Reflections on moral leadership | Part 5: Moral self-control: doing the right thing for the right reason

The quest for intrinsic morality

This is the fifth column in a series of moral leadership. My first column focused on Moral leaders in Society, my second on Professionally Moral Behaviour , my third on Integrity at the Top  and my fourth on Interpersonal Morality.


Moral self-control: doing the right thing for the right reason

“No one willingly reverts to the past unless all his actions have passed their own censorship, which is never deceived.”  Seneca


Thinking about my life until the point where I am at the moment, most of it – but not everything – is a consequence of the choices I have made. The effect of the choices I am referring to, it is not so much related to what I have achieved socially (my success) but more where am now I as a person, the development that made me who I am today.

With the choices we make we also force our circumstances. We start or we terminate a relationship. We choose a job or we reject it. We choose to act against an injustice and undertake a fight or we decide to let it happen. In response to our actions, also our circumstances change. Partially.


Because there is also such a thing as Fortuna, the fate that may or may not be temporarily on our favour. We can enforce happy circumstances – to some extent – through strategic actions, perseverance and intelligence. But not entirely. We are dealing also with social circumstances such as the economic climate, with possible war situations and with the role of genetics regarding our health and intelligence. All these factors influence our well-being. We have to accept a large part of these factors.

Within the field of influence in which we live, we can choose a certain behaviour in a given situation. Do I opt for my own interests or for social justice? For money or for artistic freedom? Do I stay true to the values ​​that I have inherited from the past or do I go along with the times? Am I true to myself and my professional principles or do I adapt to the unethical climate within my company?

Staying close to your core

Choosing behaviour that we do have influence on, within given circumstances, corresponds to the familiar circle of influence and concern that Stephen Covey (1932-2012) described in his bestseller The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (1989). He probably builds on the work of Stoics such as Seneca and Marcus Aurelius, who put a lot of value in keeping your behaviour close to yourself and to your own value system, regardless of the circumstances in which you find yourself. By making choices in this way, you also build your own character.

Or we can think of the work of the Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist Victor Frankl (1905-1997), who, based on his experiences in the Second World War, described how human dignity ultimately lies within being able to make the choices regarding how we relate to the surrounding circumstances.


The question then arises whether every deep personal choice of this nature, which at a certain point makes us turn ‘left or right’, is ultimately not a moral choice. Is not it true that all our deeply personal decisions are moral decisions in the end?

We choose with a personal decision – regarding our life that deeply affect us – either for something ‘right’ but difficult or we choose for something easy but ‘wrong’. Those personal choices are essential for who we are and who we will become as a person. Everything that will happen in our life ultimately will lead back to just these choices. For right or wrong we ourselves only know what right or wrong means to us.

Are not they ethical decisions? And are those questions and answers not just in ourselves?

The Roman philosopher Seneca (5 BC -AD 65) already described that for the right moral personal development it is necessary not only to focus on the outside world, but that you must also look within yourself. That is where the answers lie. These choices build you as a person. At the same time your choice shows where you are currently standing.

If we assume that you make the choice of free will (which almost all ethicists do), then you are responsible for your choice.

It also shows a moral sense to take responsibility for the choices you make, also of choices that later turned out that they were not right for yourself or for others.

Our moral considerations

The moral character of our choices therefore seems not only to lie in the outcome of our choice but also in the considerations that make us actually choose. As the Greek philosopher Aristotle (384 – 322 BC) wrote: “doing the right thing for the right reason“.

But do we really know our own considerations in this area?

Maybe it’s good to look at the definition of integrity, just on Wikipedia: “The word integrity evolved from the Latin adjective integer, meaning whole or complete. In this context, integrity is the inner sense of ‘wholeness’ deriving from qualities such as honesty and consistency of character. As such, one may judge that others ‘have integrity’ to the extent that they act according to the values, beliefs and principles they claim to hold.

It is striking that the concept of integrity refers to unity, ‘wholeness’, consistency. The point is that your behaviour corresponds to what you say you believe in. And that your behaviour has a certain consistency even in case of difficulties and you do not do this one time and the other time. In short that you are not an opportunist.


The emphasis on unity is striking because psychotherapists also assume that it makes you happy if you feel yourself as a unity. Psychotherapists work with clients, among other things, so they feel less fragmented and more of a unity. Thereby they try to achieve, for example, integration of conflictual desires in a client or conflicting tendencies in his or her personality and the integration of different deeply emotional experiences. Much of the therapist’s work consists of raising awareness of contradictions that were first hidden from the client.

Moral self-examination also seems to be about bringing up contradictions in ourselves that we want to look deeper into. On a more behavioural level, this involves moral dilemmas that we have to deal with in our work, for example. We often test ethical issues against various moral codes, after which we ultimately make a choice that may or may not be considered.


Regarding moral decisions it is usually more complicated thinking about and analysing our personal dilemmas comparing to professional dilemmas. It is often less clear what the moral content is exactly of our decision. Are we talking about love or our emotional safety? Is it about interest or sensationalism? Is it about prudence and a sense of reality or cowardice? Many of our personal considerations are also surrounded by strong emotions and also unconscious psychic contents play a role. Those unconscious contents seem to play a game with our consciousness.

The conscience

The psychiatrist Carl Jung wrote about this aspect in more than one essay just before and after the Second World War (Von Gut und Böse, 1984), in which he describes among other things the role of our conscience. He sees the conscience as an independent and autonomous psychic entity. Jung derives this impression from his work as a psychotherapist, in which he has had many examples of clients who were plagued by their consciences in their dreams in a way that was not clear to them at first. According to him, conscience is therefore something other than a moral code developed from your upbringing and from society that we could compare with Freud’s superego. The conscience is much more personal, goes its own way and also seems to do its work from the unconscious.

Jung also assumed, before someone like Antonio Damasio confirmed it through research in neuroscience (see my previous article), that conscience (or a moral sense) is deeply rooted in the human psyche and it is associated with very strong feelings. If you are plagued by your conscience you cannot get around it emotionally. Jung claims that the bulk of our conscience is unconscious, it is very powerful and that it can surprise us. According to Jung, the power of the unconscious is much greater than the power of our consciousness or our awareness, which he sees as vulnerable.

The virtuous life

To what extent do we actually know ourselves and to what extent are our considerations pure? Are we not much less a unity than we would like to believe? Should we be more careful in our moral choices?

Is the good old philosopher Seneca right perhaps when he claims that leading a virtuous life is a lifelong struggle between what he called our ‘passions’?

Or maybe Aristotle is right as he claims with his virtue ethics that happiness, or rather the fulfillment of our goals in life, is ultimately achieved by the one:

• Who knows what is right

• Who does what is right

• And who has always done it for the right reason.

Reflections on Moral Leadership| Part 4: Interpersonal Morality: The Struggle for Life. Or is there more…?

The quest for intrinsic morality

This is the fourth column in a series of moral leadership. My first column focused on Moral leaders in Society, my second on Professionally Moral Behaviour and my third on Integrity at the Top . And my last column will focus on Moral Self-Control.

Interpersonal Morality: The Struggle for Life. Or is there more…?

Joseph Campbell (1904-1987), professor in mythology and writer, discusses the relationship between humans and nature in the book ‘The Hero’s Journey’. He reflects on an important experience that made him think:

“I can remember when I spent a long time with an intertidal biologist, Ed Ricketts, in that area between low tide and high tide (1931-1932). All those strange forms, cormorants and little worms of different kinds and all. You’d hear, my gosh, this generation of life was a great battle going on, life consuming life, everything learning how to eat the other one, the whole mystery, and from there they crawl up on the land.”

And he goes on: “We live by killing, which is what you do even when you are eating grapes. You are still killing something. Life just lives on life. And it’s the one life in all of these different heads of mouths eating itself. It’s a fantastic mystery. That’s what’s symbolized in the snake biting its own tail, the snake of life consuming itself. That’s what it means. “

The struggle for life

Life as a large circular movement from birth to death and again from death to birth. Life – with a tremendous inner strength – wants to survive and it wants to reproduce itself.

Within life, man is a social animal that lives in a group. Within this group a certain balance must be created and maintained. A balance in the intricate network of mutual human relationships and connections. And those relationships and connections, again, seem to be dynamic structures to meet our physical, social and emotional needs.

With time, scientists assume, we have become ‘convinced’ that, as a species, we can survive better by developing rules of conduct, prohibitions, taboos, norms and values ​​that sustain and protect our mutual human communities against disintegration. With the aim, in return, of maintaining the human group as a whole. So that we are stronger in the struggle for survival, which is what life is according to Joseph Campbell.

But does this also mean that the deep urge to survive behind it and the urge to continue our own life at any cost, has disappeared? Does this urge, apart from our deep desire to have children, also emerges in a different way?


We, ourselves, are also life in every cell of our body. We have forbidden to kill each other and to rob each other, but maybe we partly still have this inclination? Does not the struggle for life also come forward in the field of influence that human interaction is? Clearly visible in wars, indeed, and also in terrorism, but in a more appropriate manner also in our territorial drive, our self-assertion, our mutual jealousy, our conflict of interest and in the political game. Our tendency to let self-interest prevail which we often mask with fallacies? Do those who deny it see what a variety of forces are at work within the interpersonal dynamic?

In my opinion, man distinguishes himself from the animal, among other things, by a very refined, dynamic and complex self-system, in which self-awareness has a place. How exactly this self-system is structured and how dynamic, relation-, culture- and context-dependent it is, the last word about it has not yet been written. But no one doubts that every human being is aware of the fact he is here on earth, attaches certain meaning to it and wants to reflect and can reflect on himself or herself and his or her behaviour. Self-awareness is central to every human life.

It seems that man, as an individual, also wants to keep in balance the image he or she has of himself or herself and the self-structure associated with it. This is mainly expressed in mutual human contact, in which strong reactions can be evoked by a threat to self-image: denial, aggression, avoidance. The same concept seems to apply if the image that a human group as a whole has of itself is threatened. Even then, a group seems to want to strongly defend itself.

On the positive side, from our self-awareness also comes the incredible beauty that man knows how to create and all innovation that is often produced by all of us, together. Here too, in my opinion, human beings distinguish themselves from the animal thanks to great creativity and need for development. We want to reach the stars!

Depth of our interpersonal morality

We realize that we are there, and we can reflect on our behaviour. We want to keep in balance the image we have of ourselves and we like to belong to a group. This group itself must also remain in balance. To preserve an equilibrium in which peaceful and positive forces focused on growth and well-being ultimately have the upper hand. Are ultimately leading.

Within all cultures on earth, in past and present, there are rules of conduct, prohibitions, taboos, norms and values. You could say a morality. Depending on our point of view this morality, according to us, has been created by mechanisms of natural selection, created by God or by men themselves. But the need for a morality itself seems inherent in a being human.

In any case, all the major religions in the world are somehow engaged in morality. How do we live in the right way? How do we relate to each other? How does a person do well? But also, in all mythologies, such as those of the Egyptians, Asian cultures, the Aboriginals, the Greeks and the Romans, a moral sense arises. And with it the struggle of those who do not adhere to moral standards of the group. Moreover, in mythologies we can often discover a moral development. For example, the Greek epic poet Homer first describes: “Whoever was so perverted to commit a crime against Zeus was permanently imprisoned in Tartarus, the underworld, where the damned suffered their torture.” But later Greek moral awareness changed and the reward and the punishment after death became less a matter of divine arbitrariness and more of what someone deserved based on what he had done during his life. The responsibility for our own behaviour emerges here.

Also, in almost all fairy tales from all over the world, evil is overcome by good and evil is ultimately also punished. Is in this way a deep need being satisfied in our fairy tales? Do we as people need a morality?

Collective unconscious: fairy tales and myths

According to the Swiss psychiatrist and psychologist Carl Jung (1875-1961), fairy tales give a description of the natural rules of life in a community and, at the same time, these rules are in danger or threaten to lose their spontaneous, naive and thoughtless character. (Carl Jung, Archetypes and the collective unconscious, 1976). According to Jung, within myths there is a base of indigenous collective unconscious content that is independent of tradition. In a person as an individual the collective unconscious is, according to him, a deep layer in the human psyche that does not stem from personal experiences and it is innate. The content of the collective unconscious consists in Jung’s well-known archetypes: unconscious universal images. Examples of archetypes are: the shadow, the great mother, the hero, the divine child, the eternal adolescent. And the best-known structured expressions of these archetypes are again fairytales and myths. Jung writes:

“The archetype is in fact a manifestation of an unconscious content that is changed as that unconscious content comes to consciousness and is perceived. “

Socio-cultural homeostasis

Would our moral sense also be so deep and even congenital? Is it even known to animals? Antonio Damasio, Professor of Neuroscience and the Director of the Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California explains:

“Looming large over the question is the issue of the origins of morality. Does reason construct moral intuitions, beliefs, conventions, and rules? Or does morality emerge from prerational processes? On this issue there is growing evidence that many behaviours we designate as moral have forerunners in automated, unconscious, prerational processes, present not only in humans but in many other species. The evidence is quite robust in the case of mammals, especially primates and marine mammals whose brains share a lot with the human brain.”

Damasio goes on: “Human creativity and reason have taken such natural discoveries to new heights. They have extended the reach of biological regulation to varied aspects of the social space, thus inventing what I like to call sociocultural homeostasis. The familiar homeostasis of the human body is automated and operates largely at a non-conscious level, ensuring our physiological health and equilibrium. Sociocultural homeostasis, by contrast, is deliberate and requires high-level  consciousness. Morality (along with the laws and jurisprudence that follow from it) is the centrepiece of sociocultural homeostasis.” (Moral reasoning, John Templeton Foundation)

Our interpersonal moral actions in 2018

We are in 2018. According to neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, our moral sense is very deeply anchored and plays a central role in maintaining our social balance.

What are characteristics of interpersonal morality in our time? And are we in or out of balance regarding Damasio’s sociocultural homeostasis?

Let’s look at a few formulated principles with regard to the ethics of interpersonal communication. What is important when we examine the norms and values ​​in the way we treat each other? Ronald C. Arnett, chair and professor at the Department of Communication & Rhetorical Studies at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, mentions the following principles in his book Communication Ethics Literacy (2008):

1)      To protect and promote the good of the relationship

Ronald Arnett: “Interpersonal communication ethics differentiates itself from other forms of communication ethics by attentive concern for the relationship between persons. Interpersonal communication finds its identity in the ethical mandate to protect and promote the good of the relationship. “

If we pay attention to the ethics of our interpersonal communication, according to Arnett it is therefore ‘by definition’ aimed at preservation and quality of the relationship itself. He contrasts this with an interpersonal relationship that is only used to achieve a goal: an instrumental relationship. Ronald Arnett quotes a statement from Philip M. Taylor about instrumental relations and the deeper needs of people:

“In the light of the idea of authenticity, it seems that having merely instrumental relationships is to act in a self-stultifying way. The notion that one can pursue one’s fulfilment in this way seems illusory, in somewhat the same way as the idea that one can choose oneself without recognizing a horizon of significance beyond choice.”

In other words, we ultimately make ourselves as humans and our worlds unnecessarily small and we limit ourselves if we strictly use others to achieve our own goals. In the light of interpersonal ethics and the quality of the relationship itself, Robert P. George, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University, writes:

“At the foundation of our moral thinking is our understanding that some things are worth doing or pursuing for their own sake. It makes sense to act on them even when we expect no further benefit from doing so. When we see the point of performing a friendly act, for example, or when we see the point of someone’s studying Shakespeare or the structure of distant galaxies, we understand the intrinsic value of such activities. We grasp the worth of friendship and knowledge not merely as means to other ends but as ends in themselves. Unlike money or insurance coverage, these goods are not valuable only because they facilitate or protect other goods. They are themselves constitutive aspects of our own and others’ fulfilment as human persons.” (Moral reasoning, John Templeton Foundation)

We are in 2018….

Considering this first starting point, I would like to make the following comments:

  • How do we focus these days on the quality of our relationships? Within our romantic relationships or as parents and children, we probably recognize the importance of the quality of the relationship and we invest in it. But what about beyond it? Are these in fact only instrumental relationships or not?
  • These relationships, such as friendships, customer relationships, collegial contacts, were formerly more embedded in social structures, such as community life, face to face interest groups and social clubs. Nowadays we seem to operate more in networks. In addition, we also keep our contacts online more and more. Does that make our relationships more instrumental or not?
  • If we focus on the quality of a relationship, it is necessary that we invest in the relationship itself. If we do not invest in something, it will bleed to death, isn’t it? Those earlier social structures with their planned parties and meetings forced us to invest more or less in a stable group. In what way do we now invest in relationships for the sake of the relationship itself? Are we perhaps investing in the benefits of a relationship in the short term, but not in the long-term (quality of the) relationship?
  • What is the specific nature morally of an online contact? Have we developed an interpersonal communication ethic for online contacts? Or are our online relationships often characterized by non-commitment?
  • Many people today feel ‘disconnected‘ and this makes them unhappy. A connection arises partly because we focus on each other. What do we ourselves contribute to making this connection?
  • Do we still have the knowledge about how to establish and maintain deep and long-term relationships? Did we in the past have more ‘tacit knowledge about which was the right way to act within relationships? Did we ‘intuit’ more how to act morally?

2)      Interpersonal responsibility for the relationship

If we pay attention to the ethics of our interpersonal communication, Arnett’s second principle is that the persons who are part of the relationship take responsibility for the relationship itself.

The second assumption is that interpersonal communication nourishes the relationship in order to bond responsibility between persons, not to further careers or advance political agendas… Interpersonally, the relationship we have with another matters—it is the defining ethic in our interpersonal communication, and it is our ethical responsibility to nurture that relationship.

Arnett makes a distinction between interpersonal communication style and interpersonal communication responsibility for the relationship. The interpersonal communication style is about the effectiveness and personal character of what you want to convey to others. The interpersonal communication responsibility is about the extent to which you take ownership of the relationship, your commitment, your reliability, your dedication to the relationship that you have with someone else. In this case, ethics is not about style, but about taking responsibility.

“Placed in ethical language, the move from interpersonal style to interpersonal responsibility for the relationship highlights the difference between personality and character. Good personality, or interpersonal style, linked with interpersonal responsibility, or character, leads to long-term relational health; good personality without character forgoes the long-term obligation to attend to relational responsibility, forging a form of interpersonal sophistry marked by style alone and absence of interpersonal ethics—for the relationship is the content that guides character in an interpersonal ethic.”

And: “If one is not concerned about the Other or the relationship with the Other, one simply does not care.”

We are in 2018….

Considering this second starting point, I would like to make the following comments:

  • Is there currently too much emphasis on a good communicative style within our face to face and online contacts? Do we place too little emphasis on what Arnett calls character? If so, does that also affect the depth of our contacts?
  • At our communication training nowadays is the emphasis too much on training skills with which we can increase our effectiveness, but too little on training to take responsibility for a relationship and does this take place at the expense of ethical learning?
  • Our self-image on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram is often the engine of our online contact. But how do we deal with all the difficult things online that are part of building human contact? Our different visions and expectations, differences in character, differences in distance and proximity needs. Are we investing to arrive at solutions together or do we avoid it?

Robert P. George writes about the moral principles we use in our face to face contacts:

“….The specifications of this abstract master principle are the familiar moral precepts that most people, even today, seek to live by and to teach their children to respect, such as the Golden Rule (“do unto others as you would have them do unto you”), the Pauline Principle (“never do evil that good may come of it”), and Kant’s categorical imperative (stated most vividly in the maxim that one ought to “treat humanity, whether in the person of yourself or others, always as an end, and never as a means only.” (Moral reasoning, John Templeton Foundation)

  • Do we use these moral principles within our social networks? Do we notice if these principles are not used and what is the effect?
  • How do we deal with violations of integrity online? Do we take responsibility for this or are we forced to be accountable by others? In short, is there any social control?
  • Do we or do we not have to face the consequences of it online? “You will get away with it”, you might say? What is the influence on our mutual trust?

3)      The naming matters: Ethical conduct involves specific relationships

According to Arnett, interpersonal communication ethics involves specific relationships: parent-child, teacher-student, friend-friend, etc. As a parent you have moral principles to your child, as a teacher to your student, as a doctor to your patient. The nature of the relationship then determines your moral principles and thus what you find proper behaviour. The law guarantees in the parent-child relationship certain moral principles and in that of teacher and student for example. Professional ethical codes have been established for specific professional groups.

Arnett states: “The first assumption in interpersonal communication from the standpoint of interpersonal communication ethics is that the nature of the relationship matters.”

Or as Levinas (2000) writes:“The naming matters. Naming announces the relationship of dad, teacher, student or friend. The proper name begins with a general reminder of a relationship played out in the particular between persons.”

It is precisely the special character of the relationship that gives interpersonal ethics power, meaning and direction. It is not a General Other, but a child, a student, a patient with whom you have a relationship. When people and circumstances change, the relationship also changes again, and the interpersonal ethics also require adjustments: your daughter has become a mother, your student is now a friend on Facebook, the coach client is now a contact on LinkedIn.

We are in 2018…

Considering this third starting point, I would like to make the following comments:

  • Are our relationships on social media may be too diffuse and unclearly defined? What are our contacts: friends, colleagues, acquaintances? Is the student still my student or has it become a colleague and competitor? Are we therefore perhaps too little aware of the interpersonal ethics associated with each specific contact?

Back to the timeless snake biting its own tail

With all our daily worries we are still part of that great circular movement that is life. A fascinating and dynamic play of forces that constantly seeks balance. Our motives are probably much deeper than we suspect, and we often surprise ourselves and each other suddenly in a very positive way:

The man who jumps into the icy water with danger for his own life to save the driver of the car that has been flooded.

The woman who on the street steps in the middle of a man’s fight to prevent worse.

The population who, themselves exhausted, after an earthquake helps with rescue work for days on end.

We then instinctively and perhaps also consciously surrender to something that is bigger than ourselves? Because we feel that we ultimately belong there?



Reflections on Moral Leadership| Part 3: Moral Leadership in the Workplace: Integrity at the top as a shining example

The quest for intrinsic morality

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

Moral Leadership in the Workplace: Integrity at the top as a shining example

The top leader. The face of the company to the outside world, the one that brings internal coherence and the initiator for innovation. The figurehead.

The company puts all the time, money and energy to attract the right top man or top woman. Talent management is used to get and retain key figures at strategic positions in an organization. Because the organization knows for itself which enormous influence leadership has on what is being led.

Tempting executives

Sky-high salaries, bonuses and special employment conditions are offered at the potential CEO to tempt him or her to take the job. We want to attract him or her to that specific top and preferably keep him or her there for a while. The majestic bird is lured in this way.

“It cannot be otherwise,” companies say. “Competition drives us. We want to attract the best top manager and if we offer less, he or she will be picked by other companies. The salaries are only in line with the market. ”

Only in line with market conditions for the market for top executives, I would say.

Determine a vision

Nestled at the top, the new leader oversees the whole downstairs and defines a vision for the future of the company. He or she, together with the Board of the Directors, determines a strategy to conquer new markets or to consolidate existing ones. And if necessary, introduces a cultural change within the organization. In most cases to be able to operate more flexibly in the modern market. He or she deposes business units, removes management layers, lays off employees and takes on others. This way the leader starts his headlong flight

Value and values

This is an era in which the power of shareholders within commercial companies has increased significantly. And non-profit organizations are also much more exposed to market forces. As a result, organizations in general are increasingly focusing on profit maximisation. And with that, it seems, have a short-term vision for the company.

Not so much aimed at retaining and increasing or enhancing the value of the organization. The value of the company itself, the value of the company for the employees who work there, the value of the company for the society. Not so much focused on the values that the company represents.

A long-term vision in most cases only relates to the financial results in an ever-changing market.

Moral leadership: Are the right birds being lured?

But is not the new top man or top woman also the moral leader of the company? What requirements are being placed by the organization on the integrity of the new leaders? And what about their ability to implement the desired ethical culture?

Do companies, with the above incentives, really send the right signal to attract moral leaders?

Regarding the influence of power, Ronald Reggio Professor of Leadership and Organizational Psychology says on Psychology Today (2009): “Leadership is a lot about power and influence. Leaders use their power to get things done. A simple distinction is between two forms of power. Socialized power is power used to benefit others. The other form of power is called personalized power and it is used for personal gain. Importantly, the two forms of power do not exclude each other. A leader can use his or her power to benefit others but can also gain personally by using it. The obvious problem is when personalized power dominates and the leader gains, often at the followers’ expense.”

Regarding a research about the unconscious link between money and unethical behaviour Mandi Woodruff on Business Insider (2013) quotes Associate Professor of Organizational Behaviour Kristin Smith-Crowe: “Across the board, participants who had been given money-related tasks had a greater likelihood of unethical intentions, decisions and behaviours. What was happening with our participants is that the exposure to the concept of money was actually affecting the way they were thinking. The money cues were triggering a business decision mind frame, which meant that they focused on a cost-benefit analysis as motivation to pursue their own self-interest, rather than thinking about things more broadly.

So, if you might say that money and power foster self-interest, are the emphasis on bonuses and a top salary than the right means to entice executive officers with integrity to take top positions?

Which company has recently appointed a top manager partly because of his proven fair and honest conduct?


As a society, we want pure professionals at high positions of companies with influence (profit and non-profit) who have a passion for their profession without cynicism. Professionals who find working on the highest level intrinsically motivating and the position themselves honourably enough.

If companies talk so much about sustainability, why is the focus no longer on preserving the value and protecting the values of a company? And is not moral leadership strongly associated with it?

Research shows that we are happier if we work in a genuine ethical climate. And the long-term results for the company itself and the society are also better.

The leader is crucial to implementing an ethical climate

Moral leadership by the manager is essential for the moral judgment of employees. It is clear that it can effectively help prevent and counter undesirable and unethical behaviour at work. The Dutch psychologist Leonie Heres writes about it in her PhD research from 2014 (De Psycholoog, March 2016): “Effective management of integrity by the managers also has a positive effect on the work climate: for example, employees are more willing to support each other and the organization and they also perform better in their work.”

How do you define moral leadership?

Heres defines moral leadership as follows:

Moral leadership is related to character traits, decision making and behaviour that a leader demonstrates to stimulate others to behave in accordance with the moral values and norms that apply in the broader social context in which one operates.” (Heres, 2014)

Based on the research of others she writes that a moral leader is someone:

With high ethical standards, who has deep-rooted principles and values and defends them, even when there is a lot at stake or others exert pressure to transgress his moral boundaries (Trevino et al., 2003).”

Exemplary conduct of the moral leader

As a moral manager, managers take measures to directly improve ethical behaviour. Measures such as ‘codes of conduct, audits, training courses and even specialized integrity bureaus and integrity officers to make their employees aware of the organization’s prevailing values and norms’(Heres, 2016): “This is how managers want to combat fraud, intimidation, harassing behaviour and improper declaration behaviour. Just like accepting large gifts and other violations of integrity standards.

However, regarding this point Heres states that these measures will only have a positive and lasting effect if the manager also supports and reinforces these measures with his or her own exemplary behaviour and leadership. Just like children in their upbringing pay close attention to what their parents demonstrate as exemplary behaviour, I would say.

How to promote honest and ethical conduct among employees?

If a moral leader is to be effective, he or she must ensure that his or her behaviour is visible, frequent and striking enough to serve as an example for employees. Consistent reward or punishment of behaviour by the management is also important to clearly express to employees what behaviour is and is not accepted.

It also appears that explicit communication about principles, values and standards is important. The moral leader does not have to instruct his employees about what they have to do, but he will start a discussion with them on ethics within the company. The manager clarifies the moral considerations when making certain decisions. Heres writes: ‘He for example talks about his own moral dilemmas and how he has reached a certain decision. He further encourages his staff through questions and critical comments to independently think about moral issues and solutions.

Employees will understand and feel what is expected from them by fully experiencing practical examples. And with all moral actions carried out by employees together, a tacit knowledge is built up. Knowledge that contributes further to the ethical culture within the organization. Knowledge that can also be seen as the company’s emotional capital.

What is exactly ethical behaviour of the moral leader?

It is tempting to have a precise picture in mind with respect to ethical behaviour of a manager. But that would be too simple. What constitutes honest behaviour depends on the moral norms and values that apply in the broader social context in which the leader finds himself, Heres writes. And ethical behaviour depends therefore on the judgment of the direct and indirect stakeholders from inside and outside the organization. And cross-cultural leadership research also shows that moral leadership – just like leadership in general – has various meanings and way of being expressed in different environments. It does have general characteristics, but it is certainly not a fixed concept.

Interaction and dynamics

To develop effective moral leadership at the workplace, interaction between the managers and staff is important. This certainly seems necessary in professions where the work has a major impact on colleagues, clients, the organization or the society. Then employees also want discussions about the moral values and principles that should be determinant regarding choices they make at work. Especially when individuals have a leading role and frequently experience more serious moral dilemmas. They expect their managers to adopt a proactive approach and a more explicit guidance regarding integrity comparing to employees who do not have management roles. The opportunities that employees are given to discuss and address difficult issues in a safe atmosphere and to learn from mistakes they have made, are also very important.

According to Heres, managers should more explicitly consult their employees on how they want moral leadership in their organization to take shape. By talking to employees about it, the moral leader and the employees develop a shared vision of what an ethical behaviour involves within the organization.

Yet again the integrity of the moral leader: the unruly practice

Everything concerning moral leadership, however, depends on the personal integrity of the leader of a company and on his consistent and visible exemplary behaviour. But now research shows that executives often overestimate themselves in this matter: they have a more positive view of their exemplary behaviour than their employees do.

This seems like the lack of insight into our own behaviour we as people have in general (Argyris, 1974). See also my previous column on professionally moral behaviour.

Together, it should make us start to think about the role of leaders in practice, when they want to implement and maintain a corporate culture in which ethical behaviour is the default.

What if the manager himself does not have ethical behaviour?

How can an organization actually promote ethical behaviour if the exemplary behaviour of the leader himself is not ethical? What are the effects of all these measures on employees? And the effects of codes of conduct, audits and integrity training?

Chris Argyris writes in On Organizational Learning (1992): “If it is a criterion of incompetence when one behaves in a way that discourages others, the actions of those who do that could be called the actions of an incompetent person.” The moral leader who does not comply with the ethical behaviour that he more or less imposes on his employees is therefore incompetent in this respect.

Argyris goes even further: “When people make statements about the way everyone should behave under certain circumstances, but do not act in accordance with those statements and nevertheless believe that they do, they create an unfair situation. ” The moral leader who does not act ethically and does not recognize this in himself, also creates injustice at work.

But, says Chris Argyris: “Injustice is a double-loop problem and in general people have difficulty with double-loop learning, because we are programmed in such a way that we are not so effective in it.” The double-loop learning that relates to re-examining one’s own assumptions and values and norms (by detecting and correcting errors), will never happen automatically within organizations. And certainly not when it comes to values that have to do with the way people interact.

The difficulty is that the deep double-loop learning seems a good idea for everyone when the information is not threatening. However, as soon as it becomes threatening to us, we seem to resist to it and our learning becomes superficial again. We fall quickly back on our usual thinking pattern.

Argyris also believes that interventions relating to double-loop learning, and I say, therefore also relating to learning to act morally, must start at the highest power level of the organization. Thus, with leaders sufficiently autonomous to put the new knowledge into practice. So, first work on an individual level and then penetrate the organizational levels.

But if those moral leaders are then unable themselves to apply the double-loop learning, they will undeniably create conditions within their organization to prevent double-loop learning. Then it is almost impossible that the employees of the organization are together engaged in deep learning regarding ethical behaviour, because this learning is unconsciously being obstructed.

For example, there could be integrity training courses, but they are not provided by the right trainers and the content is non-committal. There is an ethical code, but its application does not lead to deep learning about business ethics by employees. In theory, employees may criticize the ethics policy of the company and misconduct must be reported.

But, for example, the way in which companies deal with whistle-blowers in practice shows a completely different reality. In most cases groupthink and even a certain hypocrisy within the company, will result in the whistle-blower being marginalized. And it is the leader that ultimately lays off the whistle-blower or transfers him/her.

The bird at the top

This makes us think again about the leader at the top. Which bird do we actually want to gracefully settle at the top? Do we really want its sharp view to bring transparency and change to our company? That it is a strong bird?

And if we really want that special bird, will he or she not actually land on the top by him or herself?

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.




Reflections on Moral leadership – Part 1: Moral Leaders in Society

The quest for intrinsic morality.

This is the first column in a series of moral leadership.
Columns that follow are: Professional moral conduct, Interpersonal morality and Moral Self-Control.

Moral leaders in society.

Is it enough to leave moral realization to the individual, to existing social structures and systems, or do we need moral leaders in society? Leaders who analyse the forces in society, perceive the pain and injustice, and then set a strategy for a way to improve? And if so, what are the characteristics of those leaders?

For example, what drives the rise of people like the anti-mafia judge Giovanni Falcone in Sicily in the 1980s, and makes him hold on to his struggle against the mafia, knowing that he is going to die? Could you call those judges Italian moral leaders? It seems that they have employed their intelligence and their talent for professional innovation for something that made their personal life not only not better, but even much worse.

They couldn’t have done it for the sake of glory. Because the general public still seems to be attracted by the romanticism of the mafia itself, given the success of TV series, books and films about the mafia. In no way, this could have been the aim of an anti-Mafia magistrate. The appearance of Al Capone in Italian suit is still more desirable to the public than Giovanni Falcone behind his desk surrounded by files.

Taking a psychological viewpoint

But are not those who deal with the struggle against the mafia, from a psychological point of view, much more interesting? What makes them not comply with their surroundings, but take a different position? And does that independent and possibly lonely position apply to all moral leaders in society?

If you called Falcone a moral leader, in the case of his ‘life or death’ fight against the mafia, what does he mean to society? If you see the images of the fury and sorrow of the Sicilians at the funeral of Giovanni Falcone in 1992, you would say it means a lot.

A huge gap is left behind.

These emotions show what he really meant to the people. When these types of leaders die they leave behind a huge gap with the public and it is for a moment impossible for the people ‘to keep up morale’. That’s the difference with the mourning of a deceased film star or music star. If an admired film star or musical star shines from heaven, far away and not within our reach, a moral leader stands for the way to improving our own destiny. What they stand for or where they work for has a direct impact on our personal lives: our daily lives or our values ​​and beliefs regarding the society that we live in.  So if we lose them during this battle or during this road, the people themselves seem to have temporarily lost their way.

Leaders of Hope

Moral leaders in society also live the way to change to another world or to another social reality. They are the leaders of hope and even stronger, they represent this hope for us.

Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi and more recently Nelson Mandela: There have been many others who represented the hope of a better version of reality in society. They all had an intelligent and original strategy to make injustice visible and tangible, but the power of their leadership was also that they lived according to their own values.

What we appeal to in Nelson Mandela is not only his perseverance in his goal despite his imprisonment, but also the dignity with which he faced his opponents. In Mahatma Gandhi, the consequent nonviolence of his method also extends to us as an example, and with Giovanni Falcone, except for its courageous and prudent detection methods, the control with which he proved his restricted living space is prove of his excellence for us. This probably makes it really feasible to us that they do not do it for personal gain, but that certain values ​​live deep in them that are so important that they do not compromise on the environment.

Against direct self interest

This exemplary behaviour seems necessary for us as citizens to recognize someone as a moral leader. Apart from the result of their intelligent and original strategy for the improvement of society, it is their example behaviour itself that they continue to persevere even though the circumstances are difficult, that we recognize as authentic. That distinguishes the moral leader from the successful businessman or politician whom we evaluate mainly on their results and successes. But Giovanni Falcone, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela are also admired for their authentic behaviour that goes against their direct self-interest. I suspect that we – as a society – need these leaders very much to feel, at individual level,  connected with the society.

Role of the public

  • “There is nowadays a great need for moral leadership.” This phrase, in this particular way or in another form, can be read on, for example, social media. These comments often follow incidents that challenged people’s faith in the leaders of an organization, in politicians of a country or in the foundations of society.
  • The sense of justice of people who make the above ruling seems to be affected. Or they miss in leaders, including politicians, what is so beautifully called ‘gravitas‘. (“a serious and worthy personality with profound depth.” (source: Wikipedia)).
  • Do we suffer as a society under the experienced superficiality of our leaders? Do we lack integrity in our leaders? (Integrity: The person has an intrinsic reliability, says what he does, and does what he says, has no hidden agenda and does not fake any emotions. “(source: Wikipedia).)
  • Have we ourselves given too much admiration to successful leaders and have we given too little weight to leaders whose behaviour we could take as an example?  (And why?).
  • Did we not take ourselves only financial and innovative success, celebrity and the number of followers as a measure of things? And in this way, could we make a difference as a public?

Representing hope

The anti-mafia judges seemed taken by restoring justice itself, seduced by the vision of a country where one can live freely without fear and terror by a part of its own population. It was possible that the judges developed strong friendships and bonds during their struggle that also gave personal and professional satisfaction, but this could never weigh against the loss of murdered colleagues, the shielded life (la vita blindata) that they had to live and the continuing death threats.

With regard to Giovanni Falcone, I have come to the conclusion that he had understood that if he stopped his fight against the mafia, the Sicilian people would have lost all hope for a liberation from the mafia forever. And if hope had been taken away, life would have become impossible.