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.