Leading with Virtuous Purpose and Moral Strength

Today’s emerging leaders are more likely to be women, people of color, and other individuals whose lives have been impacted by racism, sexism, sexual harassment and sexual assault, disability, generational poverty, displacement from war, and the immigrant or refugee experience. These leaders (like many before them) are questioning operating assumptions about who leads and how leadership happens. These emerging leaders are less willing to live in a world constrained by white male control, which they view as having created many modern-day ills—most of which are tied to binary understandings (and misunderstandings) of the complex peoples of the world. 

So, what new assumptions and thinking will drive developing leaders as they move their organizations, societies, and world to higher ground? I believe that this new generation seeks to lead with virtuous purpose and moral strength. To lead with virtuous purpose and moral strength means the leader is motivated by two beliefs about humanity and social progress. 

First, the conflict in the world is traceable to disagreement about beingness—about the nature of humans (our origin, our rights, and our destiny). Conflict arises from a worldview that emphasizes material interests and produces win-lose outcomes, whereas a worldview that emphasizes universal human needs (such as self-determination, love, respect, dignity, and security) is more likely to produce enduring change. 

Second, a leader who relates to problem-solving from a solely material viewpoint is not capable of the same type of comprehensive thinking demonstrated by a leader committed to a more universal-consciousness, because the material approach ignores the deeper, more eternal values of life that run beneath the material. 

What is the higher purpose for organizations and their leaders? Ultimately, it is to create faith, beauty, meaning, and goodness. One cannot genuinely lead with high character, confidence, compassion, and courage without fully depending on and creating a culture of love and trust. Rather than the workplace only being a transactional environment where people exchange material goods and services, the exemplary leader stimulates a transformation—a continual progression of people empowering and inspiring others toward goodness. 

Leaders who use virtuous purpose and moral strength to move organizations from the outdated to progressive embrace the following ways of being and thinking:

  • They lead from character. 
  • They believe that all leadership is contextual. 
  • They hold a worldview that emphasizes universal human needs (such as self-determination, love, respect,     dignity, and security) rather than a worldview that places the material over the nonmaterial.
  • They consistently monitor and correct their own ways of being and knowing so that they act to eradicate violence, racism, and sexism, which when left unchecked lead to a spiritual asphyxiation of the organization.
  • They create and sustain conditions for diversity to thrive and identify leadership talent in untapped sources. 

In sum, leading with virtuous purpose and moral strength is about taking a risk. The risk is about your consciousness.  

Leslie T. Fenwick is dean emeritus of the Howard University School of Education (DC) and a professor of leadership studies. She also holds an appointment as a MCLC Senior Fellow at West Point Academy (USMA) (NY). Portions of this article are excerpted from her 2018 West Point Academy Corbin Lecture on Women and Leadership.