. The couple must have a safe place to process their feelings, and therapy must help them learn how to do even more of this outside the consulting room. Initially, they’ll struggle with managing the intensity of their exchanges outside of therapy.  

Learning. The couple must now acquire the interpersonal communications skills to navigate emotionally charged conversation that they had earlier concluded were not possible. They will learn that doing good in their relationship requires knowing how to do good.  

Forgiveness. Learning that infidelity is at least partly attributable to arrested development as a couple, a lack of insight, knowledge, skill, and hope concerning what was missing and how to correct it, helps both find a way to forgive.  

Forgiveness is something we do for ourselves as much as for our partner. When we lose our capacity for the love, openness, and honesty to discuss the divide that is growing between us, it is not because we willfully intend to do harm to one another. We fail due to our fears and ignorance, our desperation and loss of hope. We lose the ability to focus more on coulds than shoulds. This is what they learn in therapy.

Using 360 Feedback to Improve

Self-improvement may sound a bit old-fashioned to some. If so, it may be due to an emphasis in recent years on knowing and using your strengths. But our strengths need to be used differently over time and across situations. As we face new or bigger roles, legacy strengths need to serve us differently. What mattered less in the past may matter more with new challenges.  

And one of the best sources of guidance on how our strength-based practices are working (or not) is to ask those affected by them for candid feedback. We best enable them to do this with an assurance of anonymity, using a well-designed 360° survey questionnaire. It’s the “well-designed” aspect of this method that is of special interest to me in this short article, along with its practical uses.  

The approach to 360 feedback I will discuss is a “situated” kind of assessment. It’s highly contextualized in order to make it specifically relevant to the feedback recipient’s situation and role-based challenges. This tailored approach is aided by recent innovations in online 360 technology. Assessment experts are now less reliant on off-the-shelf surveys. They can produce tailored solutions affordably.  

Essential Features of a Well-Designed 360 Solution

I’ve written about how valuable assessment methods can be as an instrument of management. But like most tools and methods, their most effective use is based upon the insights, abilities, and expertise of the user. In this case, I refer specifically to the vital importance of the psychologist who designs a 360 tool as a solution for a situation-specific problem: to address the development needs of this leadership team, in this company, and to address these needs, at this point in time.

To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”  Mark Twain

So, the first essential requirement for developing a well-designed survey tool is finding the right expert to help you do this work. The right expert is one who is business savvy, able to grasp the purpose, goals, issues, and requirements for success by interviewing a select group of company managers. What’s key here is the ability to translate these business relevant factors into behavioral variables that are amenable to measurement and development. 

The second essential feature of a well-designed solution is that it’s informed by a role-based grasp of adult development. Human beings as a species are distinguished by our extraordinary capacity to learn and adapt. As social creatures, our adaptive development is largely driven by role-taking. We learn to be members of a family as children, and then we learn how to be students, how to be workers, how to be intimate partners and parents. And some of us – perhaps the real gluttons for punishment – pursue careers as leaders that consist of ever-increasing role-based challenges.  

The third vital requirement is the capacity to help others connect the dots between feedback data, their role-based responsibilities to others, and the vital few development themes for self-improvement that are most relevant to them. Assessment results are data. They must be contextually interpreted to have practical meaning. And this interpretive work must be done jointly, sometimes with a bit of “tough love” from the psychologist, in order to generate sufficient insight and motivation to act on it. 

The fourth essential ingredient in a well-designed 360 development solution is skill-building. Feedback to team members will usually include thematically common needs for skill-building, i.e., communication, conflict resolution, follow-through, collaboration. But the ways such themes and skill-building apply to each person and his or her role will be different. Development requires “idiographic” insight into how you or I might need to cultivate skilled practices in order to achieve the desired effect in our presence and impact on others.

The Tail is No Longer Wagging the Dog

360 feedback surveys have become a cottage industry over the past three decades. A few theories of leadership and competency models dominated the scene in the early years. That led to off-the-shelf surveys and certification training in how to use them. If that sounds instrument-centric, it’s only because it is. Interpretation is always a vital step in making 360 results meaningful and practically relevant, but standard models had their limitations.   

Now, more user-friendly, high-function online survey platforms are available, allowing experts in assessment to design tailored solutions with ease and flexibility and with reduced cost and turnaround time. These advances are particularly important for smaller businesses whose needs are often quite different than the needs of Fortune 500 organizations for whom traditional, off-the-shelf solutions were designed.

Assessment as Stimulus

Assessment is not the province of HR alone; it’s an essential management discipline.

II have been doing psychological assessment for developmental purposes for over 30 years. Whether the subject is an individual, a couple, a leadership team, or an organization, one thing I learned very early is that results are of two kinds: the reported results of the instrument, and the interpretation of those “raw” results and their implications for practical action. Both are important.  

I have used a wide variety of standardized instruments, and I’ve developed assessment tools, including the first 360° assessment of executive presence. Therefore, I appreciate the technical side of assessment – identifying the questions that must be answered, and the methods and tools that are best designed to answer them. I also recognize that raw results can lie fallow without a rigorous effort to discover their meaning and practical implications for the situation at hand. 

A vital third step in the process of making an assessment process payoff is the need to translate practical implications into action and a sustained course of adaptive implementation. Although action and follow-through are generally prized as virtues in business, it is just these virtues that are often lacking in our use of assessment practices. But let me turn now to the simple theme denoted in my title. 

Framing the Purpose

A thoughtful and intelligent use of assessment methods is guided by a purpose. Examples abound: “We aren’t collaborating well and it’s affecting quality, timely delivery, time-to-market; what’s wrong?” “This team is not working together as a team; what’s going on?” “Jane will be facing new challenges in this stretch assignment, so how do we support her and mitigate unnecessary risks of failure?” 

These are important business questions. They frame issues we need to better understand in order to take action on. In each case, the variables involve human behavior – the ways we think, feel, act and interact with others. That is, we believe there are behavioral variables of performance that significantly affect attitudes, motivations, and action. And as we frame issues in this way, we’re admitting that we’ve tried to address the issues and solve the problems, but we’re missing something. 

There is an issue, a history of struggling with it, perhaps some lessons learned from experience, but a problem remains. And it’s not an academic problem; it’s a problem that has consequences for our business. The sooner we are able to arrive at this insight the better. Why? Because it’s not just a matter of efficiency, solving the problem sooner. Frustration grows when, after numerous efforts to solve the problem, the problem remains.  

Stress and anxiety grow. Attitudes become more negative. People are worn down by the frustration. Fatigue sets in. Management can be questioned – are their goals realistic? Recognizing and facing the fact that we are stuck sooner averts this deterioration of organizational morale. Timely, adaptive solutions bolster resilience: “If at first we fail, we can usually figure things out if we take a step back, assess the situation, and try again.”  That is grounded confidence!

Ground confidence and resilience mean that we are not so easily discouraged, and we are less inhibited about admitting that things are not working out as we want them to. Is that the way things work in your organization? 

Making Results a Stimulus

Results of the assessment indicate patterns, tendencies in thought, feeling, action, and interaction. It’s normal for most people to look for the good and bad or the positive and negative meaning of these results. But that is judgment, and, at least initially, it’s best to suspend judgment, to set it aside while replacing it with curiosity: “How might these results be relevant for me, for us in this situation?” “Are there some impressions and possibilities that arise, some hypotheses?”  

One reason to have an outside expert available when interpreting results is that they have less of a vested interest, they’re less inclined to rush to judgment. They’re able to help those for whom these data are most important explore their meaning and practical implications. Someone skilled in this practice confronts a rush to judgment quickly, in a way that shifts attitudes in a productive direction. It’s this quality of processing the data that generates their stimulus value.   

This quality of mind loosens our attachment to ego needs to justify or defend ourselves. It places the focus on future possibilities for adaptive action. And as a few key insights emerge about how best to halt negative patterns of behavior and what we need to do differently, minds open, possibilities abound. We find ourselves at the wide end of the funnel, able to converge toward agreed-upon actions steps more quickly.  

Give Change Time to Work

“We do not learn from experience, we learn from our reflection upon experience.” John Dewey

Don’t expect too much too fast. Look for the changes in behavior that you believe will enable improved performance. Recognize that there is often a lag time between taking action and honing changes in behavior, on the one hand, and realizing consequential changes in business results, on the other hand. There is a need to trust the process. One way to accelerate learning and validate the efficacy of changes sooner is to frame your first implementation as a pilot. It signals expectations for learning and adaptation. Periodic feedback provides additional stimulus events, which prompt reflection. 

In this way, assessment as a stimulus become a normal part of the adaptive change that any company in the 21st Century must rely upon if they are to not merely survive but thrive!