Organizational Leaders Face Unique Moral Dilemmas

Employees are always trying to climb the rungs of the organizational ladder, often all the way to high-level executive, or even CEO. In preparation for this goal, professional development activities may include training in project management, people management, budget allocation, or public speaking. While this preparation is prudent, the subject of moral challenges facing leaders is rarely emphasized, yet it should be.

You might wonder why we should expect leaders to be more moral than people in general. However, a new management article (Emler, 2019) demonstrates seven moral challenges that are commonly faced by leaders, but rarely faced by non-leaders. This has implications for executive coaching programs and for selection and promotion processes.


The Temptations of Personal Gain

The article cites research showing that businesses such as shops and hotels lose far more to employee theft than customer theft. Therefore, these enterprises have invested in efforts to limit dishonesty of employees, such as more advanced supermarket checkout equipment that eliminates employee cash pilfering. 

However, at higher levels of an organization, these kinds of controls are harder to implement. The higher up someone is on the organizational ladder, the greater the amount of trust that is placed in the individual. This then gives the individual more opportunities for personal gain because he or she has more control over resources. When personal morality is no match for the temptation of personal gain, theft happens on a much grander scale.

The Attractions of Tyranny

Recent news headlines are filled with people in power using their positions to harass or abuse others. For example, a former head of a movie production company allegedly used his position to pursue sexual favors from women in exchange for roles in his films. Victims of those in such powerful positions are often unable to retaliate because they have so much to lose, or simply feel trapped by someone much more powerful than them. It is therefore crucial that powerful people refrain from using their positons or status to unduly influence those on lower rungs of the ladder. Moreover, ethically, dual relationships (e.g., simultaneously acting as supervisor and romantic partner) should be avoided as much as possible so as to maintain the integrity of the primary professional relationship.

Ensuring Justice

The article cites research suggesting that people care just as much about fair procedures as they do fair outcomes. Unfair treatment has been linked to lower morale and motivation, increased workplace aggression, and other harmful outcomes. These outcomes can easily lead to a decrease in organizational effectiveness. Therefore, it benefits leaders to enforce fair procedures in the workplace.

Pursuing a Moral Mandate

Different organizations differ in values and have different visions. Values can often be abstract concepts and so, the article posits, it is important for leaders to communicate the value-driven vision into goals with which employees can identify. The moral challenge here is that clarity about values can require focus and hard intellectual work in the face of a myriad of distractions.

The Risk of Mission Failure

Mission failure is a moral challenge because organizations have missions that must be carried out and not doing so poses significant consequences for those involved (e.g., employees or shareholders). Big decisions can often be unpopular and it is not uncommon for leaders to avoid making hard choices in order to remain popular.

According to the article, another way that mission failure is a moral challenge is that leaders often refuse to recognize the limits of their competence. This in turn has negative consequences as well. Therefore, leaders need qualities of humility and modesty to know their limits and avoid failure.

Avoiding Collateral Damage

The phrase “avoiding collateral damage” is largely self-explanatory. It is the moral duty of leaders to be vigilant about unintended consequences of their decisions and the organizational mission. This can reduce the risk of harm to employees and consumers.

“Doing Good”

The article provides a notable example of a leader “doing good.” After a January 1989 airplane crash killed 47 and injured 74, the airline’s chairman, Michael Bishop, immediately mobilized the organizational resources to support the bereaved and injured. This was a humanitarian act that went far beyond legal obligations.

“Doing good” is a moral challenge that is often hardest to meet because doing the right thing will often conflict with other pressing obligations.


Research has shown that people hold their leaders to high moral standards. However, research has also shown that power causes leaders to be more dishonest and hypocritical. In this light, the article explains that it is especially important for executive coaches to familiarize their clients with these seven moral challenges and emphasize that these challenges are not just hypothetical or occasionally occurring, but intrinsic to leadership.

However, the author also explains that there are some limitations to relying on coaching; Moral character is established by the early 20s, which limits the ability for later growth or change. Therefore, it may be best to focus on refining certain abilities such as clarity in values, appreciation for procedural fairness, and awareness of one’s strengths and limitations.

In terms of leader selection, potential followers may be best to judge a candidate’s integrity. Finally, for effective corporate governance, the author promotes a concrete separation of powers, with boards of directors being sufficiently independent of CEOs and retaining the capacity to remove immoral executives in a timely manner.


Emler, N (2019). Seven moral challenges of leadership. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 71(1), 32-46.