A Bright Idea, But No Moral Compass

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The word ‘moral’ doesn’t always get good press, it’s a word that can make hypocrites of us all.

And yet, we are instantly outraged when someone doesn't ‘do the right thing’ in a given situation. People judge us and we judge them, by whether we/they are seen to fall below an expected standard of behavior. For example, the headline about Wonga’s failure (the pay day loan company), captured the public’s moral outrage about what had been going on in the company.

Wonga: a bright idea but no moral compass

(Sunday Times September 2nd 2018)


Fortune Magazine’s editor, Alan Murray’s clarion call to modern leadership said,

“Being a ‘good’ corporate leader once meant delivering superior results to shareholders. Today that’s still necessary, but not sufficient. Workers and customers, as well as politicians and the public, are holding those who lead to a new—and higher—moral standard, and leaders must learn how to respond” (Alan Murray Quoting Richard Branson)

So, how can we, as leaders, learn how to respond to the call for higher moral standards?

Every day we make a thousand little decisions, but there are certain principles that, like laws of gravity, act as filters which enable us to self-scan our actions, motives and outcomes. It means we can ask ourselves questions, such as, “was that decision, that thought, that action, that developing habit, or character trait – was it the right thing?” Knowing these principles and knowing the questions to ask ourselves, helps us to filter what makes a good leadership decision. Are we developing muscle to do the right thing? In this article let’s look at three, of the six, filters explored fully in the book*.


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Filter 1: Trust

Trust is the lubricant that makes every human interaction work smoothly. The issue of trust is at the heart of every working relationship. Break the trust and you break, or distance, the relationship. We saw previously that every academic definition of leadership puts influence at its heart. Influence is an inter-personal transaction. Influence is always between people. So, influence (leadership) relies on Trust, as does every relationship you have.

Consider this scenario. I have an important leadership idea and I want to share it with everyone in my wider team. Do I just quickly send off an email to everyone, or do I run it past my leadership team first? If I send it off now, then it’s out there. If I consult my team it will take longer to get it out there and the leadership team might reshape it, or even disagree with it. I have the authority to send it. What’s the right thing to do?

The question I have to ask myself is, “will quickly sending it out to the wider team build or diminish trust?” Now, I know that I can convince myself that everything I do is good and right. Self-justification is the easiest leadership skill to practice. But fast forward that one little decision a thousand times and you now have me as the autocratic style boss, who everyone knows will do his own thing anyway and either they will tolerate me, or go and work somewhere else, where they can be more involved in creating the future as part of a team.

The key question?

Will my decision, or action, build or diminish trust?

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Filter 2: Power

I was sitting in front of a group of South African farmers for a Q&A session about a leadership programme that we’d been piloting on farms. An Afrikaans farmer stood up and told me his concerns about our training programme.

“Your training is good. It works. But we don't want it going too far”.

“What do you mean?”, I asked.

“Well, once these workers get empowered, they might not want to work for us, they might have ideas of their own, they might cause trouble…. but the worst is that they will leave and go somewhere else and we can’t have that, because labour is so short”

I was shocked. Was he really saying that he wanted people to get a little bit of empowerment… but not too much? Was this the seeds of oppression? Would this farmer’s decision lift his workers up, or push them down? I realised that we were facing a moral leadership question here.

Every human has power of some kind. The Declaration of Human Rights states that, “the inherent dignity and the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world”. Therefore, any decision that a leader takes that uses power over someone else, to make that person smaller, so the leader can feel or act bigger, is a decision that breaks the principle of power.

Key question?

Does my decision, or action, put power into people (em-power), or remove it from them (dis-empower)?

Empathy Image


Filter 3: Empathy

I’m often struck by that phrase ‘the real world’, as if there is any other kind.

“You don't live in the real world.”

“We have to make this decision work in the real world.”

What is the real world? A leader is a person, surrounded by a lot of other people. These other people all have a life-story and experiences and perspectives and viewpoints. Reality, the real world, is interdependent, not independent and so it does us and others damage if we only look at life and make our decisions from our own limited perspective. Everyone and everything are connected; everything relies on everything else. Arrogance looks at the world through my eyes only. Humility looks at the world through as many eyes as possible. Empathy is the experience of understanding another person's thoughts, feelings, and conditions from their point of view, rather than from my own (Psychology Today).

When you throw away your fast food packaging out of your car window, you are only thinking of yourself, “I want my space clean”. What that decision lacks is empathy. The empathic question is, “How will it affect other people’s space?”

If I defraud, or put at risk, the company pension fund, how does it affect the pensions of a thousand employees? What if I was one of those employees, what decisions would I want the bosses to take?

Key question?

Are my decisions serving others, not just my own self-interest?



Moral leadership is doing the right thing for all stakeholders.

Every day we make a thousand little decisions.

We can use Principles to filter out whether our decisions are doing the right thing.

Trust, Power and Empathy are just three of those principles.

Two questions:

  1. Take one decision that you made recently that affected others – run it through the three filters.

  2. Do you have a daily routine (like Nelson Mandela) to reflect on your decisions?


Keep your moral filters switched on every day for every decision you make.


©Trevor Waldock 2019

This is an adapted extract from Chapter 2: of the book

Doing The Right Thing – Getting Fit For Moral Leadership

by Trevor Waldock

*If you would like a free copy of the pdf version of the book please email [email protected]

More leadership blogs at www.trevorwaldock.net