Moral Courage: A Hallmark of Relationship Centered Leadership

My friend and colleague, Tom Wojick with The Renewal Group, is offering a free teleconference: Moral Courage: A Hallmark of Relationship Centered Leadership. The logistics are:

  • Date: Wednesday, 2/20/08
    Time: 12:00 – 1:00 PM EST
    Conference Call #: 1-605-475-4333
    Access Code#: 858616

Below is an article Tom wrote in response to the New York Times article, The Moral Instinct, by Steven Pinker.

You can also watch a video clip of Rushworth Kidder presenting, Moral Courage: the Guts of a Tough Decision, at the Institute for Global Ethics.

by Tom Wojick

The feature article in the magazine section of the New York Times, January 13, 2008, entitled “The Moral Instinct,” is an essential read for everyone. But it is particularly relevant for practitioners of EQ and for leaders. It highlights many fascinating ideas, concepts, and research. Here are few of the headings:

  • Universal Morality
  • Reasoning and Rationalizing
  • Moralization Switch
  • The Genealogy of Morals

The following quote, from psychologist Jonathan Haidt in the section “Reasoning and Rationalizing,” describes the gap between people’s convictions and their justifications. “People don’t generally engage in moral reasoning,” Haidt argues, “but moral rationalization; they begin with the conclusion, coughed up by an unconscious emotion, and then work backwards to a plausible justification.”

I also found interesting results from a study that asks people to make a moral decision. The decision involves a train coming down the track. In one scenario, if the train is not diverted, it will kill five people working on the track. But you can pull a switch to divert the train to another track, and only one person will be killed instead of five. In another scenario, the same decision must be made – save five people at the expense of one. But in order to divert the train, you must push a fat man standing beside you onto the tracks. The two dilemmas are morally equivalent. But most people don’t see it that way. In the first scenario, most people decide to pull the switch; but in the second scenario, they will not throw the fat man onto the tracks.

When the researchers looked at participants’ brains in an FMRI while the decisions were being made in each scenario, distinctly different regions of the brain showed activity. In the first dilemma (pulling a switch), the region for rational calculation showed increased activity. In the second dilemma (pushing the fat man), the regions of the brain implicated in emotions showed more activity. It appears that the more intimate we are to a situation, the stronger influence emotions have on our moral decisions.

I wonder about the implications of this study for corporate and government leaders. If leaders are insulated and isolated from the people who will bear the consequences of their decisions, they may be less likely to experience the emotions that are a critical source of data to assist them in making decisions. I also wonder if this factor plays a role in corporate scandals such as Enron, where executives made decisions that enriched them personally and decimated the retirements of employee investors. Also, is it easier for a president to send more and more men and women to die in a war if that president is insulated form the brutal aspects of those decisions?

I thought of Abraham Lincoln, who struggled emotionally with the consequences of his decisions to have men die for the right of others to live free as he made repeated visits to the battlefield. I wonder, was it easier for President Truman to make the decision to drop the atomic bombs because Japan was thousands of miles away? Do we lack the motivation to march in the streets to protest the killings of innocents in Darfur and Iraq because we can rationalize that we are not the ones who are pulling the switch? Maybe it should be a requirement that all leaders send 50% of their time with the stakeholders who have invested their trust and their lives in them. Maybe we all need to open our hearts more widely and listen to the cries of innocents who are dying. Maybe if we can bring EQ into our lives, we will do the right thing. One more thought about that scenario, push the fat man on the tracks, we could decide to give ourselves and jump in front of the train.

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