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Moral Leadership

By November 3, 2020June 9th, 2021Insights

It is not the most intelligent or strongest that survives, but the one most able to adapt.


In these, the most difficult of times, how can an organisation and its leaders demonstrate moral leadership?

That was the topic of discussion at CGA’s latest Navigator Forum, where we were delighted to be joined by senior decision makers from across our network and guest speaker, Jac Starr, COO, the Rail Delivery Group.

Framed in the context of business leaders having to make increasingly difficult choices whilst striving to ‘do the right thing’, Jac presented a fascinating view of the somewhat mixed history of the UK rail industry and the future challenges it faces. “We have created a strong narrative around the customer and proved that technology is changing every aspect of our lives. Now we will need to build a constantly improving, fully integrated system of rail travel”. Jac introduced the idea that, in ancient Greek, the term “crisis” meant “a moment of decision or a turning point”, which is what the rail industry and so many others now face. Covid-19 isn’t going away any time soon, and with many suggesting it will become endemic, organisations will continue to need to adapt, be flexible and make difficult decisions.

Our forum discussion raised a number of key themes as to how moral leaders need to behave. Consensus was that collaboration, cooperation and joined up decision making will be key. Jac gave the example of how, a once fractured and fragmented rail industry, has proven what can be achieved by pulling together in these challenging times. Putting aside competitive or departmental differences, to collaborate horizontally rather than vertically, and nimble partnering were all proposed as important changes in behaviour.

There was a general recognition that Covid-19 has, for many organisations, sped up the need for change and shouldn’t be used as an excuse for delay. Over eight months after we entered this crisis (and even longer in some countries outside the UK), we have learnt a whole new language, we’ve become accustomed to wearing masks and working from home and yet some organisations continue to blame Covid-19 for their inability to support staff or for poor service delivery. It seems incredulous for example, that some companies are still restricting the number of calls they handle, “due to Covid-19”. This “denial of customers” is absurd and the organisations that look set to survive and succeed, are those with a “service-driven recovery” approach. For any business going forward, the need to focus on customer perception is fundamental and empowering staff to create the transformation essential.

However, there was no denying that hard choices will need to be made and, in these cases, the moral leader needs to stay true to what is right, showing kindness and courage, perfectly summed up by one observation that “perhaps we need to treat each other like human beings, which maybe we should have been doing all along”. In the current climate, leaders continue to have to make difficult decisions, when “doing the right thing” may well have a negative impact, most likely on those very employees you’re also looking to empower.  Therefore, it is not what you do, but how you do it that matters most, and this must be in a human way. A clear sense of strategic direction is critical because responding to change is impossible without the right behaviours and leadership in place.

As we adjust for the “new” world of work and life, leaders will need to recognise that employees are balancing a wide range of factors; from the physical reality of working from home, which for many, where space is limited, is a real challenge; to the emotional ups and downs that working from home or travelling to a physical place of work presents; to motivational factors, the reality being, that many people are struggling with motivating themselves to perform at their best, given all the other challenges they currently face.

As leaders, one thing Covid-19 has inadvertently exposed us to, is the personal lives of our employees. We now know so much more about their personal circumstances and we can’t ignore it, which creates a very different playing field. A moral leader needs to relate to this and think about creating the right space; digital, physical and mental, as well as the right network around their employees to support them, make them feel valued and allow them to own and transform the customer experience. Organisations will need to think about how they create a business that people want to work for – because it creates great service and experiences and because the emotional relationship binding employees to an organisation will become fundamentally important in determining their sense of well-being and commitment. No longer can audiences be segmented purely as customers and employees. Such is the impact of Covid-19 on individual long-term behaviours and beliefs, organisations need to deeply understand the many emerging dimensions of people’s lives.

A profound change is occurring – an evolving world where we are all “citizens”, living in interlinked communities – and as such demand to be treated as human beings, where trust is earned, and interests are aligned to the benefit of the wider community. For any leader making courageous decisions at this time, it so important to start from a place of trust. For organisations and leaders that don’t have this baseline, the journey through the next 12-24 months is going to be so much harder, as they catch up to their peers and competitors. Leaders need to overcome false priorities; focused on revenue, set down and follow a clear sense of strategic direction and deliver clarity and simplicity in communications with both staff and customers.

As Jac paraphrased for the session, “it is not the most intellectual of the species that survives; it is not the strongest that survives; but … the one that is able best to adapt and adjust to the changing environment in which it finds itself.”