Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Morality and Moral Authority

In Dostoevsky's "Crime and Punishment" there is a fascinating interchange between two characters about how morality, conscience and authority applies to some who think of themselves as "leaders".
"... There is, if you recollect, a suggestion that there are certain persons who ... have a perfect right to commit breaches of morality and crimes, and that the law is not for them.”  
“... all men are divided into ‘ordinary’ and ‘extraordinary.’ Ordinary men have to live in submission, have no right to transgress the law, because, don’t you see, they are ordinary. But extraordinary men have a right to commit any crime and to transgress the law in any way, just because they are extraordinary...” (Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment, Part III, Chapter V)
In other words "the rules are for other people, I am special, I have important things to do and the rules are holding me back, meanwhile, you can do as you're told."

Like me, you may know someone who sees the world in this way.

The conversation continues:
"... I maintain that if the discoveries of Kepler and Newton could not have been made known except by sacrificing the lives of one, a dozen, a hundred, or more men, Newton would have had the right, would indeed have been in duty bound … to eliminate the dozen or the hundred men for the sake of making his discoveries known to the whole of humanity."
"... The first category is always the man of the present, the second the man of the future. The first preserve the world and people it, the second move the world and lead it to its goal..." (Ibid.)
Seductive isn't it. You can almost see where the character is coming from. From a 'leader', 'being in charge', perspective, it almost makes sense. After all, sometimes sacrifices need to be made for 'the greater good' and, after all, I am a "man of the future" trying to "move the world and lead it to its goal".

For such people morality (or correct behaviour) is subordinate to the achievement of the goal (the end justifies almost any means), and authority is something they wield over others in the furtherance of the goal, but which they fiercely resist having wielded over themselves. Simply, anything goes, the end justifies the means, but only for them (the "extraordinary").

While I expect and hope that everyone has sufficient self esteem to wake up in the morning and feel good about who they are and what they plan to do today, including my boss, Dostoevsky's insight into this personality type suggests that there is more going on here than just a healthy self belief and confidence.

This, I suggest, is pure ego, and it appears to be the driving core of too many so called "leaders".

In my last post I made reference to Michael Wilshaw, new leader of OfSTED, the UK's school inspectorate - who recently said:
"If anyone says to you that 'staff morale is at an all-time low' you know you are doing something right."
A fine example of ego being the core driver, regardless of the "sacrifice" and human cost in self esteem, confidence and vitality of others.

While Wilshaw no doubt feels perfectly justified in holding this view he is equally blind to the fact that, in holding it, he is missing some key components that would net the success he wants far more effectively than by crushing the morale of the "ordinary" man and woman, and will ultimately fail. He is missing the components of moral authority.

Moral Authority

Moral authority is arguably the opposite of formal authority, though they can co-exist in the same person at the same time, they can rarely be used simultaneously.

Formal authority is bestowed by virtue of job role, rank, position, contract. It is expected by right, even demanded, rather than given freely.

Moral authority, on the other hand, has no rank or position, or power to demand anything. Yet when freely given has arguably far more power to move people and achieve goals than any amount of formal authority. Rather than demanding, it leads by example. Rather than sacrificing others, it sacrifices itself.

In his book "The 8th Habit" Stephen R. Covey explains the powerful difference between the two.
"When conscience governs vision, discipline and passion, leadership endures and changes the world for good. In other words, moral authority makes formal authority work. When conscience does not govern vision, discipline and passion, leadership does not endure, nor do the institutions created by that leadership endure. In other words, formal authority without moral authority fails.
"The words "for good" means that it "lifts" and also that it "lasts". Hitler had vision, discipline and passion but was driven by ego. Lack of conscience was his downfall. Gandhi's vision, discipline and passion were driven by conscience, and he became a servant to the cause and the people. Again, he had only moral authority, no formal authority, and he was the father and founder of the second largest country in the world.
"When vision, discipline and passion are governed by formal authority void of conscience or moral authority, it also changes the world, but not for good, rather for evil. Instead of lifting, it destroys; rather than lasting, it is eventually extinguished." (Stephen R. Covey, The 8th Habit: From Effectiveness to Greatness, (Simon and Schuster, Australia, Sydney, 2004), pp70)
Too often moral authority is non-existent within modern competitive organisations. No good example is given, managers talk but don't walk, and where managers simply choose to ignore conscience and crush morale as a "motivator", moral authority is unlikely to be arriving on the next train. Sadly, as is often evident to workers in these situations long before it is evident to the managers, success is about to be "extinguished".


The "moral", in "moral authority", is inextricably intertwined with morality.

Where managers take the approach of Dostoevsky's character who believed that "extraordinary men have a right to commit any crime and to transgress the law in any way, just because they are extraordinary" they use ego to justify breaking the rules, lying, blaming others, setting traps, fraud, coercion, manipulation, domination and bullying. Simply they lack integrity and morality, and consequently lack moral authority.

The problem is very real. Immoral managers, acting on ego, undermine their own moral authority and have nothing to replace it with but more ego, and it becomes a vicious circle.

If managers are to have moral authority, they have to be moral people. That means honesty and integrity as a bare minimum. Traits that are the opposite of the egocentric approach. Traits that, quite frankly, scare those who are habitually egocentric in their management style - they prefer secrecy, no witnesses and control, it allows them to get away with maintaining their approach. Honesty and integrity are too transparent, too open, it is scary for them.

Again, in "The 8th Habit" Covey describes the traits of the egocentric:
"Ego focuses on one's own survival, pleasure and enhancement to the exclusion of others and is selfishly ambitious. It sees relationships in terms of threat or no threat, like little children who classify all people as "He's nice" or "He's mean"...
"Ego works in the face of genuine crisis but has no discernment in deciding how severe a crisis or threat is...
"Ego can't sleep. It micromanages. It disempowers. It reduces one's capacity. It excels in control...
"Ego is threatened by negative feedback and punishes the messenger. It interprets all data in terms of self preservation. It constantly censors information. It denies much of reality...
"Ego is myopic and interprets all of life through its own agenda..."
(Stephen R. Covey, The 8th Habit: From Effectiveness to Greatness, (Simon and Schuster, Australia, Sydney, 2004), pp78)
It seems obvious that such an approach to management is unlikely to result in the kind of success most organisations crave, particularly in the current climate. Sadly too many senior managers either embody ego themselves, or lack the insight, will or courage to challenge it in their own organisations.

As long as ego supersedes conscience, the success of an organisation is being undermined, and the true capacity of workers is being crushed.

Ego will always lose

The world is changing, as Covey also discusses in his book, the old industrial age is dying, and the principle of "servant leadership" hand in hand with the new age of "knowledge workers" is growing. With that in mind the following from Robert K. Greenleaf serves as a warning, to managers who cling to the egocentric industrial model, but also as an opportunity:
"A new moral principle is emerging which holds that the only authority deserving one's allegiance is that which is freely and knowingly granted by the led to the leader in response to, and in proportion to, the clearly evident servant stature of the leader. Those who choose to follow this principle will not casually accept the authority of existing institutions. Rather they will freely respond only to individuals who are chosen as leaders because they are proven and trusted as servants. To the extent that this principle prevails in the future, the only truly viable institutions will be those that are predominantly servant-led." (Robert K. Greenleaf, "The Servant Leader," Servant Leadership: A Journey Into the Nature of Legitimate power and Greatness, 25th Anniversary ed. (Mahwah, New Jersey: Paulist Press, 2002), pp. 23-24.)
The economic crisis caused by so much ego in the financial sector should be a warning to all of us. A sustainable future, a successful business enterprise, your success at any worthy goal is built not on ego, or prowess, or a sense of entitlement, but on conscience, honesty, integrity, vision, discipline, passion and personal responsibility.

Or as someone with far more authority than me put it:
"When I despair, I remember that all through history the ways of truth and love have always won. There have been tyrants, and murderers, and for a time they can seem invincible, but in the end they always fall. Think of it--always." (Mahatma Gandhi)

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