top of page

Use your Moral Compass to be a better leader

This article was based on episode 067 of The Modern Manager podcast. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to The Modern Manager Podcast on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify, and Stitcher.

Are you living your values every day? We all like to think we’re making good choices, but speaking for myself, It’s hard to do what’s right, especially when it’s at odds with what’s easy. But now is the time to recognize your own biases, admit mistakes, and put people before profits. These are things that moral leaders do.

Emily Miner is leads LRN’s Ethics & Compliance Advisory practice. She helps organizations understand their company culture to inspire ethical behavior using an approach that is co-creative, bottom-up, and data-driven. In addition to leading engagements with organizations in the healthcare, technology, and manufacturing industries, Emily contributes to major research studies and thought leadership.

Emily shares her insights about how to grow and maintain ethical corporate cultures, how moral leadership is needed throughout an organization, and what it looks like in practice. She describes the critical shift currently in motion in which leaders move away from profit driven administrative and managerial practices and start recognizing and embracing the full ecosystem.

Formal Authority Is No Longer Enough

Formal leaders, those with the title or expertise that give them authority, are important. But as customers and employees become more aware of inequalities that exist and the harm done when profits take precedence over everything else, formal leadership isn’t enough. We now need moral leadership.

Dov Seidman, Founder and CEO of LRN puts it well in the introduction to their 2019 State of Moral Leadership in Business Report. He says,

“In a top-down world, formal authority, armed with carrots and sticks, was sufficient to get people to do the next thing right, exactly as specified. But in our now-interdependent world formal authority is less potent. Only moral authority can build trust, inspire colleagues, create meaning, or help people imagine a different and better future—in other words, enabling them to do the next right things.”

Leaders who possess moral authority inform themselves through an internal dialogue that addresses the following questions:

  • Do I see the meaning and purpose in the work that I do and ask my colleagues to do?

  • Do I inspire others to work toward a shared purpose?

  • Do I elevate others so that they can express leadership?

  • Do I make decisions and behave according to my own values?

  • Can I demonstrate humility, admit mistakes, and stand up for what I believe is right, even in tough and personally risky situations?

  • Where do I or others see inequality, unfairness and biases? How might I correct these?

This process of frequent and introspective questioning unlocks deep, personally-held values and opens one up to new ways of thinking and working.

The Increasing Urgency for Moral Leadership

Organizations across the world and their leaders are increasingly being held to higher standards of empathy and responsibility by consumers, employees, and societies. The veil has been lifted on what has previously been the secret or at least unspoken world of business. Unfortunately, though, now that we are looking and talking about it, much of the time we don’t like what we see. Whether it’s Google employees stating a walkout in protest of employment practices, the #Metoo movement demanding accountability for egregious abuses of power, responses to Facebook’s violations of privacy, or consumer rallies demanding environmentally responsible practices from organizations, people are speaking up to demand moral leadership.

Now, more than ever, businesses need to do what is right, even if it’s not the most profitable. And it’s not just at the top. Managers and employees at all levels must lead, manage and contribute through a moral lens.

Moral Leadership Is Contagious

While it might sound daunting, infusing your team or organization with moral leadership doesn’t require a transformative program, although it can. During its research on moral leadership, LRN discovered the importance and impact of role modeling. They noticed that when employees had managers that demonstrated various characteristics of moral leaders, the employees themselves were much more likely to also demonstrate those characteristics.

The moral leader aligns inner purpose and values with their priorities, actions and decisions, and the resulting authenticity creates a climate for others to do the same. Moral behavior is reciprocal, making it extremely powerful because role modeling can happen at any level of the organization.

Building Blocks For Moral Leadership

LRN categorizes the characteristics of moral leaders into seven main capacities. The first two are the most prominent, as they have an outsized impact:

  1. Ability to see people as human beings first, and not as interchangeable units or resources to be used in order to get the job done. This includes celebrating individual differences, respecting what each person uniquely has to offer, and engaging in two-way conversations irrespective of hierarchy.

  2. Ability to hold really high ethical standards. A moral leader uses energy and effort to unequivocally pursue what is right, not only what is necessary to complete a task right now.

  3. Ability to ‘pause’ and reflect on what it means to be a leader in your organization. This practice involves defining principles of leadership and honestly expressing them in personal interactions and decisions. Blind spots, filters and biases which cloud judgement are actively identified and changed.

  4. Creating freedom for others to pursue their work and participate in the work process. This encompasses the ability to allow others to take ownership over how the work is done, to safely take risks, and lean into their own sense of leadership.

  5. Seek the truth in all activities. Look for and stand firmly behind the truth, even when it puts your personal brand or reputation at risk.

  6. Act with Courage. Ask the really tough questions even if you’re scared of the answers. Stand by your deeply held values, no matter what.

  7. Express humility. Ask for help when you need it. Admit mistakes, and make amends when you get it wrong. Know that it is alright to change your mind as you reevaluate circumstances.

As most things in life, embracing moral leadership is a journey. Be open about it so that others can feel safe enough and inspired to do the same themselves.

Join the Modern Manager community to LRN’s The State of Moral Leadership in Business 2019 Report. Note this is available for free to the public because LRN believes in access to knowledge. If you’re a member of the Modern Manager community, it’s available for download on the guest bonus page. Get dozens of episode guides and guest bonuses when you join The Modern Manager community.

This article was based on episode 067 of The Modern Manager podcast. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to The Modern Manager Podcast on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify and Stitcher. Never miss a worksheet, episode or article: subscribe to Mamie’s newsletter.


Optimize your time. Cultivate your team. Achieve your goals.


Recent Posts

See All



When you subscribe to my email list, you'll be notified when new blog posts are released.

bottom of page