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!