I was struck by the reported last words of Moammar Gadhafi, “Don’t you know right from wrong?” The irony of this question is covered very well by other political analysts. But you have to admit, it is a pretty interesting question from a man infamous for the wholesale disregard of human rights, active terrorism, mass murder, and choking political oppression.
For me, I am interested in the idea that “right and wrong” are fundamental leadership issues. When we defined the idea of an Evolutionary leader, ethics and a moral compass are central characteristics. For the record, Gadhafi was not an Evolutionary leader. Not even close.
For a real evolutionary leader, a moral compass allows for key constants to be in place while everything else invariably changes. Ethics provide structure and stability. The Evolutionary leader is able to surf the forces of change because of this keel, this rudder, of resolute ethics.
But ethics can be a real problem for leaders as well…just glance through the news for plenty of examples. Ethics can trip up leaders not just for lapses in ethical judgment, but also in empowering deliberative, future oriented decisions. It may seem counter intuitive to imagine a leader as both pious and adventurous. So how can we think about ethics clearly? How can we think about our ethical position in a way that invigorates decision making? In Peter Northouse’s book Leadership Theory we get some interesting explanations to ponder.
One way to think about our ethical compass comes to us from the Greek word “Telos” meaning “ends” or “purposes”. A “teleological” leadership orientation begins with the vision in mind of a desired future state. The leader makes choices that incrementally move the world closer and closer to the goal. As you read Evolutionaries, you hear a number of the leaders working from a clear picture of what the future will look like. The leaders spend a lot of time studying, debating, and clarifying that future and they communicate it to everyone. For real evolutionary leaders, the interests of others are a part and parcel of the future vision; the ideal end state.
Ethics work to balance the needs of the individual with the needs of others—think of the great scene with Mr. Spock and Captain Kirk: “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few…” This statement is reflective of ethics in a “deontological” leadership position. This term comes from the Greek term “deos” meaning “duty.”
In this perspective the leader marches forward more from an articulate and intrinsic sense of right and wrong. Telling the truth, doing the right thing, being fair etc. are the behaviors you do because that is what works to protect the moral rights of others as well as your own. Again, it is a balance between your needs and the needs of the people around you (and in the world).
If you take a minute to think deeply about these two approaches you can see that they can result in tension with one another. Actions taken to achieve a desired end state may prioritize one set of choices; where acting from an intrinsic sense of duty may dictate very different behaviors.
For example, the leaders of the “Occupy” movements are frequently criticized for not having clear “demands”. For these leaders, that is not the point; they are operating “deontologically” not “teleologically.” They are saying that businesses and banks should do the right thing, tell the truth, offer real value etc. as a matter of duty and principle. Ironically, the same thing can be said of Tea Party activists who are more focused on the principles of limited taxation and limited government than any particular plan for the future.
My current discipline is to reflect on the “why” question (see Chapter One of Evolutionaries) by asking if I am leading from a teleological perspective; or if I am working from a sense of duty (deontological). The results of this little thought experiment are quite interesting. I am more aware of the assumptions about life and behavior that are hard-wired into me and those that are important to make the world a better place. But it is not all about results. Like most evolutionary pursuits, it is the journey of this thinking that yields the real benefits.
So don’t you know right from wrong? I bet you do, and that understanding is informing your capacity as a leader every single day.