Being a ‘moral’ leader

Image source: Photo by Jehyun Sung on Unsplash

This week I was reading the poem often attributed to Charlie Chaplin titled “As I began to love myself“. Apparently the poem was actually a translation of text from the book “When I Loved Myself Enough” by Kim & Alison McMillen, and was read by Charlie Chaplin at his 70th birthday. It is an interesting choice for Chaplin to read as he turned 70, particularly given the turmoil in his personal life to that point.

The opening line in each verse is not a reference to love in the sense of a belief that you are better than others or of an unhealthy self-obsession. Instead, it is about having a healthy level of self-awareness and self-respect and the acknowledgement that we have a definite, fundamental potential to do good in the world. This is what it means to have moral leadership.

And so this morning when I read an article titled How to Become Moral Leaders by Nurhuda Syed in the HRD Magazine, the significance of that poem came to mind again.

Syd begins his article with a quote by Jim Loehr, author of The Only Way to Win who says:

“When executives win with character, not only will they build a leadership legacy that lasts, they will experience enduring feelings of fulfilment and satisfaction.”

This is sage advice to anyone in leadership – but I’m particularly mindful of its significance for those in various positions of leadership in our education system at present. The prevailing paradigm of schools in NZ is one of competition – both in terms of the competition between schools in their quest for status and recognition, and for student numbers; and in terms of the structures within schools that ascribe status to individuals according to their position in the hierarchy that exists.

Operating in such an environment favours certain behaviours and characteristics that are not always the most desirable in our leaders – or anyone for that matter. We’re seeing the consequences of this in our system currently – from the anger and frustration being expressed in the process leading up to the recent salary negotiations to the emphasis being given to wellbeing with reports of significant levels of stress, unhappiness and lack of personal satisfaction among large numbers of educators.

We certainly have high expectations of leaders – as most do of themselves. We expect them to demonstrate high levels of integrity and trust etc., yet often do little to support them in confronting their own feelings of self-doubt or addressing areas where they fall short of their own or others’ expectations. Leadership can then be a lonely business!

Understanding the significance and deep meaning behind the lines in Chaplin’s poem is key to becoming a leader of character – led by a moral compass. Being less concerned about reputation, personal status or power may be easy ideas to contemplate, but when the system you operate within rewards you for these sorts of things the choice isn’t as easy to make. It takes courage, a deep sense of personal conviction and the prepared-ness to admit mistakes. It also requires the ability to be vulnerable, to absorb criticism and to engage in times of honest, personal reflection.

Finally, it requires the support of others. Leadership isn’t a solo endeavour. By its very nature it involves others. The decisions leaders make impact on the lives of others on a daily basis – both positively and negatively. The secret here is to ensure that, as a leader, you must be ‘wired into’ the community you serve. This will happen most effectively when you have ‘learned to love yourself’ as outlined in the initial poem, and when your need for finding favour from others is overcome by a strong, personal conviction of the potential you have to do good in the world.

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