A friend recently forwarded me an article about creating a values based culture that lacked ethics- the article used the example of the mob as an organization whose actions tightly aligned with a core set of values. One of the primary arguments of the article is that Values Based Leaders do not need a moral center to be effective.
As another example, when I talk to groups about great leaders in history, the participants typically bring up Hitler as a leader who rebuilt a country, reinvigorated a defeated nation, and nearly conquered half the world. Yes- he was evil, yes- he did inestimable harm, but look at his results they argue; he changed the world.
I don’t believe you can lead without ethics- without a morally grounded center. I do believe there are a handful of positive values that nearly every culture believes are important- doing good, not doing harm, telling the truth, caring for family and friends, etc. (For research on universal values across 25,000 people in more than 80 countries, read S.H. Schwartz’s report, “An Overview of the Schwartz Theory of Basic Values.”) Motivating large groups of people through fear or self-serving charisma is not the same as ethically influencing others. I don’t believe organizations or nations built without moral foundations are sustainable- eventually they collapse once the fear or charisma disappear.
If you want to create enduring institutions, you have to build them on positive values such as integrity. Here’s why- people perform better when they trust you and they trust the organization. They will give you extra effort if they believe they are working for a greater good (many non-profits would not exist at all if this wasn’t true). People are hungry to believe in such ideas, and they will keep working long past the effects of fear or charisma have worn off, because they internalize the mission of the organization- they become believers.
Given the self awareness, feedback, and ongoing development required to create great leaders, I also find it hard to believe that one can be a great leader and not have developed a morally grounded center. There are plenty of examples of self-serving leaders who had some success yet ultimately destroyed their organizations in the process. Creating unsustainable organizations (or nations for that matter) is not great leadership.
I am not arguing that there are not many different versions of the truth- many different values can be part of a morally grounded center. In fact, I believe most of the ethical dilemmas in organizations are right versus right dilemmas, as opposed to right versus wrong. I do believe that these values need to be positive- they need to do good, not harm.
Ultimately, I believe leaders develop a strong moral center, whatever their values, and they create lasting institutions that do some good in the world. For me, that’s great leadership.