Spark that produces moral leadership


Integrity violations here, ethical desecrations there, and corruption around us. During the past month, the chorus of public lamenting about corruption and morality has reached fever pitch. But how does moral leadership develop and seep into our jobs, homes, and communities?

A new research study by Omar Solinger, Paul Jansen, and Joep Cornelissen highlights how moral leadership emerges within organisations and constituencies. Ethical governance, management, and guidance occurs when individuals officially or unofficially take a moral position on an issue and then convince others to do the same and thus cascade change throughout a moral system.

Moral change starts at a micro-level and then moves up to the broader macrolevel through a three-stage process: initialising stage, scaling up stage, and securing stage.

First, the initialising stage that kickstarts the moral awareness and action include two components. A company or organisation needs someone to have an epiphany on moral awareness about a situation or condition that needs an ethical improvement. Then after someone becomes aware of a moral failing around them, then change occurs once that person becomes defiant regarding it.

Defiance requires moral courage in the face of opposition. As an example, we might suspect the procurement department in our firms to stack purchasing committees in favour of certain suppliers, we do not become defiant. Additionally, even though we become aware of moral failings while seeing bribes exchanged by drivers at roadblocks, most individuals do not subsequently feel defiance about it.


Second, the scaling up stage that grows the moral shift in practice also holds two components. Scaling up starts with coalition building where the moral change agent finds likeminded individuals that will help push the new agenda and new moral opinions.

Next in scaling up comes negotiations where discussions take place between morally-aware defiant individuals and others. Arguing in this stage lowers acceptance of new moral standards, but polite empathetic discussions increase the likelihood that colleagues, neighbours, friends, and family members align to the new moral opinions.

Third, securing the moral change in the minds and behaviours of a company or community needs two sub-stages. The moral agents formalise the change. In an organisation, then new policies, consequences, and benefits of adhering to the moral change comprises formalising. Then as the majority of a company or community believe in the change that took place, they then become guardians to protect the newly defined integrity and ethics.

Perhaps guarding new procurement practices, hiring principles, and ethical interpersonal management-employee relations as examples.

In going through these stages, one could approach moral leadership through behaviour like a principled theologian, statesman, or a pragmatic politician dependent on whether someone has high moral convictions or low moral convictions. We all know someone in our work lives who seems to spout moral superiority, yet they quietly try to get away with all kinds of integrity abuses.

Examples of low moral convictions like a pragmatic politician who just tries to strategically frame morality for their own benefit includes international chemical companies using pesticides in Africa that they do not use in their own countries or also recently in the US that appeared all over the news whereby the head of a large Christian university who hypocritically forbade student promiscuity but was exposed as promiscuous in his own personal life.

Here in Kenya, low moral convictions from those who behave like pragmatic politicians can be seen when we publicly complain about corruption but still bribe traffic police to escape accountability for driving errors or holding prayer rallies when accused of integrity violations or try to ban certain songs but get exposed on video publicly dancing to one of those same songs.

But those who hold high moral convictions can either behave like a principled theologian whereby they parochially frame their observed moral ethics only in a small circle of people.


Alternatively, someone with high moral convictions who also actively tries to more broadly convince others about corruption or integrity behaves like a statesman or a stateswoman. They use extensive relational framing to get others aware of their desired standards. As we stand up and fight the good fight for higher accountability and integrity, let us approach it in the right authentic way that science proves holds the highest chances of success.

Dr Scott may be reached on [email protected] or on Twitter: @ScottProfessor