Recently, I had an interesting conversation with the president of a financial institution. I will call her Martha. We were discussing moral leadership. Martha shared a story with me about an associate that came to her several years ago regarding a financial reporting mistake that could result in major financial penalties to the organization. The associate communicated the mistake, and then said, “I believe I have a solution that will keep us from getting caught.” This statement set off a “moral alarm” in Martha. She could not believe the associate was willing to do an immoral act to attempt to resolve the problem. Martha quickly provided some clear guidance to the associate about “doing the right thing” to resolve the problem. Martha’s moral compass told her to do the right thing even if it cost the organization. Fortunately, in this case, the morally correct actions resolved the issue with no financial repercussions.

We are faced daily with choices that may challenge our moral compass. Over the past two blogs, I have focused on moral leadership. The first blog pointed out there are immoral behaviors that cost people billions of dollars each year, and the temptation to do immoral behaviors starts with looking at our own immoral propensities. The second blog focused on the fact that moral guidelines come from a higher authority. In this blog, I will focus on the moral behavior as a developmental process.

The associate in the story above clearly needed some coaching to make the correct moral decision. She had not developed the moral wisdom to restrain from doing the immoral action. According to several psychologists, including Lawrence Kohlberg and Jean Piaget, moral behavior is a developmental process. Each of us goes through stages to learn moral behavior.  Think about teaching a child not to take a toy from another child. The parent is teaching the child the moral behavior not to steal. If the child continues to take toys from other children, a consequence is given. This helps the child understand consequences for incorrect behavior.

As I understand the moral developmental process, it moves from externally motivated to internally motivated.   External motivation comes from a person in authority who instructs, gives consequences for incorrect behavior, and provides rewards for correct behavior. The person who is externally motivated is either driven by pleasing the person in authority, or fear of the consequences. Moral behaviors that are internally motivated come from wisdom and an understanding of the greater good or universal principles that guide us.

“The person who is externally motivated is either driven by pleasing the person in authority, or fear of the consequences.”

Businesses want their associates to act morally. This is true for a variety of reasons and is demonstrated by having written codes of conduct, ethical principles, and values. Like many other companies, here are Levi Strauss & Company’s Ethical Principles: Honesty, Promise-keeping, Fairness, Respect for Others, and Compassion. These are guiding principles for people’s behaviors.

Since moral behavior is learned through a process, and organizations want associates to act morally, it is reasonable to believe leaders need to be the guiding voice that teaches and encourages moral behavior. To be that moral leader guiding others, it is critical that we as leaders clearly understand our personal moral code, know the organization’s code of conduct, and be able to help others develop moral behaviors that are deficient.

Reflection Questions:

  • What are your moral principles that guide you?
  • What moral behaviors does your organization expect from associates?
  • Where do you have the opportunity to be an influencing voice for moral conduct?