January 13, 2023
In several social media postings (tweets and articles in this space) I have been discussing the issue of moral leadership and making the salient point concerning the relationship between a leader’s behaviours and that of others in an organization or society in which the leader has influence. The issue of moral leadership is in fact central to my primary leadership theory, Proposition MRM (MRM refers to Modeling, Respect, and Motivation) in which Modeling highlights the importance of, and the need for, leaders setting the tone by demonstrating in their conduct the behaviours and standards they expect of others.
The commonsense and sensitive, yet profoundly important, nature of this issue is really at the heart of what leadership is. The very ascription of “leader” assumes and requires that such a person stands out based on, among other things, that he or she demonstrates what he or she, and the organization, expects of others. The assumption then must be that in so far as the leader’s primary responsibility is to advance the development of the organization, (as well as protecting all for which the organization stands), the choice of a person for leadership means that such a person is a demonstrable embodiment of ideals of the organization.
The very notion of leadership means that a person chosen to lead, is deemed to be a fit and proper representation to be held up as an example of what the organization is, what it stands for, and what it seeks to become.
Moral Leadership and Power
Cheng et al (2004) define moral leadership as the behavior of a leader that demonstrates superior personal virtues, self-discipline, and unselfishness. Research on this issue of moral leadership has been extensive and in addition to the pioneering work of Cheng and his colleagues in 2004, there have since that of Yukl (2010); Bedi et al (2015); and Bao et al (2019).
A central consideration of these authorities is the fact that leaders who also hold positions of authority, have the power to allocate resources and set standards of social norms within the contexts (organization or society) they lead. This means that the behaviours of others are profoundly affected by how the leaders behave. By virtue of leaders’ control of resources, those who depend on those resources, or deem themselves dependent, will seek to ensure that their own behaviours are such that they do not risk receipt of said resources. This creates a psychological response of resource-seeking conduct.
The resource-seeking is often expressed in one of two ways. The first is alignment where the resource seeker ensures that his or her conduct is aligned to the expectations of the resource holder. Thus fan clubs and sycophantic behaviours arise or worse, questionable behaviours that are similar to that of the leader. The second is self-censorship which is seen in people choosing not to comment on, or criticize, the conduct of the leader. The result is that the conduct of leaders has a determinative impact on the outcomes an organization experiences.
A global crisis of moral leadership?
The question may well be asked: Is there is a global crisis of moral leadership? To this question I would answer “yes”. If a leader is expected to embody what an organization or society is and what it seeks to become what does it means when societies elect leaders whose lives have been characterized by lawbreaking, tax evasion, lying, duplicitous conduct, and greed? Does it mean that all leaders are characterized by these qualities and thus electors / citizens have no choice, or does it mean that societies have become what is seen in the leaders?
Whatever it may mean, there is no denying that the evidence unearthed by the Select Committee of the US Congress in relation to the January 6, 2021, Capitol riots, for example, portrays the once-claimed bastioned of democracy as being in peril. Similar attempts made by supporters of the former President of Brazil, Bolsnaro, also suggest a crisis of moral leadership. To those we could the various strands of extremism, which are taking hold in Europe, all of which appear to have one thing in common: totalitarianism.
I am not of the view that societies have no choice and that all who present themselves for leadership are equally duplicitous, dishonest, lawbreaking, individuals. In this space we have highlighted several examples of world leaders who have shown both courage to do the right thing as well as accountability and service to country over personal interests.
Reflections on moral leadership in Jamaica
Jamaica, in my view, faces a crisis of leadership. This crisis has existed for some decades but has become worse.
This crisis is evidenced by, among other things, an increasing level of public corruption and the inability and unwillingness of the head of state (the Governor General) and the head government (the Prime Minister), as well as leaders in other sectors of society, particularly civil society organizations, academia, and faith-based organizations to make a dent on corruption.
It has never been the practice of governors general to mae adverse or offensive comments and therein lies a major problem with Jamaica’s democracy. How can the person holding the highest office in the land observe a code of silence or be consumed by the need for political correctness, in the face of intolerable levels of corruption?
It is also apparent that the head of government, the Prime Minister, is badly compromised in his ability to set the standards of moral leadership. Not only has the Prime Minister, both as Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition been rebuked by the high court in relation to actions he has taken in those official capacities, but in respect of a singularly important statutory obligation the Prime Minister has been found wanting.
The law prescribes that the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition must make declarations of their assets and liabilities by a prescribed statutory date. These declarations are then reviewed and certified by the Integrity Commission. The certification is not a mere rubber stamping but an assertion that the Commission is satisfied that the declaration raises no questions, omits no material information, or is contradictory or conflicting. Prime Minister Holness has, on at least one occasion, submitted his declarations late. Late submissions constitute a breach of the law and is punishable under the law. At the time of writing, the Prime Minister’s declarations for 2022, remain uncertified.
These instances of failure to comply with, or satisfy the demands of, the law render the Prime Minister a poor model of moral leadership as well as weaken his authority to hold others accountable. This situation is not good for the country and unless other leaders in society take steps to forcibly signal to the Prime Minister that his repeated run-ins with the law are bad for the country, then there will be continued deterioration of moral leadership in Jamaica.
Bao, Y., Li, C. (2019). From moral leadership to positive work behaviors: the mediating roles of value congruence and leader-member exchange. Front. Bus. Res. China 13, 6.
Bedi, A., Alpaslan, C. M., & Green, S. (2015). A meta-analytic review of ethical leadership outcomes and moderators. Journal of Business Ethics, 139(3), 1–20.
Cheng, B. S., Chou, L. F., Wu, T. Y., Huang, M. P., & Farh, J. L. (2004). Paternalistic leadership and subordinate responses: Establishing a leadership model in Chinese organizations. Asian Journal of Social Psychology, 7(1), 89–117.
Yukl, G. A. (2010). Leadership in organizations (7th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Professor Canute Thompson is Professor of Educational Policy, Planning, and Leadership at the School of Education, The University of the West Indies, Mona Campus, and Head of the Caribbean Centre for Educational Planning. He is author of two award-winning books and articles, among his collection of eight books and over a dozen journal articles, and the operator of leadershipreimagination.com website.