Leadership And Moral Decisions

In our previous issue we addressed some of the neuro-psychological underpinnings of decision making and also of learning processes in general. There’s little to debate on the relevance and importance to any effective leader of both of these cognitive skills but the discussion has raised some interesting questions regarding applications.

I’d like to deal with these special concerns here and, in particular, those that concern the controversial aspect of decision making in a moral context.

It’s true, leaders can find themselves in some pretty tight spots on moral issues; as one remarked recently, "It’s the occasional demand to ‘play God’ that unnerves me the most. I’m not sure I want that job!” You may well agree with this sentiment. Yet we have to demonstrate effective and appropriate leadership in many such situations, usually not of our choosing and often significant, perhaps even critical in impact for all or some of those involved.

A quick review . . .
Let’s accept that a leader is concentrating on two basic endeavours – focusing the desire for change that’s resident in others as well as on facilitating the creation of a sustainable new reality.

We may need to look at these as two separate actions in many moral situations. Moral issues do tend to change in their perceived value as they migrate from personal to public domains and they may not be entirely consistent even within the same person over time.

Driving moral-based learning experiences and associated decisions is the same dopamine-based response that generally applies. It originates in the Nucleus Accumbens Septi (NAcc) of the forebrain and plays a vital role in generating both rewards and addictions; when it’s stimulated, we experience pleasure. The process incorporates an anticipatory mechanism and significant modifications can be effected through the actions of the Anterior Cingulate Cortex (ACC). This way, with repeated exposures, we learn that certain events are intensely, somewhat, or marginally pleasurable and we’ll respond accordingly.

We have little or no conscious control over this mechanism and often may not even be aware of its impact. So, in effect, many of our most significant decisions, actions and responses are not only deeply entrenched but they are unknown to us.

At the same time, we’ve been misled into believing that the subsequent rational (conscious) process is actually doing all the work and thus has sole accountability for the output! When we experience direct conflict between the product of our ingrained response and that which we have reasoned using the prefrontal cortex alone we are ‘in two-minds’ and confusion abounds.

This dichotomy, of course, has to be resolved at some point, and the two minds seek reconciliation – a balanced perspective which is optimally appropriate to the circumstances. Left to its own devices, the brain accomplishes this quite well; when we attempt to override it, to impose ‘executive’ control or give way to the raw emotional reactions (the limbic hijack), we confuse ourselves and everyone around us.

Moral Impact . . .
So, what makes a moral issue different from other life experiences? One aspect, likely a pivotal one, is the scope of its impact; the locus of its effectiveness. Many issues in life affect only our selves; there’s little or no impact beyond the borders of our own consciousness – what we think or feel about the circumstances in which we find our selves, or whether or not we’ll choose to respond to what is happening to us.

Within the bounds of our private perceptions – the values we attach to our experiences – we owe no allegiance other than to our selves. The instant, though, that we reach out and touch the reality of another person, we cross a boundary and we are subject to issues of morality. Morality is about responsiveness.

So, when we respond to situations that involve others, and how we might treat them, the moment that our consciousness touches another, we incur special responsibilities. This is central to the role of a leader – one who focuses and facilitates change in others. Leadership is a moral proposition whether we like it or not; there is no escape.

The matter of balanced minds is now imperative. We cannot, as leaders, afford the luxury of allowing either emotionality or rationality to dominate our thoughts and/or actions. Mastery of the merging of the minds is an essential aspect of any leadership intervention.

However, our learning and decisions are initiated at the emotional level and executive influence is brought to bear by our higher, rational functions later in the process. An effective blending is required or the outcome is tainted. How can we be assured that this is always accomplished?

The Significant Challenge . . .
Consider the following scenario. John and Julie are siblings, on vacation together and having a wonderful time. After a very pleasant day hiking in the countryside they return to an excellent dinner and a bottle of wine and liqueurs. At this point it occurs to them that sex would be the perfect way to end the day.

Julie is on the pill but John nevertheless uses a condom. After the experience they agree that while it was meaningful it will not be repeated. A few months later they discover that the experience has actually deepened and enhanced their relationship, yet it remains a secret between them.

My question to you is, "Did they do wrong?”

This provocative situation was originally proposed by psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who in his research discovered that there were a definite majority who immediately condemned the action, some with forceful expression. When pressed to defend their strong judgment and condemnation, they responded with rational arguments such as the known adverse impact on the genetics of children resulting from such incestuous unions or the strong possibility that such behaviours can disrupt or at least undermine normal family relationships.

Haidt would point out that double precaution had been taken and that their relationship had actually benefitted. Undeterred, those opposed would seek other rational reasons why such behavior could not be tolerated, including ultimate appeals to authority – the Bible, accepted social practice, ‘decent people’, all of whom state that it’s wrong!

The decision about the ‘rightness’ of this type of behavior is not rational – it’s emotional. Something deep inside us tells us that no matter the circumstances, incest is abhorrent. We will not usually condone it no matter the argument that can be made. Our emotional mind has made the decision and it’s left to our rational mind to explain it.

So, there are two separate systems at work in moral issues and they’re sometimes in conflict. This is indicated by what happens with psychopaths who appear to lack the emotional component and are guided or even driven by rationality alone. They are well able to explain and defend their actions fully independent of what normal people would or could accept – it seems, in this case, there is no emotional decision to consider.

By contrast, consider the unfortunate condition of those who are autistic or ‘mind blind’. They have experiences at the emotional level but lack concern or awareness of what impact these might have on others; they are detached from altruistic feelings, empathy or responsiveness to the condition of others. The so-called ‘mirror neurons’ in their prefrontal cortex are inactive. They feel but they do not identify with others and/or act to express them selves.

What to do? . . .
Most of us are not affected by such extremes and must wrestle with the balancing process, but we need to do so in full knowledge of how we are creating the decision. We must have control, or even mastery over the balancing process – so consider the role of perspectives (for framing) and perceptions (for assigning value)!

Let’s begin by accepting that all events are neutral. It is the individual who both frames and evaluates the experience or event thus bestowing value upon it. We are all well able to assess the meaning of a situation independently of others; the question is can we do it effectively?

If we credit both minds, the emotional and the rational, with having their own independent logic systems, and if we can accept that they will each work diligently to produce an optimal answer, and given that there will be a balancing given sufficient time and the absence of distortion, we can appreciate that wisdom will follow.

When we force the process, either by rushing to a conclusion, by overriding the natural process to generate a ‘desired’ outcome, or by allowing one or other of our minds to mislead us, we will develop sub-optimal solutions. There are approaches that will tame this error proneness resident in each mind if we choose to use them.

The ‘trick’ is to use the rational mind more as a lawyer than as a scientist. This means that, as we reflect and consider all the arguments in a complex moral situation, we need to use

  • Evidence-based information
  • Probing questions
  • Cross examination
  • Argument and counter-argument
  • Verification and validation, and
  • Reasoned conclusions

The alternative is to take the scientific approach where we narrow our scope of attention, focus on confirming evidence, build supportive arguments and attempt to prove our working hypothesis. This is indeed a reasoned approach but it can result often in win-lose outcomes.

There are challenges enough as we proceed. Our rational mind is limited in the number of variables it can manage at any one time – seven plus or minus two is a good number; there’s a pitfall known as the ‘certainty trap’ where we can delude ourselves by being selective in choice of input, the process can be distracted by current mood and preoccupation, it is relatively slow and it may need external/objective reference criteria to ensure impartiality.

Likewise, the emotional mind is subject to distortions such as a vulnerability to ‘loss aversion’ where the fear of loss is disproportionately stronger than the hope of gain, pleasure ‘hijacks’ where we defer considered action in favour of immediate gratification or pleasure, impulsivity and impetuousness and even that old bogeyman ‘stereotyping”. Note that most of these will occur below the threshold of conscious awareness.

The Bottom Line . . .
Deliberate awareness and due diligence will help us to make better moral-based decisions. It will take conscious and consistent effort and, regrettably, there are no quick fixes, easy formulae or ‘stock’ answers. In pressured situations, when time is short, we’ll rely on our emotional mind (our ‘gut’) but we do have the opportunity to school this mind through continuing perfect practiceand proper rehearsal.

In novel situations, where we have no precedent to rely upon, cold rationality will serve us best. We must always be alert for the rational pitfalls mentioned above though and our rational mind is receptive to training and enhancement under our control.

It all boils down to "keep an open mind and an open heart and the future will unfold the way it should”. Why not give this some thought?


I'd welcome your questions, comments and suggestions. We can all learn through dialogue and your experiences will undoubtedly gain more value when shared. Please contact me at david@andros.org.

A Note to our Readers . . .

Previous series of articles on the topics of

  • Tomorrow’s Leaders – a model for SME organizations
  • The Leadership Crucible the ‘making’ of leaders
  • Leadership Characteristics a comprehensive catalogue of leader qualities
  • Succession Planning the strategic argument, principles and strategies, and
  • Managing Change – every person’s guide to painless processes

have been summarized as discussion guides for those who lead and manage through mentoring and coaching. If you would like to secure a copy for your own use, please contact us.

It is a pleasure to share ideas with you and we’d welcome your questions, suggestions and comments. They’ll assist us refine and expand the essential value of these initiatives. Thanks in anticipation for your participation.