The Moral Compass of a Leader: Learning from Revolutionary Leaders

Moral IntelligenceA radical group of leaders created a new country in the late eighteenth century – the United States of America. When you look at the leadership characteristics of this group, with the likes of Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin, the lessons we can learn from them are as relevant today as they were three centuries ago.

Leaders have a strong moral compass and stand up for their beliefs, sometimes against immense odds. By signing the Declaration of Independence, the members of the Continental Congress were committing treason which is a pretty serious statement about their beliefs. At the core, their decision to sign the Declaration and commit treason was based on their personal moral grounding about the rights of government and the rights of the people. They used that moral compass and their integrity to guide them against the superpower of the day.

In their book, Moral Intelligence, Doug Lennick and Fred Kiel, state, “The most successful leaders in any company are likely to be trustworthy individuals who have a strong set of moral beliefs and the ability to put them into action. Further, even in a world that occasionally rewards bad behavior, the fastest way to build a successful business is to hire those people with the highest moral and ethical skills you can find.”1 If you look back over the past several years, in the wake of high-profile business scandals like Enron, the Bernie Madoff ponzi scheme, and the behavior of some Wall Street firms leading up to and during the 2008 economic crisis, some would assert that too many business leaders lack a moral compass. The importance of a strong moral compass is as important today, if not more so, as it was 240 years ago.

Leaders listen. The conversations and debates that led to the Declaration were often heated. Different delegates held very different views about independence and about each other. Each one’s views were heard and debated. Unity is possible only if each person feels he is heard and his ideas are given a fair shake. Each person in that room was at times a leader and at other times a follower. Yet, at every turn, each was grounded by his personal moral compass.

Leaders stand as one. After the debates and conversations, compromise was reached, and once each signed his name, the group stood as one behind the words on the page. Benjamin Franklin marked the occasion with the words, “We must all hang together or assuredly, we shall all hang separately.” Their belief in the concept of independence superseded potential personal injury or gain.

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