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What Does Moral Leadership Mean?

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Thought Leaders Gillian Tett, Robert Kaplan, Bineta Diop, Carne Ross, Rachel Kleinfeld, Jay Winter, Jessica Jackley, Lawrence Freedman, and Somaly Mam describe what moral leadership means to them. DISCUSS >>



  • In the political world, it would mean a willingness to explain to your own people the costs of doing good in the world, which might involve sacrifices for them; a willingness to use force to stop a massacre, say; an unwillingness to use force to control natural resources.

    Michael Walzer

  • Moral leadership means having the courage to do things that may be unpopular, to speak truth even though it may not be what people want to hear, but also to retain a sense of humility.

    Gillian Tett

  • Leaders respond to the landscape as they see it, and they have to fight the battles they fight on the landscape they're given. At present there are a lot of forces pushing them to focus on party versus party as opposed to what's good for the nation.

    Jonathan Haidt

  • I'm a huge believer in role models. I think that pretty much any woman who gets up and puts herself out there, whether she wants to be or not, is a role model, that every time she does that, there is some girl somewhere who is saying, "I never knew I could be a fireman, and look, there's a firelady on that truck."

    Mary Ellen Iskenderian

  • I would define it as sort of exercising moral leadership on the global stage and that would mean two things to me. One would be standing up for those who can't stand up for themselves. And then the other way is in terms of contributing to the public goods of the international system, whether the issue is climate change or freedom of navigation.

    Victor D. Cha

  • The construction of a common vision of our shared public spaces and our shared planet. Leaders of institutions have an obligation to think beyond their institutions about the whole that we share.

    Steve Coll

  • Moral leadership means recognizing the kind of global ethic that I described, on the one hand. It is intellectual or philosophical. But it's, at the same time, to be able to understand the very concrete circumstances of those for whom you are responsible. It's a matter of driving practical strategies.

    Michael W. Doyle

  • Moral leadership means making decisions even if the opinion polls point in the opposite direction. It means the willingness to be unpopular in order to do the right thing. It means the communal good as opposed to the individual good

    Robert D. Kaplan

  • For me it's all about action. I think we live in an age of considerable and correct skepticism of rhetoric. The sort of rhetorical age of delivering political promise through speeches has been transcended by something else, which is about authenticity. People need to feel a message is authentic if they are to give it any credibility at all.

    Carne Ross

  • It means that the leaders can take decisions which have a longer vision, a broader vision, and not just being held hostage to short-term interests.

    Emily Lau

  • Moral leadership is a great deal about honesty and responsibility. It's part of what makes us human. It is part of being endowed with the capability of understanding ourselves as individuals, but individuals who cannot exist without other individuals, without a society, and being given the faculties to understand that about ourselves.

    Anne-Marie Slaughter

  • One of the things about democratic societies is everybody, rightly, regards themselves as a center of moral authority. So deferring to others in moral questions is not something that people in democratic societies are inclined to do, nor I think should they.

    Kwame Anthony Appiah

  • Leadership starts with a vision, a notion of where you want to lead. Secondly, you have to have some pragmatism—and this in many cases means political pragmatism. Thirdly, you need to have communications skills and a little bit of charisma. It's a combination of attributes that not so many people have. But, fortunately, we don't need that many. We need a lot more sensible followers than we need leaders.

    Alan S. Blinder

  • I think moral leadership is precisely a reflection on the system as it now is, with an eye to potentially reforming it. You have to look at the system, how it works. You have to see what its advantages and disadvantages are and what are the harms that it produces, the benefits. What are the possible points at which it could be changed?

    Thomas Pogge

  • I see moral leadership in terms of raising people's heights, extending their horizons through education. Great leaders are great educators.

    Jonathan Sacks

  • It's not only a masculine issue. For me, leadership comes also feminine. I always say that the men who have the feminine values are part of the criteria for me to look into leadership. It is that touch, that caring, giving, solidarity. Those are things that for me are very fundamental in leadership.

    Bineta Diop

  • It's not going to be necessarily the traditional kind, in political space. It's going to be in social space, in corporate space. It's going to be about innovation and adaptation in a more rapidly changing environment.

    Nancy Birdsall

  • When you are the president of a country, you should show moral leadership, but also you basically have to harmonize your different groups. That's why being a leader is complicated.

    Luis Moreno-Ocampo

  • I fear that the political process in many different institutions has been corrupted with different agendas, personalized agendas, being prioritized over the important things that should be a priority for humanity. So moral leadership to me is about selflessness. But in a world of personal aggrandizement and short-term-ism, I do fear that we'll see less moral leadership and perhaps more of what we don't want.

    Dambisa Moyo

  • In a population that is allowed to vote, a democratic representative society, you must have people that vote that have a sense of what they're voting for, in other words an informed populace.

    Syd Mead

  • The real challenge for me and anyone in a position of moral leadership isn't what we say; it's what we do and our willingness to be out there and to speak truth to power and to try to hold people, whether they're in politics or in industry, to account to the moral positions that they actually espouse themselves.

    Peter Morales

  • Moral leadership requires self-awareness, a willingness to listen to others, and a particular combination of courage and humility. You have to have the courage of your convictions, the willingness to think them through, and then the humility to say the world is not aseptic.

    Rachel Kleinfeld

  • One of the biggest misconceptions when you look to the social change is that social change and social movements demand strong leaders. Now you are witnessing the completely new breed of movements, even called leaderless movements.

    Srdja Popovic

  • Prophets speak the language of those ideas which are not held by a large number of people. Leaders can't be prophets. They have to be able to hear the voices of those who have no power.

    Jay Winter

  • The heart of leadership is a desire to serve, a desire to serve not just individuals, but to serve ideals and a vision that you and those around you care about and believe in.

    Jessica Jackley

  • The leadership that interests me most is moral leadership. It's hard, because you have to be very true to core values and have integrity and live the way you talk. None of us quite achieves that. But I've learned a lot from my fellow elders, from Archbishop Desmond Tutu and others.

    Mary Robinson

  • To me moral leadership means a leader who follows a recognized program of moral or religious principles. I am somewhat troubled, however, by the term moral leadership. Too often it is used to support a particular political, economic, religious, or social agenda. When this happens, it is often intolerant of other points of view and can actually be harmful to the wider society.

    David Shinn

  • I argue that a president, or any leader, has to think of leadership in three dimensions: the ends or the goals that the leader has, the means that a president or any other leader uses, and in terms of consequences, does it basically fill a role of increasing welfare. Does it make people better off, not just one's own followers, but also with minimal damage to the interests of others?

    Joseph S. Nye, Jr.

  • I think it means the requirement that people who occupy leadership positions understand that their contribution has to be rooted in, first of all, their concerns for others as opposed to their own personal advancement and their willingness to be guided, not just by narrow conventional rules, but by the profound question, on a daily basis, of what is the right thing to do and the courage to stand by that assessment.

    Louise Arbour

  • In terms of creating a social process, a social movement, a capacity in which a society is at some point carried by the desire to be different and to change, this is the sum of many things. Now, when those things begin to happen, leaderships emerge.

    Juan Somavia

  • Moral leadership is leadership that embodies the values and promotes the values of justice, accountability, humaneness, and a sense of what is right and what is wrong in the policies that are implemented.

    Chan Heng Chee

  • I think good leaders make people aware of the costs of a course of action, the difficulties of a course of action, rather than just oversell the benefits.

    Lawrence Freedman

  • In many Third World countries, you find that it's the ethical leaders who are in short supply. If you can develop leaders who are to think ethically, who act ethically, then the next generation of governance in Bangladesh would be far superior, simply because at least the ethical dilemmas will be understood properly and they will act accordingly.

    Fazle Hasan Abed

  • Moral leadership is necessary in all spheres of life, such as politics, economy, education. The central presupposition is credibility and integrity. Moral leadership means to stand up for one's moral convictions.

    Hans Küng

  • There is a Chinese proverb on this that is very important: "When the wise man is pointing to the moon, the fool is looking at the finger." A wrong leader is showing to the people that the moon is the finger, that he is the moon. But the right leadership is, let us go towards the moon, which means the message to humanity, a message of serving, a message of dignity, a message of freedom. A leader understands that she or he is but a means, never a purpose, never an aim.

    Tariq Ramadan

  • I think we don't believe, on the whole, that people in public life are motivated by admirable qualities and characteristics. The media rarely wants to give public figures the benefit of the doubt, let alone starting from the presumption that they might actually be rather admirable figures.

    David Cannadine

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