Teaching The Moral Leader

In The Moral Leader course at Harvard Business School, students exchange their business management case studies to discuss some of the great protagonists in literature. Sandra Sucher discusses how we all can find our own definition of moral leadership.
by Sarah Jane Gilbert

What do Sir Thomas More, Chinua Achebe, and Sophocles have to offer today's business leaders? For MBA students in HBS professor Sandra Sucher's course, The Moral Leader, great literature helps them find their own definition of moral leadership.

Sucher is one of a number of HBS faculty who have taught the course. First introduced to HBS in the late 1980s by Harvard psychiatrist and educator Robert Coles, The Moral Leader uses literature to study moral decision-making and leadership. Individual faculty teach the course using their own unique curriculum.

Sucher recently published 2 books about the course: One is a textbook, The Moral Leader: Challenges, Tools, and Insights, that provides historical and social context for the works read in the course, as well as instructional materials.

The other is an instructor's guide, Teaching The Moral Leader: A Literature-Based Leadership Course, that includes practical details on how to facilitate the course, templates for grading class participation and the course paper, and conceptual overviews of topics such as how "morality" is defined in the course. "My goal is for instructors in a university or college, as well as those teaching leadership development programs (and even members of a leadership team inside a business), to feel confident in their ability to teach any of the class sessions, modules, or the entire course," Sucher explains.

We asked Sucher to discuss her history with The Moral Leader, how students respond, and the value of the topic in the business world.

Sarah Jane Gilbert: What led to your interest to develop and teach The Moral Leader course?

Sandra Sucher: My interest in the topic of moral leadership—the focus of The Moral Leader course—originated in my own experiences as an executive. I'm an HBS MBA myself (Class of 1976), and when I came to HBS I enrolled in an MBA/Doctoral program. But I had only worked in nonprofit organizations before school, so I left for what I thought would be a short stint in business before returning to my doctoral studies. That short stint ended up as a 25-year business career that included 10 years in fashion retailing; 12 years in mutual fund and brokerage financial services; serving as a director on nonprofit and corporate boards; and chairing the Better Business Bureau here in Boston.

One of the things I noticed, as so many of us in business do, is that some of the hardest leadership decisions are the ones that have moral or ethical stakes. For example, while on the board of a nonprofit, I was approached by an employee—a whistleblower—who accused the program director of manipulating the organization's books. The employee threatened to tell the media if the board didn't intervene. While it was clear who we could turn to for legal advice, and we had our own business sense to apply to the strategic and tactical implications of the situation, we also had to address matters that seemed decidedly moral or ethical.

“The lessons we take from the stories become part of us.”

How could we be fair to the accused director? How could we protect the complaining employee from retaliation during the investigation? What standards of proof should we use in making our determination about the director's guilt or innocence? Quite frankly, I wasn't sure how to approach the moral dimension of these decisions, or even how to talk with my colleagues about them. If there was such a concept as moral leadership, I certainly didn't know what it consisted of.

When I returned to HBS in 1998, I offered to be part of a volunteer faculty team that taught a short course for first-year MBAs on leadership, values, and decision-making. I reasoned that I would learn more about the questions that had troubled me by teaching the course. I became increasingly interested in practical questions of leadership and moral decision-making, so I was delighted when I was asked to develop and teach my own version of The Moral Leader.

Q: Tell us about your version of the course.

A: In my design, The Moral Leader is a 13-session seminar, an elective course taken by MBAs in their second year. The purpose of the course is for students to develop their own workable definition of moral leadership, a definition that they build during the course sessions and document, at the end, in a course paper.

Each class is dedicated to debating and drawing lessons from a powerful work of fiction, biography, autobiography, or history. The literature we read spans 2,000 years, covers 8 countries and all of the continents, and continually challenges students to expand their understanding of the world and their place, as future leaders, in it. Based on my own experience, the course has been designed to explore practical questions that help us understand the moral domain and where morality and leadership intersect: "What is the nature of a moral challenge?" "How do people 'reason morally'?" "How is moral leadership different from leadership of any other kind?"

Q: The course has a unique structure by incorporating learning through literature. What are the benefits of this integration?

A: One benefit derives from the literature itself. Through the novels, plays, short stories, and historical accounts students are brought much closer to life as it is really lived, certainly closer than in lecture learning and even closer than in a case discussion. That's because the authors lay out for us the full context of a situation: the fast friendships, bitter enmities, strong ambitions, and confused goals that the characters must navigate. This feels like reality to us—it's how we live and experience the complexity of our own lives. So through literature, the study of moral leadership becomes a very real hunt for clues for how to confront situations that we believe we could encounter ourselves.

A second benefit of working with literature is that we know what happens. Unlike a case, which always ends with an action question, "If you were Ms. X, what would you do?", in literature we get to see "the rest of the story." Because we are searching for examples of moral leadership, we want to understand the impact of characters' choices on the situation they found themselves in, and on themselves and others. Literature presents us with cause and effect, with action and result, and through the characters' stories we can learn about the dangers, or rewards, of acting in certain ways.

“Firms should be looking for some kind of reliable method for leaders to develop and refine their moral reasoning.”

A third benefit is that literature presents us with characters we care about. We don't necessarily like them all, and in fact some of the most powerful texts present characters who generate strong emotional reactions. We are puzzled, or enraged, or inspired, or feel desperately sorry for what happens to these characters, and through these emotions the characters live inside us, sometimes just for the length of time it takes to read and discuss their story, but often for much, much longer. That means that the lessons we take from the stories become part of us, a very deep and personal learning that helps students get closer to a goal that many bring to the course: to not just learn about moral leadership, but to prepare to exercise it in their own lives.

But the real power of the integration comes from the fact that students engage with the literature through active discussion and debate. The stories force students to consider and articulate their own moral positions, the judgments they make of the characters and their actions. Most of us treat our own moral views as both obvious and self-evident—the only reasonable response that could be taken. Students are continually surprised and amazed by how differently they each think about the characters' choices. They hear arguments and interpretations that cause them to challenge their own views. And by repeatedly going through a process of analysis, interpretation, judgment, and debate, they hone their skills in moral reasoning and their understanding of their own moral priorities.

Q: What novels, plays, biographies, or stories are used in the course? Do you have any favorite examples that show some of the challenges leaders face when confronted with moral issues?

A: I really like the story of Katharine Graham and what it can teach us about the need for leaders to cultivate a tolerance for ambiguity.

Most challenges that feature moral issues are not that clear-cut, and the situations they are embedded in can go on for quite a long time without resolution. Kay Graham, whose autobiography we read in part, faced such a challenge when she was publisher of the
Washington Post during the Watergate investigation. Coming hard upon the heels of her decision to brave the wrath of the Nixon administration and publish a series of articles based on the Pentagon Papers, Graham had earned quite a lot of moral credit with her reporters and editors through her decision to publish. So it probably seemed like a no-brainer to send 2 fairly junior reporters to follow up on the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate complex in Washington.

But that decision led to a 2-year hunt in which the Post was essentially alone in pursuing the connection between the break-in and the Nixon White House, an intricate trail of money and decisions that led, eventually, to Nixon himself. Graham was not deeply involved in the investigation; in fact, she met only once or twice with the reporters. But she defined her job as setting out and reinforcing the rules that the Post would follow in the investigation. These rules required vetting each of the news articles in a number of different ways to ensure that the truth they sought was pursued in a clean and above-board way. That's a pretty sophisticated view of moral leadership—setting the rules within which an organization pursues a moral task—and it flows from being comfortable enough with ambiguity to focus on the process of work as well as its goal.

Leaders also require a capacity for complexity. Most business challenges involve moral duties to many parties—shareholders, customers, employees, suppliers, even the public—and often these duties can conflict. What enables a leader to wend his way through such a situation is a capacity for complexity, the ability to hold multiple perspectives in view at the same time. In the course we read A Man for All Seasons, Robert Bolt's play about Sir Thomas More, who as chancellor of England faced such a multifaceted challenge when his king, Henry VIII, asked him to approve a divorce from Catherine of Aragon so he could marry Anne Boleyn.

There were many weighty issues at stake in the decision: Catherine had not provided the king with a male heir, and England was only a generation away from the crippling War of the Roses; everyone worried about what would happen if there was not a clear path to succession. At the same time, the Catholic Church had forbidden the divorce, so Henry decided to remove England from the church, establishing himself as supreme head of the Church of England (now the Anglican Church). More, however, was a devout believer and staunch supporter of the Catholic Church. He was also a brilliant lawyer and rested his rejection of the divorce not just on his religious beliefs, but also on the grounds that the immunity of the Catholic Church in England was granted in the Magna Carta and even in Henry's own coronation oath. A family man, More enjoyed his life and was a loving father and devoted husband. Finally, of course, Henry was not a man to be trifled with. More lived in dangerous times, and a stay in the Tower of London, if not execution, were possible outcomes of defying Henry's request.

In the play, More shows a commendable breadth of understanding and enormous flexibility as he uses all of the powers at his disposal to try to make good on these multiple duties and commitments. We see him flattering Henry; dodging direct questions; carefully examining various legal documents to determine what he could agree to and still stay consistent with his own beliefs; making copies of valuable documents; and even, at the end, stopping writing, all in an effort to be true to his king, his conscience, his understanding of the law, and his commitments to his family. So we are left with a pretty good example of what it looks like to try to make good on conflicting moral principles and duties to multiple constituencies.

A third story that resonates deeply with the moral challenges business leaders face is The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro, which is about an English butler, Stevens, and the decisions he makes while in service to his master, Lord Darlington, between the First and the Second World Wars. Stevens acts on a very stringent moral code that requires him to put the interests of his master before every other consideration. The novel is an exploration of the nature and limits of loyalty. A student once said, "That book hit me like a bullet between the eyes. I could see myself doing exactly what Stevens did—subordinating everything to my career and my bosses' interests. It was terrifying." Loyalty is something that we come to expect as leaders. Understanding what loyalty can look like from a subordinate's point of view is illuminating, helping us understand the choices that we ask our subordinates to make and the costs that loyalty may impose.

Q: What are some of the student discussions like? Are you ever surprised by their reactions?

A: One of my first surprises was how the students throw themselves into the discussions. The stories raise topics that aren't talked about elsewhere, and the students really seem to enjoy the intensity of the debates and the opportunity to figure out on the fly what they think about the variety of opinions that are voiced in class.

Each of the stories reliably evokes certain themes and issues. The lesson plans are designed to allow these themes and issues to be surfaced, and having refined the plans over many iterations of the course, they are a good reflection of the kinds of debates that nearly any group, reading that text, might have. For example, it would be very hard to read Sophocles' play Antigone and not discuss the "right versus right" moral challenge that emerges between Antigone and King Creon. Antigone wants to bury her brother, while the king has refused the burial because the brother was a traitor who led a violent civil war. Each position can be viewed as "moral." Antigone acts out of duty to the gods and her family, and Creon out of his duty as king to bring order and stability to his city.

I was surprised, however, by new interpretations that have crept into the discussion over time. Traditionally, students were quite supportive of Antigone's position, lambasting Creon for an "inhumane" decision about the burial. But some students began to equate Antigone's willingness to die for burying her brother as a very troubling form of religious fanaticism. And they began to show increasing sympathy for Creon's duties to create a stable state. These shifts in perspective are, in part, a reflection of the students' sense of the world they live in, and of the moral perspective they develop in response to that world. So the course (and each class) is a moving target, reflecting the individuals in the group and the broader environment that surrounds the discussions.

Q: How would a company benefit from educating their leaders on this subject?

A: Companies have a lot to gain. We all know that leaders need to make decisions that have moral and ethical stakes. The current debate about sustainability is a great example of how the context of business keeps evolving and presenting leaders with new challenges. Many of the toughest decisions will come as business leaders figure out how to respond to new regulations, taxes, or to cap and trade schemes, all enacted to control the buildup of greenhouse gases.

In addition to providing opportunities for quick-witted businesses to capitalize on these trends, these decisions have a decidedly moral flavor, involving tradeoffs between near-term infrastructure costs and long-term (possibly very long-term) benefits, and impacts that extend well beyond the traditional constituencies of the firm.

To meet these challenges, my advice would be to do something to help leaders move more comfortably in the moral domain. Firms should be looking for some kind of reliable method for leaders to develop and refine their moral reasoning. This course is one way, among others, to achieve that goal.

Q: What are you working on next?

A: In the course, we read a novel by Chinua Achebe called Things Fall Apart, which describes the reactions of an Ibo tribe in Nigeria to the coming of the Christian missionaries and British colonial authorities at the turn of the 20th century. The novel started me thinking about the "challenge of new principles"—what happens when one group of people are told by another that their views and beliefs are wrong and should change. Organizations manage individuals with an increasingly wide range of differences among them, both within and outside the firm. While these differences are not as stark as those in the novel, they are a significant source of tension, and with globalization, these tensions are becoming even more pronounced.

So I'm looking for ideas that may help us think about the management of differences in new and more productive ways. Part of my search will lead me to new literary sources that could help us have discussions about difference, and part of it will explore the realities of difference as it is experienced by individuals and by the leaders of organizations.

About the Author

Sarah Jane Gilbert is a content developer at Baker Library.