“What if I’m Wrong?” Leadership and the Moral Compass

“I have learned that as long as I hold fast to my beliefs and values – and follow my own moral compass – then the only expectations I need to live up to are my own.” ~  Michelle Obama

I’m picking that you’re reading this article because, like me, you’re educated, ambitious, articulate and confident. Not all the time, but often enough. These are some of the skills that help you to stand out at work, and mean you’re more likely to get promoted.

But here’s the rub…

Moral Compass Obama

Those same skills also make you very good at persuading other people to do things, believe things, buy things, help you with things… In fact, persuasion and influence are another pair of skills that are considered vital for leadership.

Do you know who else was educated, ambitious, articulate, confident and more than a little persuasive?

Adolf Hitler. Sadam Hussein. Osama Bin Laden.

My point is simple.

Leadership is made up of a set of learnable skills and attributes, but it is also about character. Which is a bit more tricky to teach.

The world is quite a complex place. Other people can also be incredibly persuasive – and some people are easily swayed. Some of us are people pleasers, so seek to do what others want us to do, no matter what.

Let’s explore the vital elements of an effective moral compass, and what to do if yours is straying a little from its ‘True North’. In reality, a good compass is only the beginning… More important is how frequently you consult it – and whether you ‘trust’ it by following where it points you.

Invest in a Decent Moral Compass

“All one needs to do is read – books, magazines, research the Internet – and pay attention to the influencers in their lives to discover the myriad people of strong moral character who have and still are making positive, meaningful contributions and differences in our world.” ~ Zig Ziglar

No you can’t buy one! But you can invest in one.

Moral Compass Ziglar

First, become clear in your own mind what traits, characteristics and ‘rules’ make up the mindset of people you consider to be of high moral character.

You might find a book like David Brooks’ The Road to Character is of some assistance as a starting point. Brooks sets out to chart a path through the unclear terrain of human morality by referring to what he calls “resume virtues” and “eulogy virtues”. And along the journey he shares some surprising and insightful biographies of people who – often in spite of the odds – showed tremendous character. My top five leadership books are another good place to start.

Once you are clear what you believe constitutes character, seek out people who represent this to you, and see them as your mentors. Whether formally or informally. Create a network of ‘conscience voices’ around you that you can seek guidance from, observe, or even emulate.

This will give you a solid foundation – a platform from which to build.

Learn how to use your Moral Compass

“Reading furnishes the mind only with materials of knowledge; it is thinking that makes what we read ours.” ~ John Locke

So now you’ve got this handy thing – how do you use it?

Have you ever navigated your way through rugged terrain with a map and a compass?

Moral Compass Locke

Yes, landscape features can be helpful, but these can change – streams can be re-routed by adverse weather, and if you’re in dense forest or bush, the prominent geographical features can become lost…

In these circumstances, you need to rely more and more heavily on your compass – consulting it regularly to ensure you don’t wander off track.

The more treacherous the terrain, the more frequently you may need to consult your compass – check your bearing, identify the features of the landscape and head out. And the same is true for your moral compass… The more ambiguous the ethical or organisational terrain, the more frequently you should check in to ensure you haven’t drifted astray.

Interestingly though, you can spend too much time consulting the compass without looking up, in which case, you are almost equally likely to wander off track.

Morality without deliberate intent to act is as helpful as meandering round in circles.

Be Aware of your Blind Spots

“We are like chameleons, we take our hue and the color of our moral character, from those who are around us.” ~ John Locke

Often our blind spots are also our areas of greatest confidence. I remember as a young Scout leading a group of trusting city boys on a rather unnecessary series of wallaby trails through dense bush (including gorse bushes) in an endeavour to show how tough us country girls were. Picture crawling on your hands and knees through the dirt underneath very prickly gorse bushes…

Don’t worry, we didn’t get lost, but it wasn’t strictly the quickest way to where we were going either.

Moral Compass Locke

When we are confident in our ability to navigate the terrain – either because we think we’ve been there before, or because we’re determined to prove a point, we can become susceptible to drifting off track.

Whether this means trying to impress somebody whose opinion we value, or failing to stop when we sense things are going astray, the end result is the same.

So be aware that your areas of greatest strength and confidence may in fact be the exact places where you most need to consult your moral compass.

Recognise there will be Obstacles

“The right way is not always the popular and easy way. Standing for right when it is unpopular is a true test of moral character.” ~ Margaret Chase Smith

Persistence in the face of challenging circumstances is a key trait of effective leaders. The path of integrity isn’t to everyone’s taste, and like any challenging journey, you may lose companions and allies along the way.

Moral Compass Chase Smith

If you have nurtured and cared for your moral compass, you will know that it guides you in spite of these subjective barriers. Persevere. Because the important things – the things that are truly worth doing – are also the hard things when measured by external metrics.

Often though, these same things are actually the easier things, when measured against internal metrics.

At the end of the day, what is more important: Your resume? Or your eulogy?

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