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Leadership: Moral Responsibility

Some time back I wrote about leadership as accepting personal responsibility for one’s actions. Responsible leaders face up to the consequences of what they have done. They don’t externalize blame by saying it was the fault of someone or something else. Admitting responsibility can be excruciatingly difficult, especially when significant consequences are involved. They run away from accountability and betray the principle of personal responsibility. C. S. Lewis once said, “Courage is every virtue at the breaking point.” For far too many leaders, acceptance of responsibility is the point where their integrity begins to fray and break.

The biblical account of Cain and Abel provides an example of a still deeper problem. In a fit of jealousy and rage, Cain murders his brother Abel. After the event, God asks Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?” He is not seeking information about Abel. He knows what has happened. Rather, he is calling Cain to account for what he has done.

It is significant that Cain does not respond with some version of “I didn’t do it.” Instead, he challenges God saying, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4:9). Essentially, he says, “Why should my brother’s condition be of any concern to me?” Instead of acknowledging an obligation of care toward Abel, he denies having any moral responsibility toward his brother.

We are our brothers’ keepers and our sisters’, too. God intends not only for us to be personally accountable but also to acknowledge our moral responsibility toward others. This bears directly on leadership. Most research on leadership entirely avoids moral considerations. This is a serious failing. Ron Heifetz of Harvard’s Kennedy. School of Government explains:

The problem emerges when we communicate and model these descriptions as “leadership” because “leadership” in many cultures is a normative idea–it represents a set of orienting values, as do words like “hero” and “champion. if we leave the value implications of our teaching and practice unaddressed, we encourage people, perhaps unwittingly, to aspire to great influence or high office, regardless of what they do there.1

We are obligated to one another in a multitude of ways with a common theme of being responsible to guard one another’s welfare and pursue wherever possible the good of our fellow humans. Failure to exercise this concern is a moral failing and also a failure of leadership. Heifetz applies this analysis to the classic test case of Adolf Hitler.

When influence alone defines leadership, Hitler qualifies as an authentic and successful leader: he mobilized a nation to follow his vision. Indeed, he inspired millions of people to organize their lives by this world. Even with the added criterion that goals have to meet the need of both leader and follower, we would say that Hitler led. His many followers in Germany shared his goals. He was not simply forcing his sentiments and views on everyone. He reached office, in part, by articulating the pains and hopes of many people.

Furthermore, by the standard of organizational effectiveness, Hitler exercised formidable leadership. Within hundreds of specific decision making instances, Hitler succeeded in developing the effectiveness of German organizations. He set the goal of restoring the German economy, and for a period of time he succeeded.

If we assume that leadership must not only meet the needs of followers but also must elevate them, we render a different judgment. Hitler wielded power, but he did not lead.2

James McGregor Burns who developed the concept of “transforming leadership” reaches the same judgment. Transformational leadership, Burns says, “occurs when one or more persons engage with others in such a way that leaders and followers raise one another to higher levels of motivation and morality.”3

The study of leadership in general will be advanced by looking at leaders in particular. . . In singling out, among others, four twentieth century “makers of history,” Woodrow Wilson, Mahatma Gandhi, Nikolai Lenin, and Adolf Hitler–the first two of these leaders in my sense, the third a leader whose theory of leadership had a fatal flaw, the fourth an absolute wielder of brutal power–we can compare the origins and development of four men who took different routes to power and exercised power in different ways.4

In this we have an essential principle necessary for developing a truly biblical theory of leadership. Leadership requires more than effectiveness in the exercise of power. Power must be exercised with moral concern and responsibility, otherwise what is done cannot be considered leadership.

  1. Ronald A. Heifetz, Leadership Without Easy Answers (New York: Belknap/Harvard, 1994), 18.
  2. Heifetz, 23-24.
  3. James McGregor Burns, Leadership (New York: Harper & Row, 1978), 20.
  4. Burns, 27.

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Guy Saffold

I’ve observed leaders for many years, always asking the question, “What should a person do to lead in more Christian ways?” It’s often not an easy question to answer in the midst of the day-to-day events that whirl around a leader. Here I explore some of the dilemmas and answers. I also post some devotional thoughts about the application of biblical teaching.