What is moral leadership and how do we find moral leaders? I agree with David Gergen, writing in his book Hearts Touched with Fire: How Great Leaders are Made’, when he speaks of leadership as a journey that has to start from within. That thought struck a chord with me and it sheds some light on why leaders behave the way they do when they assume these leadership roles. The way people lead reflects who they are. They need to understand themselves, control their emotions, and master their inner self before they can exercise leadership and be of service to others. These are the elements that develop character, help us grow, and develop a sense of purpose. For a leader, knowing their own values and having the ability to follow their true north in a complicated world is important. This is essential for developing moral courage and moral leadership. The journey starts within.
When you think of leaders, what or who comes to mind? Some will think of leaders of the past and some will think of the leaders of today, many as possibly not quite fitting the bill. If you think of what you would want a leader to be on the other hand, what comes to mind? Many would say a role model and pillar of the community who has courage and acts, not in one’s own self-interest, but in the interest of the community they serve. Moral leadership is important and it is about people making choices for the benefit of others while trying to bring others along with them on different issues. Unfortunately, in today’s world, many leaders are more concerned with their own status and solidifying their own power base than they are with morality, doing what is right for the highest good of all people. We need leaders of moral courage, compassion, and character now more than ever before. The world has no shortage of challenges it is facing and now is the time for strong moral leadership. How do these leaders we need emerge? How do we develop leaders who will stand up, and who will be courageous? There is no simple answer to these questions but there is hope.
A new younger generation of leaders has begun to emerge who have started to challenge the status quo and demonstrate courage. There have been several young leaders who have climbed the ranks to lead their countries at a younger age than those before them, capturing the mood of their nation and understanding what is required. In Finland, Prime Minister Sanna Marin was 34 when she took office in 2019 and she has focused on equality and climate change as key issues during her term, and since the Russian invasion of Ukraine has made moves for Finland to join NATO, making a decision that has been shirked by previous administrations because of fear of what the repercussions might be. Dritan Abazović was 32 when he was sworn in as Prime Minister of Montenegro in 2022 and his government priorities are to fight against corruption, for more sustainable development, environmental protection, and better care for young people while continuing the path toward EU membership.
Another leader who came to power at a relatively young age was the Prime Minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern who was sworn into office aged 37. Key issues of concern have been cutting child poverty, homelessness, climate change, and equality. Ardern has forged a different path based on courage, strength, empathy, and compassion stressing kindness and well-being as a governing virtue. She has sought to lead by example which was demonstrated in the aftermath of the horrific attack in Christchurch on March 15, 2019, which took the lives of 50 people while praying in a mosque. She sent a powerful message around the world about New Zealanders’ shared values, that those who seek to divide us will never succeed and that New Zealand will always protect the diversity and openness that is its strength. In solidarity with the Muslim community, Ardern wore a hijab while visiting the two mosques that were attacked and showed her empathy as she was embraced by mourners. The empathy which she delivered could be heard in her words “You are us, we feel grief, we feel injustice, we feel anger and we have that with you”. Her heartfelt compassion in the wake of tragedy shows her as an example that other world leaders should take note of.
In the United States, people are showing similar leadership qualities such as Stacey Abrams who is running for Governor in Georgia and has fought against voter suppression. Liz Cheney is an example of someone in a leadership position standing up for what is right and what she believes in, one of the only Republicans making a bi-partisan effort on the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol. Cheney has faced abuse, and threats and has been censured by her own party but she has carried on fighting for what she believes to be right in the face of it all. People are showing leadership in their respective positions across politics, society and within the community but the question is how do we ensure they are not a minority but are front and center acting as a catalyst for change. This kind of moral leadership needs to become the standard-bearer and the benchmark that we should be comparing all leaders to.
The next generation is rising. Young people across the United States and further afield are becoming energized and inspired. They are demanding more from leaders and those in positions of power and informed on the issues that will affect them in the years to come. Thrust into the world of activism by the largest school shooting in American history, Parkland school shooting survivor David Hogg has become one of the most compelling voices of his generation on gun violence and control. The co-founder of March for Our Lives, his call to “get over politics and get something done” challenges Americans to stand up, speak out and work to elect morally just leaders, regardless of party affiliation. Passionate in his advocacy to end gun violence, Hogg’s mission of increasing voter participation, civic engagement, and activism embraces a range of issues. Following the recent spate of mass shootings including the school shooting in Uvalde which killed 19 children and 2 adults and the shooting in Buffalo, New York which killed 10 and injured 3, Hogg organized protests to put pressure on political leaders to take action and pressed the need for gun control legislation.
This generation is more engaged at a younger age than previous generations, particularly on issues that are going to impact them increasingly in years to come. One only needs to think about Greta Thunberg, the 19-year-old climate activist who started protesting for climate action aged 15 in her native Sweden. In 2018, Thunberg took the international stage beginning the school climate strikes and giving public speeches on the topic. Thunberg has stated that as she watched the Parkland students galvanize with the ‘March for Our Lives’ protests she was struck by how one defiant act like skipping school could be so powerful and how could she sit by knowing that the greatest crisis facing the world was unfolding. She was so inspired by the approach taken by young people protesting gun violence that she began to use these tactics to fight for climate action. It was slow at first but soon her social media presence expanded and she received national and international coverage. Her defiance paid off, drawing an estimated 4 million people to take the streets in September 2019 in support of Global Climate Strikes, the biggest single day of climate protests in history (Guardian, 2019). This leadership from someone so young on an issue of such importance is, and continues to be, inspiring.
Why is leadership important? Without good leadership, without a moral compass, there is no moral leadership. South Africa is a good example of what happens in a country when there is a lack of moral leadership. What took place in South Africa between 1948 and 1989 during the apartheid era was reprehensible and it happened in a vacuum of moral leadership. President F.W. de Klerk began to institute changes and reforms to dismantle apartheid when he came to power in 1989 and freed Nelson Mandela in 1990. They worked together to change South Africa and this culminated in a new constitution and Mandela becoming President in 1994. Mandela was able to precipitate change along with others who demonstrated courageous leadership alongside him. This shows what happens when moral leadership is introduced and courageous and righteous action is taken. Often people think that something like this could never happen in their own country but as we have seen across the world in recent years, things that would have seemed improbable can happen and all it requires is a lack of moral leadership.
Why is moral leadership so important to a political forgiveness process? For a political forgiveness process to be successful and if we are to move forward each one of us needs to consider our own actions, our own place in society, and who we want to represent us. Are we looking for morality in leaders? Are we looking for leaders that we can trust? How can we make sure that this is the leadership that we are really getting? The fundamental change we need in society can only be enabled through each of our own actions. We can create the necessary conditions for that change yet it is up to each of us to play our part. We must all think long and hard about who we want representing us, and why. Do we want leaders who will agree with everyone and do nothing or do we want leaders who will do what is right no matter how difficult it is. We can affect change and we must seek to do so in an informed way.