Moral Leadership is a Survival Skill: The E&C Pulse

October 7, 2020
Ben DiPietro

"Moral leadership now comes into the realm of survival skills.” So says Nancy Gibbs, the former managing editor for TIME magazine, the current director of the Shorenstein Center, and the visiting Edward R. Murrow Professor of Practice of Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University.

Gibbs recently sat down with LRN’s Chairman and Founder Dov Seidman for a conversation on the critical nature of moral leadership as the world faces multiple crises. 

Dov Seidman: How has this period of crisis amplified the need for a new kind of leadership?

Nancy Gibbs: You have to go back a hundred years for an analog to the pandemic.  We need to go back to the depression for an analog to this level of unemployment and economic distress. It's like our sensors just aren't calibrated to take in this much news. I think any one of these [crises] would be the kind of story that defines the generation. Instead we have three, four, or five stories of that scale, of that level of impact.

There’s really nothing in almost any of our lifetimes that has affected every human being on earth in the way this pandemic has. Large parts of the world are simultaneously not able to leave their house because they could get sick. The other enormous events that we are witnessing are obviously closely connected to that. Everything comes back to the pandemic, and it accelerates and amplifies [our problems].  

We know we're in a leadership crisis; every single indicator suggests that. But we knew that was true before the virus hit. Decisions were made [during the pandemic] that were driven by a set of priorities that were not worthy of being given primacy. That distorted the decisions that prevented progress, and got in the way of leaders doing what was right for the greater good at the time. That's the kind of leadership that has been excruciating for us to watch because it is literally coming at the cost of lives lost. 

DS: We recently were together at a gathering of philanthropic, business, media, and education leaders, where we had an important conversation about moral leadership. You referred to moral leadership as a survival skill. What do you mean by that?

NG:  I don't see any chance of success on the horizon we can reach without moral leaders. It's not that we don't need other gifts in our leaders as well, but the particular qualities of moral leadership are the ones that have the best chance of getting us through this passage. I am making a distinction between the other qualities of leadership that we associate instinctively with strong leaders: The leader on horseback charging in front of the troops into battle, waving his sword [so] others would follow him.

The qualities I'm talking about are at odds with that statuary image of the great leader. Qualities like humility, and knowing what you don't know, open up all sorts of room for creativity, agility to adapt, and to changing circumstances. So it isn't, the moral leaders are perfect leaders. It isn't that they get everything right. It's what you do when you get something wrong, and how open are you to being told that you're getting something wrong.

DS: How does one build moral leadership as a survival skill?

NG: If we open up those kinds of circuits of communication and accountability, where even people who hold much less traditional power are empowered to hold us accountable and to challenge [our] thinking, it increases the odds that the leaders will hear and have access to perspectives and information that they need to make the best decisions. It takes a willingness to set aside pride, set aside ego, and set aside a certain amount of self-confidence. You need confidence to be a leader, and yet you also have to be willing to set that aside enough to hold open the possibility that you're wrong. That's a very tricky balancing act. 

DS: Describe a framework for making these difficult decisions. What's the moral calculus?

NG: There’s a lot of research about what happens when you signal to someone that you disagree with that you actually hear from them. Even if there was fierce polarization around some set of issues, there is common experience somewhere for a leader who seeks to find the shared baseline, common experience and fuller humanity. There are enormous amounts of evidence that if we can get past our misperceptions, get past our attribution of bad motives, we have a chance of moving forward together.

Watch the full conversation here.




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About the Author

Ben DiPietro

Joined LRN in October 2018 after 30 years as a journalist, including seven years at The Wall Street Journal, including Risk & Compliance Journal and was a creator of the WSJ Crisis of the Week column. In 2015 was named one of the 100 most influential people in business ethics by Ethisphere Institute. Spent 14 years as a reporter in Hawaii, 11 with The Associated Press.

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