The Integrated Relationship of Quintessential Leadership and an Ethical-Moral Foundation

Posted: April 30, 2015 in Qualities of a Quintessential Leader, Quintessential Leadership
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Leaders Must Have Ethics and Morals - Strength Alone is Not EnoughIt seems to me that the term “leader” has now begun to ring hollow because it’s applied to anybody and everybody in the world who emerges in the top tier of the heap of any social, religious, academic, governmental, or organizational structure, regardless of how they got there.

The reality is that how they got to the top of the heap matters. A lot. Just because people end up in the top tier of any of these venues does not automatically mean they are leaders. Anymore, it often means just the opposite.


Because how people get to the top of the heap shows the kind of ethical-moral foundation they have. Or don’t have.

While we seem to routinely disconnect how people behave from their intellect, knowledge, and skills, we do ourselves a huge disservice when we don’t consider the whole person, especially when they’re begging us to unconditionally (which, by the way, is unquintessential leadership) follow them.

The presence or absence of an ethical-moral foundation in a person is directly proportional to whether they build trust and are trustworthy or they destroy trust and are not trustworthy.

The reality is that there is very little trust and trustworthiness in the world today. Time and again, most of us prove, often in what we believe are “little things,” that we cannot be trusted and we are not trustworthy. 

Little things,” it turns out, are symptomatic of big things and those big things show whether we have an ethical-moral foundation or not. How is this translated practically? In a word, character. Character embodies these elements: who we are, what we are, our motives, our attitudes, our thoughts, our words, and our actions.

If one or more of those elements doesn’t sync up with the rest, or what we claim to be, then we have a problem with our ethical-moral foundation and we are deficient in character.

There are certain external behaviors that reveal more than others whether we have an ethical-moral foundation. They are:

  1. A pattern of questionable and surreptitious actions that have built-in plausible deniability;
  2. A history of deflecting responsibility and/or changing the subject (avoiding the subject altogether) when confronted with substantiated actions and words;
  3. A prevailing sense of anger and outrage each time these kinds of actions and words occur and we are called on it;
  4. A history of twisting, spinning, angling, deception, and dishonesty that threads through our entire lives;
  5. An overarching pride and arrogance that literally oozes from our pores continually;
  6. An inability to ever admit we are wrong, we’ve done something wrong, and we need to make amends and change those wrongs in a demonstrable way.

I am very rarely completely on the same page as New York Times columnist David Brooks (I find him to be myopic, elitist, and without an objective view of the big picture most of the time, and that leads him to conclusions that are generally lopsided and not entirely accurate), but in his April 28, 2015 op-ed piece, “Goodness and Power,” Brooks nails the integrated relationship between quintessential leadership and an ethical-moral foundation.

Hillary Clinton Dishonest and UntrustworthyBrooks began the piece with the results of a Quinnipiac Poll that showed that 60% of independent voters rated Hillary Clinton as a strong leader. But 61% of those same voters said that Hillary Clinton is not honest and is not trustworthy (here’s the disconnect I referred to before between behavior and intellect, knowledge, and skills).

Then Brooks moves out to the long view that the real ability to lead is directly tied to honesty and trustworthiness by asking the right question: “Can you be a bad person but a strong leader?”

As those of us who are striving to be quintessential leaders know already, the answer is “no.” To paraphrase Brooks, putting “…someone with bad private morals [in a leadership position] is like setting off on a battleship with awesome guns and a rotting hull. There’s a good chance you’re going to sink before the voyage is over.”


As Brooks notes, people who have no ethical-moral foundation are Machiavellian in their behavior and the end always justifies the means, and in the end what we get is not leadership, but tyranny and despotism.

The lust for power and control is the driving force behind these unquintessential leaders. The dishonesty is that they obscure their real motives with platitudes that sound like they are selfless, sacrificing, giving, and doing this for the good of the people that they actually want power over and want to control.

And here’s the proof. They’ll talk a good talk until they get what they want, but there are always shadows of impropriety, of shadiness, of manipulation, and of deception hanging around them. Nobody trusts them, even if they manage to get a leadership position.

Once they do get a leadership position, these unquintessential leaders reveal their total lack of an ethical-moral foundation in everything they are, they say, and they do.

What does that look like in practice? As we strive to become quintessential leaders, we must be able to not only know what quintessential leadership looks like, but also what it doesn’t look like and we need to make sure we’re always monitoring ourselves to make sure we’re on the right path and haven’t veered off onto the wrong one.

When people without an ethical-moral foundation get into leadership positions, these are the tell-tale signs:

  • Tightened control over everything and everyone (it will be loose during their campaign to be in charge and promises of egalitarianism will abound)
  • A closed inner circle that is an existing network and that is severely limited with very specific criteria so that only those who are already in it can meet them
  • All-or-nothing demands for loyalty and allegiance
  • Big Brother Lack of Ethical-Moral FoundationConstrictive and restrictive rules and regulations
  • Continual threats of retribution and adverse actions if rules and regulations are believed to be broken
  • Constant assertion of authority and superiority to everyone else
  • Constant devaluing of others in attempts to promote and enhance their own value
  • Mistrust and suspicion of everyone else

Look around in your life and see if this looks familiar. It does in my life, because, unfortunately, this is the general tenor of the kind of people in leadership positions in every area of our lives.

It’s become acceptable to not have an ethical-moral foundation and be in a leadership position. Not only is it acceptable, but it is, indeed, preferred.

But as we strive to become quintessential leaders, we can’t just follow the crowd. We can’t use the excuse that everybody else is doing it. We can’t allow ourselves, even if it means we end up being the only person on the planet doing the right thing because we have and we hold on to the right foundation, to ever lose sight of what makes us quintessential leaders.

We are rare for a reason. But there are people, those whom we serve on every team in our lives, who count on the rarity of us having, continuing to fortify, and adhering to an unshakeable ethical-moral foundation.

How are we doing?






  1. iammarchhare says:

    A leader can be strong but be dishonest. Unfortunately, that seems to be the rule rather than the exception in this world. The problem is that they become destroyers rather than builders.

    I’ve recently been listening to Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History, and he makes an even stronger point by introducing his topic about Genghis Khan using a Lord Acton quote: “Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority”. His point is that great men are often remembered more because of the side effects of their cruelty rather than how they actually governed. They did not create, but rather they set fire to the corrupt and dead systems in place, thus making room for others to build. He lists Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan among these.

    Carlin is not only fascinated with the subject of the Khans, but he is frustrated because of the whitewashing that is occurring among historians to paint Genghis Khan as a “great” in the same way the other “greats” get whitewashed by downplaying their slaughter of often innocent lives and other crimes committed in achieving their goals.

    There are two takeaways from his introductory podcast on the subject that I believe relate here. The first is more obvious, in that a “strong” leader != a “good” leader. History is filled with such examples.

    The second is much more subtle. The “great” leaders came on the scene to destroy a corrupt system that was already in place.

    To me, there are a couple of consequences of this idea. First, that means the less-than-greats being replaced were still corrupt, but only slightly less. The real differences were a smaller sphere of influence and less of a stomach to commit the things that would destroy a corrupt system. Both groups are destroyers, and the only real thing that distinguishes them is the scope of the destruction.

    The second consequence of this train of thought is that the corruption will grow worse and worse until a truly “strong” leader stands up to set fire to the entire dead structure. That probably means a revolution. My take on revolutions, however, is that they rarely pan out to create something better, especially in the short run. The American Revolution was a pretty unique situation that occurred in “genteel” times that allowed quite different results. However, even then, there eventually was a Civil War to deal with some unresolved differences that went on for almost a century.

    It takes a real concerted effort to stem the tide of decay. Enough people have to stand up for a moral and ethical leadership, and enough of these people have to be placed in power. This is why people overall usually get the type of leaders they deserve. The people must be ethical in order to resist unethical leaders and put their trust in leaders with greater ethics.

    This is a real problem in a society that has eschewed all forms of public morality and, more importantly, declarations upon which that morality is based.


    • Thank you, John. This adds to my point and I appreciate your thoughts. “Strong,” like “leader,” is pretty much hackneyed at this point, because not all “strong” equals “good,” as you pointed out.

      I can bully people, force people, be violent with people, and be stronger by any other number of means of brute force, but it doesn’t mean anything. I have gained only their fear, not their trust and respect. And I’ve also assured myself that I will be deposed by the same violence I have used to force my way into a position of leadership.

      That is, sadly, what most of humanity believes is leadership today because that’s what we’ve experienced. And, because humanity has chosen to embrace the basest parts of our nature, including violence, which has become our go-to response to everything (because we’re saturated with it everywhere we turn), we accept Machiavelli’s premise of the path to power as being natural, right, and inevitable.

      I think there’s a big difference between a revolution and a renaissance, both of which come from resistance to oppression and wrong-doing. The American Revolution was actually pretty violent on both sides (I don’t see it as a shining gem among a bunch of zirconian wannabes) and it was the whitewashed “the good guys win” narrative that Americans tend to believe. All human revolutions involve violence, deception, and the struggle for power.

      However, revolutions simply seek a change in who is in charge, not in the morals and the ethics.

      A true renaissance (rebirth), which has never happened in human history on a widespread scale despite eras that have “renaissance” in their names, effects that change for good and for right. It starts with the internal change in the heart and each of us has to decide if we’re in or out. It’s an all-or-nothing commitment, not a situational or relative one.

      Too many people who claim to be part of a true renaissance, show by their behavior, that either it’s a lie or it depends on the situation or that it’s relative to what others are doing. In the end, it’s still a revolution ala Machiavelli.


  2. […] Unfortunately, this unquintessential leadership consistency of choice that leads to a pattern of behavior that becomes a habit in dealing with screw-ups is no better exemplified than with the public lives of President Bill Clinton and his wife, 2016 presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton. […]


  3. […] is Donald Trump, who would be the Republican nominee. The other is Hillary Clinton, who would the Democrat […]


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