What It Means to Be a Moral Leader

Photo of author

By Sohaib

Remember when leaders could sidestep taking a stand on sensitive political or social issues by saying, “The business of business is business”? That aloof neutrality no longer cuts it, says Dov Seidman, founder and chairman of The HOW Institute for Society. “I think the business of business is society,” he says. “It’s community, and how we relate to whatever comes our way and how thoughtfully and principled we are.” A leader standing up for what’s right is the new expectation of employees, customers, and other stakeholders. Not to mention relatives at the Thanksgiving dinner table.

As AI ramps up and challenges humans’ monopoly on intelligence, purely human skills like moral judgment and empathy become even more crucial for leaders. While machines can be taught to do things right, Seidman says, only people can lead others to do the right things.

For this episode of our video series “The New World of Work”, HBR editor in chief Adi Ignatius sat down with Seidman, who’s also the author of How: Why How We Do Anything Means Everything, to discuss:

  • How to let your principles guide you as a leader
  • The importance of taking a pause in order to reflect on, reconnect with, rethink, and reimagine your mission
  • Which human traits and abilities will grow in value as AI grows in raw intelligence

“The New World of Work” explores how top-tier executives see the future and how their companies are trying to set themselves up for success. Each week, Ignatius talks to a top leader on LinkedIn Live — previous interviews included Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and former PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi. He also shares an inside look at these conversations —and solicits questions for future discussions — in a newsletter just for HBR subscribers. If you’re a subscriber, you can sign up here.


Dov, welcome.


Thank you, Adi.


You think a lot about the moral aspects of leadership. What does good leadership look like these days in this era that feels like one of perpetual disruption?


The first thing good leaders do is they step back and try to make sense of the world in which they’re leading. Leadership is not about headlines. We can all read those, tweet to tweet, post to post.

It’s about trendlines, where’s the world going? What are the forces, familiar and unfamiliar, that are reshaping it? What framework are we going to use to pass judgment on the future? And what playbook are we going to use to enlist people on a journey to that future?

I’m also fond of saying that smooth seas have never created a great mariner, and the seas out there are not smooth. So if you’re going to be a great leader, sailing the rough seas is part of it.

Leadership has always mattered, it’s always been consequential. We’re going to get into some examples of how leadership perhaps is more consequential than before, because it reverberates. But we’re leading at a time where everything has been disrupted, including leadership and authority itself. What it means to be in charge of an organization, or a team, or of somebody else, is not what it used to be.

I’d like to frame what I think is the greatest 21st century leadership challenge, and then we can talk about what kind of leadership responds to it. I think you and your viewers would agree that you cannot run a company, a team, a country without formal authority. People need to be in charge. I can’t imagine a football team without a head coach, a school without a principal, a company without a CEO, or a country without a president or a prime minister.

But we all know that organizations of human beings really work, and societies, when individuals with moral authority occupy these positions of formal authority. And in the less transparent, more opaque world, we often conflated the two: “He must be a great man, or how did he get that high?” Or, “The board wouldn’t put him there unless he was a great leader.” But now we’re seeing that formal authority could be seized, you could win it in an election, somebody else could bestow it upon you, “I hereby appoint you vice president.”

But moral authority is really a function of who you are, the values you embody, how you lead, how you make decisions, and how you relate to others. The challenge before us now in this era of disruption, we’re seeing that formal authority has been disrupted.

Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, even with 20 to one super majority shares, are not hanging on to their jobs if they’re not leading in an enlightened way, or even worse, there’s some misconduct. We’re seeing formal authority get toppled and disrupted in every sector of society.

The challenge is how do we nurture and develop a culture of moral leaders, who lead with moral authority? That’s step one. And how do we ensure that they’re the ones calling the shots, in charge in positions of formal authority?

I would add that the legacy of the pandemic, when it comes to leadership, is that it has revealed and illuminated all the ways that moral leadership matters. Not just at the very top, a school principal, a barista at a Starbucks, a store manager at every level of organizations and sector and dimension of society: leadership matters. Because especially in times of crisis, when people are naturally uncertain and scared, they turn to anybody who has some authority over them. What they expect from them is truth, some wisdom, some selflessness, and really putting the other first. They expect moral leadership, Adi.


That’s a great framing. You use the term “moral.” Often people who write for HBR, who are in our world, they tend to use terms like, “Good leadership.” Good leaders are empathetic, they’re vulnerable, in addition to having the business savvy that you need, but you use the term “moral.” What do you mean by that and why that is your central framing?


What I don’t mean by it is moralizing, becoming moralistic, or becoming an expert on how to wrestle with moral dilemmas, or how to take a stand on a social, political, environmental, religious issue, even though it might include that.

Moral leadership is really about the how. How you lead, how you make decisions, is it cost-benefit analysis? Or is it guided by principles? Are you willing to do inconvenient, courageous, and difficult things because that’s what principle or values require of you?

It’s really about how you relate to others and have conversations. Is it one-way or two-way? It’s how you end a meeting. Do you say, “We’ve had a great conversation? Whose call is it? Oh, it’s a marketing decision. Who’s got the marketing budget?” That’s framing it in terms of power, “Whose call is it?” What about asking, “What’s the right call? What do we think is the fair call? What’s the call that honors and is in fidelity to our values?”

There’s a whole playbook that I’d like to get into, but for now, let me just say, it’s not about moralizing. It’s really about the how. How you wield power, how you make decisions, how you behave, and really what you embody in terms of your own values.

And maybe we can bring this into what HBR viewers are all struggling with. Adi, you’ve written a lot in HBR about the behaviors and qualities that we need more of in order to succeed in the workplace. Why don’t you name some, if I could put you on the spot? In order to win today, what are some of the behaviors that we want from our colleagues and teammates?


Well, trust.


Trust. Okay, I’m going to write these down. Trust.


I talked about before about things like empathy, vulnerability, commitment. We’re not talking about individual contributors, we’re talking about teams and companies, so a shared commitment, a sense of team. Feel free to add to those, those are a few.


And these are not nice-to-have, this is what you figured out is essential today?




Some things you didn’t just say were efficiency and productivity and speed. You’re calling for human qualities.

I think moral leaders are very much attuned to the distinction between shifting behavior and elevating behavior. Because leadership is about the how. How we get people to do things, how we generate energy in them, how we enlist them in journeys and missions worthy of their dedication and loyalty.

If I were to put a product on sale, I could get you to buy now and not later, or more not less. If we create a great political attack ad I could get you to vote left not right, or right not left. We know how to use carrots and sticks to shift or nudge behavior. If you give me enough carrots and sticks, I could get you to work faster, maybe have fewer sick days, work 10 hours and not eight.

But the behaviors that you asked for, Adi, no amount of carrots and sticks can get you because this is human beings acting and behaving in their most elevated way. Can you imagine saying to somebody, go in a room and don’t come out or you’ll be fired if you can’t come out with empathy and the ability to engender trust in the other, or you find more courage in being vulnerable. There are no amount of carrots that can coerce people into these behaviors.

Let’s try bonuses, and no amount of sticks. Let’s try carrots. If you tripled everybody’s salaries, Adi, would you get more empathy? Would you get more trust?


You would not. Probably not.


We might get the opposite. We find ourselves in a discontinuous moment in leadership where what we want in and out of people, no amount of carrots and sticks can get us.

I’m not against sticks. There should be fireable offenses. But should the fear of being fired animate 2% or 98% of how things happen around this place? I’m really for carrots too. I think we should pay our colleagues as much as possible and hopefully more than our competitors.

But what moral leaders understand is that certain behaviors cannot be coerced. They cannot be motivated, they can only be inspired. Moral leaders are inspirational leaders because trust, empathy, vulnerability, collaborating, honesty, courage, all these human elevated qualities that we aspire to see in those around us must and can only be inspired.

More leaders understand the difference. We’re seeing this play out in return to the office. More leaders know that if you were my subordinate, Adi, I could insist never lie to me, always tell me the truth, but I could never insist, always be loyal to me. Moral leaders know that certain things they can insist on and other things they have to inspire. And we’re actually seeing this play out with who’s insisting that people come back to the office and who’s trying to inspire it.


Leadership paradigms do shift. And in the past it was command control, “I am the boss.” “I say, you do.”

We’re in an era now where we want the empathetic leader and the vulnerable leader. It’s possible there’ll be another turn of the wheel before long and there’s another leadership paradigm.

Is there science, or are there metrics to show that this approach to leadership not only is right in some 30,000-foot moralistic definition, but also in terms of outcome and performance for an institution?


Let’s get into the science and metrics, but before we do that, here’s what’s not going to change. There’s only two types of behaviors. There’s what you can and can’t do, and what you should and should not do. I believe that Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said there’s a difference between doing that which you have a right to do and that which is right to do.

We used to specify to people, here’s what you can and can’t do. And then we asked them to pursue goals and strategies mindful of what they can and can’t do as fast and as ambitiously, and they had to outcompete on that basis. In that world, the few, a military general would say, take that hill. A CEO would say, “This is our strategy, these are our goals.” And in that world, everybody’s job is to do the next thing right.

I think the way the world is working today, we want more and more people to not just do the next thing right, but to do the next right thing. I don’t think that shift is ever going back from asking people to do the next thing right, to inspiring them to do the next right thing.

Computers could be programmed to do the next thing right. Only a human being can do the next right thing.

I think we are now in a normative environment, normative as in norms, what you should and should not do. And moral leaders get out of bed to foster normative cultures where people are “should-minded” and that is here to stay.

The reason there’s such an obsession with culture is corporate culture was invented, all culture was invented, to transmit norms from one generation to another. Norms as in what we ought to do and should do. You don’t need culture if you’re just going to specify the rules and the policies and the procedures, but you need to be deliberate and intentional about scaling values, values-based cultures, if you’re going to be normative.

I don’t think this is a fad. I think the world has been reshaped in ways to put us in a normative environment. We’re seeing that in society, in community, and in companies.


I think that’s true. I think there’s also a counterargument though, and maybe this is just high level political counter, but I feel like historians will look back at this era and define it perhaps as one of renewed autocracy, a move away from some of the ideals that you’re talking about. Does that strike you as accurate?


I said that leadership is about trendlines. Let’s step back. Can you name an autocratic mayor succeeding in terms of how his or her city is being led? Can you think of an autocratic CEO running a Fortune 500 company? Can you think of a championship won in basketball, baseball, soccer, world cup soccer, name the sport in the last 10 years, run by command and control screaming, that top-down coach?

Autocracy is asserting itself or reasserting itself in national politics where a dictator still has his hands on the levers of the military and ability to engage in propaganda, etc. There’s an epic battle between Putin’s autocracy and Zelenskyy’s moral leadership. But if you step back, I’m seeing some wonderful trends towards moral leadership in so many other more local sectors and dimensions of our lives.

The reason I brought up sports is sports is about winning. It’s about becoming a champion and it’s incredible who’s winning in sports. I mean, Steve Kerr with the Golden State Warriors had great talent, but so did his competitors. He had such a bad back one year that he missed 43 games. He wasn’t even there to do the coaching and they did it through a trust-based culture.

Jill Ellis, when she was winning champions as coach of the American women in soccer, she knew the names of the dogs and cats of every one of her players. That’s just a symbol of how personal her coaching began.

You had Gregg Berhalter on your show, and the US men’s team has been incredibly successful in the last World Cup, and aiming to eclipse that in the next one. But if you listen to how the players talked about what they built there, it was an identity forged in unity. Even though they were a very young team, they tried to outcompete by out-behaving the competition through qualities of boldness and resilience, etc. I have more examples, but I am pretty positive about some large trends here.


When I asked if this is the era of autocracy, part of it is it seems that leadership, at a certain level, political leadership at least, no longer feels shame. I’m old enough that I remembered Richard Nixon and Nixon was accused, was impeached, and clearly he felt shame, and at that point he decided to step down.

I’m not sure today’s political leaders feel shame. And if they don’t feel that, then you open the door for untruths, rival truths, just no sense of responsibility, of morality. I worry about that. I worry that that has been a successful model for some political leaders and that it could inspire others to try to follow that.


I think that’s a very serious worry. When you mentioned President Nixon, when he said, “I’m not a crook,” he didn’t want us to think that he’s a crook, and whether he was a crook or not, he was celebrating the norm, “Let’s not be crooks.”

I believe we are now living in an era of impunity where some people in power are not just misbehaving, they’re doing it with impunity. And impunity takes out and erodes the norm. Not only are we getting the harm that people in high places are causing through their conduct or nefarious conduct, but you do it with impunity, say, “My words are perfect, I’d do it again.” Or they make the rest of us feel that we are somehow losers for wanting to live up to high standards and norms of conduct. You erode the norms.

But that’s an argument for why we need moral leaders, because moral leaders safeguard norms and they help create organizations and communities that are really there to be in fidelity to high norms.

Kanye West, right before his divorce with Adidas, said horrific things and hateful things online. Whether he meant it or not, we could debate, but he said them. But then he said one more thing: There’s nothing Adidas can do to me. That’s a statement of impunity. Adidas took a several billion [dollar] hit at the end of the day by fighting against that, by severing that relationship.

We’re seeing this battle of not just misconduct, but misconduct with impunity and those standing up to it.


When I think of the moral leader, in some ways I think about somebody who leads by example, who just sort of does the right thing and you realize this person is trustworthy, is upright, is inspiring.

It’s a new world now for leadership. We’ve talked about this in previous shows where there is this inescapable imperative for leaders, for CEOs to respond to social and even political issues that lap up against their company, or sometimes are separate from it but employees and customers demand to know where the leader stands.

By the way, if there isn’t an overt statement, employees and customers will assume and fill the sentence for you. You might as well take a stand. This is tricky territory.

Is there a framework for how a leader manages this new world of perpetual social issues that they’re asked to somehow declare on?


I’m going to date maybe you. In the movie The Graduate, [a character says to] the Dustin Hoffman character, “The future is plastics.” You just used the word Adi, which is the future is frameworks. All human judgment is framework-dependent. The prevailing framework in business is cost-benefit analysis. Now we need to create and scale new frameworks that are normative.

The world is so interdependent where the hopes, dreams, plight of one person are showing up viscerally and visually on tiny screens in our hands. I mentioned Kanye West. After his divorce with Adidas, he showed up in the lobby of Sketchers, and before Sketchers knew it, they were involved in a social maelstrom of how to respond to his appearance there.

One thing I know for sure that the world has been reshaped in ways to fuse it. Social, environmental, political, human issues, what just happened with the Supreme Court with abortion or how to respond to the invasion of Ukraine: these issues that were once deemed tangential to the business agenda are now inescapably part of it.

Neutrality is over. There is an expectation to have a point of view, especially from employees and consumers and other stakeholders. We need a framework for that.

Pfizer has a great framework. Sally Susman has spoken about it publicly. Does it align with our purpose, given our values, what should our point of view be? How does it impact our constituents? What would be the price of our silence?

Tom Wilson has done a great job at Allstate with his framework. There’s a threshold question: “Is what’s going on legal? But even if so, given our values, what should our point of view be? Then if not, let’s continue to challenge these ideas.”

I think taking a stand is now something where you don’t just get to say, “Hey, I just run a business. The business of business is business.” I think the business of business is society, it’s community, and how we relate to whatever comes our way, and how thoughtfully and principled we are is now the new expectation.

Thanksgiving dinner is coming in a few months and employees are going to sit there and run into their cousins that they haven’t seen in a long time. At the end of the day, a CEO has to ask herself this question, “Are my colleagues going to be proud of Thanksgiving dinner to brag to their cousins about how their company handled this issue and that issue and this issue and that issue that is now part of their business agenda?” We have to pass that Thanksgiving dinner test.


I love that. I also love the future is in frameworks. I want to go to an audience question now, and this is from Srinivas in India. In an era now where artificial intelligence may be better at making decisions based on data than humans are, can we say that the time has come for conscience-based management or leadership?


Five hundred years ago we had the scientific revolution, and that was a true revolution. Uber putting yellow taxi cabs in or out of business, LinkedIn maybe making it harder for recruiters, those are disruptions. True revolutions happen about every 500 years.

I think the technological revolution and the revolution that’s being accelerated through AI is an every-500-year revolution. 500 years ago, we looked around and we wanted to be in charge of our surroundings and we said, “We’re the smartest.” Descartes said, “I think, therefore I am.” It was 500 years of revenge of the nerds, and we called it the era of enlightenment and reason. We pretty much organized our affairs by being the smartest. It’s incredible what we achieved: modern capitalism, we proliferated individual rights, biodiversity. It’s incredible what was achieved in the last 500 years.

What’s interesting about AI is it is challenging our monopoly on intelligence. We’re no longer the smartest.

What’s the one thing a machine will never have? A heart. I actually think the technological revolution is putting into stark relief and focus the imperative to scale that which comes from the heart. There’s an adage of moral leadership that only that which comes from the heart enters the heart.

From an economic standpoint in the industrial age, we hired hands and we hired strong hands. Then we went into the knowledge or information economy and we hired heads and we favored knowledge and expertise and specialization. I think we’re going into a more human age where the qualities that emanate from the heart, like the ones you mentioned, empathy and the ability to do the right thing in our capacity for ethics and morality and conscience is now something we’re going to have to scale.

What worries me, Adi, is that when social networks were first launched, we had some utopian thinking, anything that connects the world is going to be great. We will have richer human experiences. Individuals will be empowered. In the first innings we saw pictures of dogs and cats and our acquaintances became close friends again.

But then we started to see that technology is a force for good and bad. Good things can happen and harmful things can happen, including democratic elections being hacked. We saw that we are not just organically divided, but the profit motive has been  behind division and people are now pitted against each other and we’re being actively divided through technology.

Those in charge back then often said, “We’re just technology. We’re just a platform.” They proclaimed their moral neutrality. I think, Adi, more important than anything now, we cannot afford with ChatGPT and generative AI to say, “It’s just technology.” We know that good and harmful things are going to happen.

Some people are talking about the possible end of humanity. The need for Spider-Man ethics, that with great power comes responsibility, has never been more important. I think those who are purveying these new technologies have unprecedented power, and they’re going to need to scale conscience and Spider-Man ethics.


We’ve been talking mostly about morality and leadership at the highest level, that good leaders have it and people who are selecting good leaders should look for that. This is a question from Shabana from Islamabad in Pakistan. What role do you think leadership development can play in ensuring that individuals throughout an organization embody the same moral values?


That’s a great question. Moral leadership, there’s an opportunity to build capacities, not skills, but qualities and capacities. And I think organizations can do that. There are some practices we need to scale of moral leadership and I’m happy to mention a few.

I want to start with the most counterintuitive practice and piece of advice. I think everybody on this gathering would agree that the world’s accelerating, it’s always on. We’re being digitally assaulted. We all experience FOMO, fear of missing out. Fair enough, Adi?


So far so good.


The faster the world gets, and the more that comes at us, the more we need to pause. The hallmark of moral leadership is the pause. [Ralph Waldo] Emerson said that, “In each pause, I hear the call,” because only when we pause can we even ask ourselves important questions that a moral leader would ask. “How would I feel like if I were treated this way?” “What’s the consequences of doing it this way or that way?”

I like to talk about the four Rs, because in the pause, we can reflect on the challenge, the situation of the world in which we’re operating. We can reconnect with our deeper sense of purpose and our values and conscience. We can rethink some of our assumptions of how we’re operating, how we’re making money, how we’re making decisions. And only then can we reimagine a better solution, or a better path, or a better future. The hallmark of moral leadership is the pause.

Moral leaders also eschew philosophical mistakes. People think, “Oh, moral leaders must be about empowerment.” Well, that’s true spiritually, but often empowerment, you know what happens? This is how a nonmoral leader might sound, “I push decisions to the front lines. I delegate authority.” And they think they’re leading, and then five years later, everybody has all these rights, “I can spend $1,000 without asking my boss for permission.” “I can get on an airplane to a trade association meeting and spend money without asking for permission.” And you’ve built a culture where everybody knows what rights they have. They’re empowered in that way. But you haven’t built a gym where they know the ethos. “What is the way here?”, where they know what is right.

[Airbnb CEO] Brian Chesky recently came out against this form of empowerment, and said that he wants to be an orchestrator. Moral leaders don’t just get out of the way and delegate. They show up, and they sit at the back of the room sometimes. They don’t provide the answer. They ask the right questions. So there really are opportunities to be incisive and rigorous about what it is and what it’s not.


You’ve identified the hallmarks of moral leadership. I’m curious, as you look out at US companies, global companies, are many of them or most of them run by people you would consider moral leaders?


Two things: I think what matters is not to look for beacons. I’ve never seen a unicorn, but I’ve seen a horse. I’ve seen a horn. I’ve seen white. I look for who’s engendering trust by extending it. Who’s creating such a high-trust environment where people feel that they can lean and take risks in order to innovate?

Most innovation programs fail because trust is so low that people won’t take the risk in order to innovate. I look not for perfection, and I think what matters most, Adi, is not who’s a beacon and an icon of moral leadership, but who is authentically and deliberately on the journey. Who’s taking risk in that regard? Who’s being courageous in that regard? It’s not about perfection in that way.

And maybe I should end with the following: linearity is over in this world. We’re in an up-and-down world, and the leaders who frame the future as a journey really elevate others, because nothing elevates a human beings more than being on a journey of progress, where we go up and down, but we stick together.

Increasingly, I’m seeing people have the confidence and the courage to frame that path ahead as a journey, develop an ethos for being on a journey together. I really think that nothing elevates somebody else more than framing the path ahead as a journey and creating an ethos where together, we can journey together, because to journey is to do something human.


That’s fantastic. Your words are inspiring.


Can I say one last thing? Did you ever hear in business, “Hope is not a strategy?”




Through budgeting, planning, and control, we’re going to superimpose the future, and that’s kind of, “Hope is not a strategy.”




Well, I’m also here to say that without hope, there is no strategy. Moral leaders purvey hope, and they inspire hope in others by really helping them see possibility, helping them embrace the commonality in the other, so that we can do things together.

Moral leaders really fight against the non-adage that hope is not a strategy, because they know that without hope, there is no strategy, and they’re prepared to paint a picture of a distant future, but with rigor to go that way.

I want to apologize for not answering your question before about metrics. I’m just going to say the following. Metrics are moral choices. When we measure something, we’re saying it matters. When we don’t measure something, we say it doesn’t matter. Moral leaders pause, and they pick the right metrics that move them on the journey, because they know that metrics don’t come from on high. In and of themselves, they reflect our values.


Dov Seidman, thank you for being on “The New World of Work”.


Adi, great to be with you.


Leave a Comment