Perspective: New Age, New Morals, New Leaders

The new paradigm for leadership means that leaders today must be chiefly concerned with giving service to their community — rather than advancing their own ideas, careers or sense of privilege.

To speak of "moral leadership" in today's world seems a contradiction in terms. Almost every day, headlines tell of the disgrace, downfall, imprisonment or forced resignation of a political, corporate, religious, or community leader somewhere.

The corruption of leadership takes many forms. There are those who seek to use positions of power to accumulate wealth, undermine rivals, or win sexual favors. There are those who use their authority to advance some particular cause at the expense of justice to other ideas. There are those who care more for partisan advantage than the discovery of truth. There are those who seek to dominate out of a base desire to manipulate and control others. And there are those who abuse positions of advantage simply because they have not reflected on the true purpose of leadership.

Morality in leadership does matter. In some countries, the collapse of entire economies can be traced to varying forms of government and/or corporate corruption. Other leaders have made war to retain political power, satisfy ego, or uphold the privilege of a particular tribe or class. On the local level, immoral leaders have deprived communities of funds for development, forced the adoption of ill-advised policies, and stirred ethnic or religious hatreds.

It would be difficult, given the historic record of venal, malevolent and self-serving leaders in all parts of the world, to say that the corruption of leadership is on the rise. It seems reasonable to suggest, however, that bad leadership has become more visible - an effect, perhaps, of advances in information technology, the rising influence of civil society, and the empowerment of people everywhere through better education.

This points to an important fact: we live in a new age, an age of transition from an old world order to a new one. Every day brings fresh evidence of the collapse of old ideas and institutions and the blossoming of new ones.

In response to the apparent rise of corrupt leadership worldwide, a number of groups and organizations have begun campaigns for greater transparency in decision-making, for strengthening the rule of law, for judicial independence and other democratic reforms.

Such efforts are much needed. Yet they are mainly palliative and fail to address the fundamental question: what is moral leadership in an age of global interdependence?

For an answer, we must probe the nature of morality itself. Bahá'ís understand that human beings have a dual nature. One side is centered on the material world. It is, simply put, concerned with basic physical need: survival, food, shelter, and creature comforts. The other aspect of human reality is its spiritual side. This aspect, which stems from our God-created rational human soul, engenders love, compassion, and altruism.

Without this fundamental understanding, many efforts to promote morality will fail as they become mired in contemporary ideas about the relativism of values, rationalized by forces of materialistic self-interest, or picked apart by partisan wrangling. However, a proper understanding of the human spiritual reality, which is increasingly confirmed by scientific discoveries, offers a well-illuminated path to leadership that is genuinely moral.

In ages past, our spiritual reality found expression in the call to love one's neighbor or submit to God's will. In today's world, it finds its mature expression in the concept of the oneness of humanity, the defining principle for our age of global integration and interdependence.

In concrete terms, this expands the notion of love for one's neighbor to the scale of the global village. It calls for a new type of leader, one that can be defined as a "moral" leader.

Again, we must contrast the old with the new. For too long, leadership has been understood - by both leaders and followers - as power and control over others. Leaders in this mode have tended to debilitate those whom they are supposed to serve. In order to exercise control, such leaders too often sought to over-centralize the decision-making process or coerce others into agreement. While they may appear to listen carefully, they actually aim to advance preconceived ideas and to dominate others. Various modes of leadership in this vein include autocracy, paternalism, and totalitarianism, as well as modes that employ the manipulation of mass media and various forms of "know-it-all expertism."

The new paradigm for leadership means that leaders today must be chiefly concerned with giving service to their community - rather than advancing their own ideas, careers or sense of privilege. (To put it another way, the primary characteristic of a moral leader must be "one who serves the community most" rather than "one who dominates the community most.") Their main obligation must be to the best interests of the whole, rather than to any particular party, ideology, tribe or corporation.

Other characteristics of moral leadership include a commitment to seeking the truth of a situation (rather than working from preestablished or partisan positions) before taking action, an emphasis on non-adversarial methods of decision-making, the ability to inspire and encourage constructive action at the grassroots of society, and a faculty to see "the end in the beginning" — in other words, the capacity for vision.

In general terms, moral leaders must embrace the progressive social ideas that stem from the principle of the oneness of humanity: they must express a commitment to human rights, possess an understanding of the tools necessary for promoting social cohesion and well-being, embrace unequivocally the equality of women and men, and dismiss completely any preferences based on race, ethnicity, religious belief or national origin.

The concept of the oneness of humanity will lead inevitably to questions about the role of political parties. Although political parties have had an historic role in promoting the interests of long-ignored constituencies and fostering fresh currents of thought, the new realities of our age, as well as changes in communications technology and organizational science, have made them increasingly redundant. Further, the negative aspects of partisanship - such as the tendency to promote particularistic interests over the good of the whole, the potential for influence buying, and the propensity to focus on winning the political fight instead of searching for truth - are increasingly the main output of partisanship.

Ultimately, then, it will be realized that partisanship is today mainly a force for disunity. And in our era of global integration, ecological interdependence and the presence of once unimaginable weapons of mass destruction, our chief goal must be unity.

Perhaps the most important characteristic in defining moral leadership is truthfulness. "Truthfulness is the foundation of all the virtues of the world of humanity," said 'Abdu'l-Bahá. "Without truthfulness, progress and success in all of the worlds of God are impossible for a soul. When this holy attribute is established in man, all the divine qualities will also become realized."

The problem today, of course, is to determine when leaders are sincere in their commitment to truth and when they are not - for all contemporary leaders pay homage to the ideal. In this regard, a proper understanding of the spiritual nature of reality is again helpful. As 'Abdu'l-Bahá indicates above, truthfulness stands at the root of other virtues. Elsewhere in the Bahá'í writings, we read that "… one's righteous deeds testify to the truth of one's words." We can understand that we must look for a single standard of conduct in both public and private life, and for actions in all endeavors that speak of moral sincerity.

We return, then, to the reality of the human soul and the fundamental purpose of our existence, which is to acquire spiritual virtues. As individuals progress spiritually, they will develop the capacity to distinguish virtuous deeds from false rhetoric.