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Your Moral Compass: The Key to Leadership

July 14, 2013
Updated June 21, 2015

CompassNothing has changed in the public service of Canada since this post was shared two years ago. Lots of talk but no effective action has come from top bureaucrats and politicians.

In Canada’s military, the problem of sexual harassment has finally come to a head. The recent removal of the Chief of Defense for a bone-headed comment on sexual harassment, replaced by a respected combat-hardened general, may hold some hope for addressing this pernicious problem.

There are lots of smart people out there–people with high IQs who seem to absorb vast amounts of information and who are capable of regurgitating just the right politically correct statements that get them noticed by higher-ups.

And then there are the normal, smart people who toil away daily under the radar who make significant contributions to their organizations, and society.

I’m focusing on the former: the smarties whose moral compass has never been properly calibrated. These are the people who can cause–and have caused–major damage to organizations. Witness the destruction caused by bank CEOs, whose immoral actions and poor decisions resulted in an estimated $2 trillion loss (as calculated by the IMF). These corporate debacles hurt people–lots of people–across numerous countries, not just the United States (though the pain and suffering from losing their homes reached into the millions).

But it isn’t just those in the CEO office or in senior management positions who inflict harm through behaviors caused by a poorly aligned moral compass. Let me provide two personal examples of how two supposedly very intelligent individuals, both in middle management positions, caused harm to their subordinates and wasted significant organizational resources over many months.

I didn’t realize what I was entering into when I joined the federal public service in September 1982. I was a young greenhorn economist, with a young family, working with a small team in a large organization.

Angry Male Boss My boss, Bruce, was very intelligent and knew his stuff–technically, as a chief economist. However, his alter ego was one of deceit, manipulation and abuse of his staff. He harassed us daily, and engaged in an affair with a young female economist. His marriage collapsed, his affair was made public and he soaked up dozens of hours of corporate resources to resolve the problem. The organization’s solution was to transfer the female economist to another city in another province.

Bruce was almost fired. I remember sitting in his living room (in an apartment he rented since his wife had given him the boots) with a co-worker, tears forming in his eyes as he tried to figure out how he was going to redeem himself. It was a bad scene all around. Bruce destroyed whatever team had previously existed, caused enormous stress on staff, embarrassed the executive head of the organization (his direct boss), and wasted countless hours of the director of human resources.

Bruce was smart, but a dunce as a leader because of a poorly calibrated moral compass.

Fast forward three decades to when I was on the cusp of retiring from the public service. By then I was living in Ottawa and working in a different federal department in its head office. As with any large organization, bad managers seem to be able to cling on. A female colleague in another branch sought my help with a serious harassment issue with her female director. Both were about the same age (around fifty).

Mary was an economist, a charming, hard-working employee who only wanted to do her job well and to serve Canadians. Unfortunately, her boss, Margaret, had a reputation for abusing her staff, or at least those she didn’t like.

The abuse from Margaret wasn’t just verbal but in emails, which Mary carefully documented. I coached Mary through a long period in terms of documenting very carefully the abuse and to create a binder with the information. The Public Service of Canada has a harassment policy, but one that is toothless and, in effect, impotent to adequately correct cases of harassment.

Angry Female Boss The abuse against Mary accelerated over the subsequent months, to the point where Margaret grabbed her by the arm one day in her office. Mary managed to keep control of her emotions, something we had talked about over several coffees. Reacting against such an affront, while tempting, would have been to management’s benefit.

Eventually Mary submitted her very thorough documentation to the organization’s senior director responsible for human resources. Two months later Mary received her long-awaited reply from the deputy minister (equivalent to a CEO): harassment complaint denied. “Go away,” was the basic message.

Mary, after looking in other departments for opportunities, finally found one. The last time I heard from her she was very happy with her work and team mates, and boss.

No human being should ever be placed in such a situation. It’s degrading, disgusting and just plain wrong.

Bruce and Margaret are but two small examples of intelligent managers whose moral compasses were not functioning. It doesn’t matter the reason why; the point is that these behaviors should never be tolerated by senior management. And what is especially appalling in the case of Mary is that the organization’s top dog, the deputy minister, rejected her well documented complaint.

When the senior leaders of an organization have poorly functioning moral compasses this presents an extremely serious threat to its existence. In the public sector a department won’t shut down, yet it is citizens and taxpayers who pay the price in the end.

In the private sector where global competition is increasing, those who are leading companies need to ensure that their moral compasses are aligned with employee engagement strategies, teamwork and management development. Ignoring your moral compass as the senior leader will in the end destroy your company.

Take some time to reflect on your own leadership experiences.

Have you ever struggled with your own moral compass?

How would you help a colleague or manager whose moral compass was not aligned?

You never find yourself until you face the truth
Pearl Bailey

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. July 18, 2013 6:40 am

    Hi Jim,

    This article suggests that a leader must be a moral man (or woman) – but we all know that this is not the case. You don’t need to be moral for people to follow you – you just need to have the right leadership characteristics – the most important one, in my opinion, is consistency.

    That’s my opinion anyway…

    • July 18, 2013 11:31 am

      Yes, a leader must have followers or he or she’s not a leader. I disagree with you, however, about consistency. Leaders such as Mao, Stalin and Hitler were indeed consistent when it came to causing immeasurable harm to their citizens.

  2. July 14, 2013 9:31 pm

    Can’t help but wonder why so many awful people are bosses. How is it that management doesn’t see these people for what they are and recognize the damage they’re doing?

    • July 15, 2013 1:52 am

      Susan, you’re asking a question that has plagued me for several decades. As you know since retiring from the Government of Canada after three decades, one of my activities is working part-time for a very large US-based retail company. No firm is perfect, but it’s a very pleasant change from my previous life where harassment was a way of life in the public sector. There’s little accountability in government; incompetents or harassers are promoted or moved somewhere else; and no one gives a shit – to be very blunt. Elected politicians could care less, focusing on their optics with the public and on the next election. And the public in the US and Canada do nothing. Same with the Europeans and the Brits.

  3. July 14, 2013 1:44 pm

    It is a fact that when being harassed by a boss, it generally does little good to go to the level above them to resolve the issue, because the boss is generally being protected by the level above. Research shows you need to go one level above that to get any positive action. A similar situation once happened to me. I was harassed by a boss increasingly over several years. One day I was fired on a pretext and given 15 minutes to collect my things and leave the building. Several days later, others eventually convinced me to contact the head of the company, which I did (which was also two levels above my boss). He rehired me the next day after looking into it, calling me back, and telling me that my own boss gave him an entirely inadequate explanation. The day I came back the attitude of my boss toward me changed 180°, and I had no trouble from that time on.

    On your other point, according to psychologists, sociopaths (with no conscience) are all around us. Pretty scary!

    • July 14, 2013 6:52 pm

      Yes, sociopathic managers abound in organizations, especially the public sector where accountability, or the lack of, adds to the problem. It’s hard to say whether reporting a harassment problem two levels higher is better. In the two examples I gave, in the first the immediate boss over mind almost fired Bruce, who smartened up. In the second one, the complaint went to the top dog who rebuffed it.

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