Four Features of Moral Motivation in Leadership

A topic we avoid at great risk

We don’t see the subject of morality addressed very much in our generally secular world of commerce, but that does not mean that it’s not a powerful determinant in performance, including whether we achieve sustainable success. Indeed, by avoiding the topic for fear that we are blurring the lines of “church and state” type divisions, we may do ourselves and others a disservice, i.e., our associates, customers, shareholders, suppliers, regulators, and our publics. 

However, I believe that normalizing discussion of moral matters in leadership requires that we become more fluent in articulating our immediate, felt, intuitive responses to moral experience. Making the moral meaning of our experience explicit enables conversation of a different kind. Because it is more difficult than the matter-of-fact conversation about thing-like objects and task-focused actions, it also requires us to be more patient with one another. 

It is all too easy to throw up our hands in frustration, physically, in tone of voice, and in words, e.g., “It just doesn’t feel right!” But rather than allowing that to be a cause for quitting conversation, I’d suggest that we treat it as a signal for the need to continue conversation, a different kind of conversation: “Let’s slow down. Something important is obviously at stake, affecting you, and I think it would be worth taking time to understand what it means. So, let’s slow down and give you a chance to say more.”  

Leaders, I believe, have a particularly important responsibility for creating the space and frame of mind for pursuing these conversations. In this brief article, I mostly wish to call out this subject for attention. In doing so, I’d like to propose two basic truths and four key features of morality. Perhaps more explicit, conscious awareness of these features will give us pause for appreciating the nature of morality and moral conversation, thereby giving us reason to approach it with more patience and care.  

Morality is not optional (first truth)

Let’s get one thing straight at the outset: Human beings are moral creatures. Our religious and cultural traditions express our moral nature. They incorporate principles of more than what is right and wrong, i.e., rules of conduct, policies, laws, and sacred practices. They also indicate what is good and bad intrinsically, and what it means to be good as a person and as a leader. Even our most instrumental actions, i.e., practical, means-end actions for purposes of financial gain, growth, and competitive advantage, have moral implications. 

Morality is essentially social (second truth)

Because we are essentially moral, we naturally, intuitively, and immediately appraise and respond to the moral content of actions, attitudes, and persons (their character), even though we may not be able to fully articulate the meaning inherent in our appraisals and responses upon demand. In order to achieve such explicit understanding of our moral experience we must examine it in conversation with those for whom it has implications. When we do so and arrive at mutual understandings, lasting bonds form.  

Four features of moral motivation

Moral motivation is the felt source or cause that moves us to care, to speak and act properly, and to feel ennobled by our actions. When we act in accordance with moral wisdom, we serve greater goods and distinguish ourselves as leaders worth following. This moral wisdom, of course, must be accompanied by managerial prudence and a mature sense of fiduciary duty to stakeholders. They are complementary.

Now, the four features of moral motivation: 

1.      Its sources transcend the individual, the organization, and one’s lifetime. There is no such thing as a personal morality. Morality concerns what is good and right for us as a people and as peoples. It answers the question, “How are we meant to live and work together?” Affirming the transcendent moral principles that we all have reason to care about and identify with is not a one-time thing.  

2.      Its meaning implies attunement to both fairness and benevolence. Each of is a person, imperfect but having dignity and autonomy, also needing support when we face our most challenging tasks and moments in life. The question of fairness is “What do we owe to one another?” The fellow-feeling that binds us requires us to put ourselves in the others’ shoes, feel their feelings. 

3.      Its effects on practice manifest pervasively in matters big and small. We are not always conscious and mindful. We operate from habit much of the time. Thus, we are prone to make moral mistakes and misjudgments. It’s the leader’s duty to be deliberate in matters that are consequential. Others are eager to forgive those who are quick to notice and respond to their concerns.   

4.      There is remarkable convergence among the plurality of our moral traditions. Go no further than the great religions of the world, East and West, to recognize that underlying doctrinal difference is an overlapping consensus on most basic moral principles. So, keep your eye on the “prize,” i.e., key themes and governing principles that emerge in conversation, always looking for common ground. 


Checking and maintaining moral alignment between leadership and organizational action helps us avert problems that arise from turning a deaf ear to the implicit appraisals of our moral intuitions. But there is also a purely positive reason for attending to moral motivations: They generate emotions that elevate and inspire us. When regularly affirmed, they reinforce shared sources of identity with the organization, its mission, and they bind us in our individual efforts to a make common cause. Talk about engagement!

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