On Moral Development in Military and Corporate Leadership

On Veterans Day, it is always appropriate to pay respect to the veterans of all generations, for their valor and for the sacrifices they make in the cause of freedom.  But it is worth taking a moment to recognize veterans also for the ethical and moral leadership they show in serving their country.   At every level and in every branch of the military – from the lowest-ranking enlisted man or woman to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff – men and women routinely make decisions with ethical and moral consequences.

Some of those decisions, in combat situations, have to be made in fractions of a second and may have instant life-or-death consequences.  Other decisions, away from the battlefield, may be more deliberate, but may have significant consequences for the men and women whom those decisions affect — not least in shaping the ability of those men and women to make decisions that are militarily sound and morally defensible.  Over the past two decades, military leaders in the United States and other countries, such as the United Kingdom, have placed increasing emphasis on recognizing that the propriety of the use of military force has moral and ethical dimensions, and have committed to incorporating that recognition into the training of officers and enlisted men and women.

As one example of that commitment, a publication by the Lejeune Leadership Institute at Marine Corps University, Leadership, Ethics and Law of War Discussion Guide for Marines (Guide), identifies four stages of moral development in military leaders:

  1. Compliance: This stage involves the most basic level of behavior: i.e., learning to “compl[y] with critical orders quickly and unfailingly,” and with the broader set of rules, standards, and beliefs within a military organization. As the Guide warned, “Obedience at its pinnacle guarantees order, function, and accomplishment, but as an end-state it is dangerous. Those who stop developing at the obedience level run a risk of becoming unthinking, blind followers.”
  2. Moral Understanding: This stage addresses the concept of moral understanding, which “implies that we make numerous and complex value judgments about the foundational principles that underlie established rules and standards. These judgments precede ethical decisions, which in turn precede ethical conduct, which itself precedes ethical leadership.” Moral understanding, in this analysis, involves two challenges for leaders: (1) clarifying their expectations to their subordinates; and (2) ensuring that those expectations are in constant agreement with the mission and overall organizational principles.”
  3. Moral Maturity: This stage addresses the concept of moral maturity. Moral maturity “is not an end-state, rather, it is the product of continuous evaluation. A moral leader assesses his own beliefs; how those beliefs are manifest in his actions and the actions of his unit, and how closely aligned those actions are with the expectations of his nation, service, and mission.”
  4. Moral Ambition: This last stage involves the concept of moral ambition: “the active rather than passive pursuit of virtuous behavior not only in self, but in all members within the individual’s sphere of influence.”

Corporate leaders and managers who are confident that their companies already reflect a “culture of compliance” would still do well to compare their own leadership and actions against each of these four stages.  If they see subordinates who are locked into a “whatever it takes” mentality in pursuing the company’s business objectives, it is highly likely that those subordinates are communicating that same mentality to their staff members, and that those staff members in turn are expected simply to comply without question.  Such a situation requires prompt and decisive action to communicate that “whatever it takes” is a path that can lead only to harming the company (not to mention corrective action and even termination).

Even if corporate leaders and managers do not have such a situation, they still need to make sure they are being clear in communicating their expectations to subordinates, particularly with regard to properly reconciling ends and means in the day-to-day conduct of business.  As indicated above, corporate leaders will embody moral understanding to the extent that they not only communicate their expectations clearly, but that they reflect on those expectations and challenge themselves to see that their expectations agree with the company’s mission and overall principles (including codes of ethics and compliance standards).  With sustained effort, those reflections can translate into moral maturity as leaders continuously evaluate not only their own beliefs, but also the extent to which their own and their subordinates’ actions on the job demonstrate commitment to those beliefs and align with the expectations of their company’s top leadership and board and of regulators.

If corporate leaders can accomplish all of those tasks, they may be fortunate enough to achieve moral ambition.  As the Guide explains, there are no guarantees of doing so, “for it demands reflection, willingness, courage, and constancy of purpose.”  But because “moral ambition makes day-to-day leadership an agent of profound change,” it is a goal for which corporate leaders – no less than military leaders – ought to strive.

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