Reflections on Moral Leadership | Part 2: Professionally moral behaviour: Navigating with our ‘moral compass’

The quest for intrinsic morality

This is the second column in a series of moral leadership. My first column focused on Moral leaders in Society. Columns that follow are: Interpersonal morality and Moral Self-Control.

Professionally Moral Behaviour: Navigating with our ‘moral compass’

Gauging deep inside what is the right moral direction

This is what the policeman is doing, fluctuating between privacy laws and his desire to help a citizen. This is what the surgeon is doing when he must decide whether to perform an operation on a critically ill patient or not. And the pharmaceutical salesman who has doubts about the quality of the product, he has to sell it anyway.

All three have taken their moral compass into their hands. Our moral compass that indicates direction if we face ethical dilemmas. To stay away as a professional from dangerously deep and impenetrable water and bypassing treacherous cliffs that can damage our profession. To finally travel on the open sea again in good weather.


The policeman, the surgeon and the salesman weight up all different aspects and interests against each other. And they have doubts. They think of what their profession is at the root and they think of the oath they may have taken in the past. And they try to make the right choice.

They would be conscience-stricken or at least would have an unpleasant feeling about themselves if they would feel disconnected from their professional moral principles. Because in the past they were really motivated to professionally develop themselves within this occupation. And now they are still motivated to carry out their occupation with integrity.

And although reading the moral compass is difficult and these doubts feel uncomfortable and even though the emerging questions cannot be unequivocally answered, the three know that they cannot avoid it. Because using their moral compass also gives their profession significant depth, meaning and consistency.

But professionally moral conduct goes beyond just dealing with ethical dilemmas, about which for that matter you can already write several books.

Honesty and trustworthiness

It also touches on the question, for example, whether the CEO of an organization demonstrates through his behaviour that he is committed to the organization by striving sincerely for his company and its staff. And whether he is consistent in his behaviour.

It is about mutual collegiality and moral principles in these like recognizing everyone’s contribution, not stealing ideas from each other, acknowledging mistakes and keeping confidential information as confidential. You might call this professional honesty and trustworthiness.

Serving your profession

You can probably better feel it than exactly point a finger at it. But professionally moral behaviour is also shown by doing just a little bit more in your daily practice than is written in your job description. Because, according to your professional view, the situation asks for it.

The lawyer of a chic office who does accept this poor client because the situation the client struggles with, is poignant and the lawyer can make a difference to him. The extremely busy doctor who still finds space in his agenda, because the patient is in panic. The coach who offers a free extra session, because the client has to take a small extra step to truly flourish in his profession.

You could call this serving your profession. When we are not calculating and when our ego is somewhat smaller than our professionalism. Then we come to the ‘beauty of a profession’. Consequently, people who use our services have faith in our profession. Because they feel that humanity is applied, and self-interest is not leading.

Pure motives

Professional moral conduct is about the managing director who takes the brilliant and motivated job applicant and not the one that fits best in his current organizational culture. The scientist who does not exaggerate the effect of the results of his research in public. The independent coach who clearly explains to the client that his problem is not his expertise. We could call these pure motives.

Locate position with the moral compass: the ethical codes of conduct

In most cultures it is considered a personal choice whether you adhere to consistent moral and ethical standards. So, you might say that we cannot escape our responsibility as professionals.

However, for many professions, specific ethical codes of conduct have been formulated: for example, within the legal field, in the medical world and in the armed forces.  Often complaints procedures and disciplinary committees are linked to ethical codes of conduct.

As a result, we as professionals have guidelines that help us to determine our position with our moral compass regarding the dilemmas we experience. They are our beacons in morally turbulent waves. Or in daily practice the yardsticks for our professionally moral conduct. And it will be hold against us if we do not act according to these guidelines in the eyes of customers, colleagues or executives.

It is of the utmost importance for the development of a profession that an ethical code of conduct has been formulated. Particularly in professions where confidentiality plays a major role, conflicts of interest corrupt the execution of the profession and working with vulnerable customer information is an intrinsic part of the work. The ethical codes of conduct often arise because of previous mistakes that have led to injustice. And later, professionals have thought about how to prevent these mistakes in the future.

Tacit knowledge and critical mass

The implementation of those codes of conduct and the way in which ethical dilemmas are put into practice appears to lead to the development of a professional and moral conscience. For example, how professionals apply the ethical codes of conduct in their contact with clients, how an organization acts in case of complaints of a client and how colleagues in their collaboration give hands and feet to ethical guidelines.

Due to the reality of day-to-day work, therefore resulting from human interaction, tacit knowledge (Michael Polanyi ) is built: unconscious, implicit ethical knowledge. This unconscious knowledge contains our professional moral values, our experiences and our professional attitude.

For each profession, a specific ethical culture is created. Mistakes are still made, everybody knows, but it remains a “critical mass” of ethics that is leading.

Critical mass

This critical mass is what you might call our professionally moral identity. The way in which the different professions deal with scandals, for example, illustrates how strong this identity is; for example, in politics,

in the car industry, in the food industry. How deep do these organizations really want to go to settle accounts? What do these companies really invest in returning to their original moral principles?

If this critical mass appears to be insufficient, organizations will sometimes only take steps to restore their public image. Nothing more. But the public senses this immediately and consequently therefore the profession loses its credibility and respect. As perhaps happened in the banking sector.

The unruly practice of the working environment: our moral behaviour

The human being is, in my opinion, infinitely complicated. A mixture of good and evil forces that seek balance. And with that, the professional also seems replete with contradictions and wants to do one thing, but in fact does something else. We identify ourselves with the mores and the ethical principles of our profession, which we even might propagate strongly, but we don’t necessarily always behave ethically.

We do not notice this ourselves in general. Ask your nearest colleague whether he acts in accordance with his moral compass and he will probably reply positively.  However, regarding the behaviour of his colleague’s, he notices and detects moral iniquities and inconsistencies. And you may find yourself that your colleague overestimates himself in this area.


People generally have less insight in their own behaviour, as Chris Argyris and Donald Schön already have demonstrated in 1974. As professionals, we often know what ethical behaviour is requested or what kind of ethical behaviour we ourselves want to establish. This is called by Argyris and Schön our ‘theory-of-practice’: How you think your professional way of behaving in that moral context should look like. What people say they would do in a particularly practical situation (‘espoused theory’) is often something different. And what others notice that they are actually doing (‘theory-in-use’) is again different too. We are usually not consciously aware of the discrepancy between our espoused theory and our theory-in-use.

Moral leadership

Therefore, our own moral compass is not as leading as we might think. And other people generally observe more accurately how we navigate across the moral sea.

This seems to indicate that it is insufficient to only develop an ethical code in order to build a professional moral conduct. For this reason, it is necessary that leaders pro-actively work towards ethical behaviour within their organizations, and it is important that peer-to-peer conversations and experiential learning start, to jointly look at what is happening in the day-to-day ethical working practice.

I will discuss this in my next column: Moral Leadership at the workplace.




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