5 Traits of Moral Leadership

What it Takes to Move the World: Five Traits of Moral Leaders

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Original post by Jacqueline Novogratz, founder and CEO of Acumen.



A young woman recently reminded me that I had told her a few years ago that the world wanted her to lead. She said she’d thought about that statement a long time: the idea of leadership felt uncomfortable, overly demanding, even a little arrogant or ostentatious.

“Sure,” she said, “I crave a life of purpose — but does that mean I have to be a leader?”

Maybe the language is off-putting at a time when we see too many “leaders” grasping for celebrity and power, using divisive language and preying on fear and insecurities rather than encouraging our better selves. At the same time, we cannot wait for leaders to save us.

Maybe it's time to admit that we are the leaders we are waiting for.

What if we shift from putting pressure on ourselves to lead to embracing the idea that each of us should cultivate leadership qualities that would enable us to contribute to healing the world’s broken heart? To live that way requires a moral compass, a grounding in the world as it is but also a vivid imagining of the world that can be. It requires living for something bigger than yourself and holding values in tension: accepting that human truth is rarely black and white. It means navigating seas of grey.

Moral leaders possess at least five key characteristics that enable them to be effective in a complex world. They tend to:

1) Commit to something bigger than themselves. 

As the world becomes more globally interconnected, choices expand, sometimes exponentially. It is not unusual for individuals to just drift along and end up with a lot of options, but not a lot of meaning. Those who make a commitment to an idea or to a community ironically find a sense of freedom. Archimedes famously said, “Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I will move the world.” When people make a commitment, solutions reveal themselves. As in Rilke’s notion of living the questionsmaking a commitment to something bigger than oneself enables a life of seeking and, ultimately, of living oneself into what it means to lead on behalf of others in ways that harness human capabilities — and thus, possibilities.

2) Cultivate moral imagination. 

It starts with the art of listening — the ability to put yourself into another’s shoes and build solutions from their perspective. Listening itself can be an act of generosity. You learn to communicate across lines of difference, and in the process, you develop a sense of your own identity as well as that of those around you. This entails work, to reflect on how you see yourself and also how others perceive you. You start to recognize the biases you hold that stop you from knowing others for their full humanity. Along the way, you develop the vision to imagine the world as it could be.

Think about Martin Luther King, Jr. in the 1960s as he stood in Washington, D.C., having listened to the needs and desires of African Americans. “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” True moral imagination can reveal shared aspirations and yearnings. King understood and communicated what each of us wants in our own deepest selves. In so doing, he moved the world.

3) Develop grit and persistence. 

Moral leaders reject the status quo. Doing so requires resilience. Sam Goldman, the co-founder of Acumen investee d.light, was living in a village in Niger when he witnessed a kerosene lantern tip and cause a major fire in his neighbor’s hut. At that moment he decided to commit to eradicating kerosene from the lives of the poor, and then found a partner, Ned Tozun, eager to pursue the same dream. Had they understood then that it would take years to understand the market, design the right products and build a viable company, they may never have even gotten started.

But the two co-founders stayed focused on their mission. They persisted, failing numerous times, always finding the tenacity to get back up again. As of today, d.light has brought affordable solar products to nearly 60 million people. It wouldn’t have happened without their dogged effort, grit and persistence.

4) Practice moral courage. 

The world needs more individuals willing to stand up for those unlike themselves — to stand with the poor or the vulnerable — though it can be difficult or uncomfortable and may seem to have no benefit for them. Many say they yearn to do the uncomfortable but that they lack the bravery, that the cost is too high. But if you refuse to leave your comfort zone, you should get out of the game.

I believe leaders learn courage. You become courageous by practicing courage. It starts with speaking your own truth, even if your lips are trembling. It includes speaking up for those who are not in the room when decisions are being made, ensuring that new programs or policies include those who too often are invisible. Innovation and change — especially for the vulnerable, the marginal, the poor — requires new ways of thinking, interacting and measuring. They take courage.

5) Believe. 

Moral leaders live with faith that life can improve and are willing to work to make it so. They remind themselves — and those around them — that the sun will rise after even the darkest night. Many integrate rituals into their lives, reminders that they are part of something bigger than themselves. One of Acumen Pakistan Fellows, Fahad Afridi, is a soft-spoken Pashtun who has seen too much violence in his community. When he touches his head to the ground in prayer, he says he is reminded to pause and feel gratitude for the earth, and for all we are given. He reminds himself of our human interconnectedness. It gives him resolve to do his work.

Other Acumen Fellows in that area of the world run schools despite enormous — and very real — security threats. They show up daily to provide not only education to the children in their communities but also to convey a sense of protection, though they know their powers are limited. They must find their own strength to enable these children to believe in a better world. They bring a hopefulness and, ultimately, a path to overcome despair. Freeing others to dare to believe in a better future requires a reservoir of belief — and, again, the moral courage to act on those beliefs.

Through this commitment to others, through working with moral imagination and courage, leaders ultimately clarify their own values and beliefs. They are grounded in love driven by justice.

The moral leaders of today recognize that we have an enormous opportunity — an opportunity no other generation has had — to extend the fundamental assumption that all are born equal to every human being on the planet. They are building new organizations and institutions, redefining success, and making life better not just for themselves but for people they may never meet, never know.

The world needs more of them. More of us. It needs every one of us to cultivate the habits and practices of moral leadership.

When you think of the leaders needed today, which qualities resonate? What other qualities are most important to cultivate in our children and in ourselves?



This is the third piece of a month-long series on what it takes to change the way the world tackles poverty and how we, as a society, can shift the narratives around the poor. Read the full series on Acumen Ideas.

Written by Jacqueline Novogratz 

Founder and CEO of @Acumen. Dedicated to changing the way the world tackles poverty. Learn more: www.acumenideas.com

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Nikol Chen (she/her)

Marketing & Design, Laidlaw Foundation

Hello! My name is Nikol and I look after the Laidlaw Scholars Network. I am originally from Kazakhstan and I studied Human Sciences at UCL. My final research explored the potential effects of design on patient wellbeing in hospitals, and I also took modules such as Ethnographic Documentary Filmmaking, Anthropology of the Built Environment, Art in the Public Sphere, and other less interesting-sounding things :) Drop me a line at nikol.chen@laidlawfoundation.com if you have any questions about the Network or just fancy a chat. Alternatively, you can use the teal chat bubble in the right bottom corner of your screen and I'll reply ASAP!

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