Is 21st Century Leadership Immoral?

We all seem to recognize the difference between right and wrong, although some are better at this than others.

What’s interesting about morality is that we, or at least some of us some of the time, allow it to constrain our behavior independently of the laws devised by our nation-states. Simple regard for other human beings is enough to constrain our behavior and such regard is at the core of any philosophical account of morality.

One of the most notable accounts of morality that has appeared in the history of western philosophical thought is Immanuel Kant’s Categorical Imperative. To this day Kant’s Categorical Imperative is a required element in any self-respecting ethics course.

Now the Categorical Imperative is a single principle which is thought to command us to act independently of our wants or desires. For example, the Categorical Imperative commands us to avoid lying and this command has normative force over us irrespective of whether we happen to like lying or lying is in our favor.

Kant’s Categorical Imperative is a principle of morality which serves to constrain the behavior of any morally inclined person. Morality is about allowing a principle which determines right and wrong to inform our behavior, that is the essence of being moral.

The Categorical Imperative has three, perhaps four, distinct formulations in Kant’s writings. In one of the formulations it reveals itself to be very interesting in relation to the dominant understandings of leadership. The formula I have in mind is known as the formula of humanity and it goes something like this: “act in such a way that you always treat humanity, either in yourself, or in the person of another, never merely as a means but always at the same time as an end.”

Kant’s philosophical justification for this formula and its relation to the other formulas is extensive and impressive. The fact that Kant has been so influential in ethics illustrates how intuitively appealing his ethical theory is. The formula of humanity strikes us as capturing something very important about morality.

I would like to draw attention a broad requirement that is entailed by this formula of the Categorical Imperative. One of the moral requirements this formula places on us is that we are never to treat humanity merely as a means.

By this is meant that humanity, or persons, are not mere tools to be used to accomplish our own ends. Moral behavior must recognise the fact that other persons have the capacity to select their own ends and to value things.

To treat them as a mere means is to treat them as if they did not have their own ends and did not themselves value things, it is to treat them as a shovel when they are a rational and conscious person who values things and has objectives of their own. We see here in Kant formula of humanity the requirement for other regard. To fully recognise and respect the value other persons have we are to at all times avoid treating them as a mere means. It is fundamentally immoral to treat another person as a mere means.

Now what is the usefulness of noting one of the duties that is placed upon us by Kant’s Categorical Imperative?

Why it is useful is that it appears as though the modern understanding of leadership is in fact immoral insofar as it violates this requirement of the formula of humanity.

To see that this is the case we can briefly survey the leadership landscape. Susan Ward, writing for about money defined leadership as “the art of motivating a group of people to act toward achieving a common goal.” She goes on to say: “In business, leadership is welded to performance . Those who are viewed as good leaders are those who increase their companies bottom line.” defines leadership as “the act of inspiring subordinates to perform and engage in achieving a goal.”

What these definitions of leadership, and most others besides them, share is the supposition that it is the leader’s job to get people to do something.

The leader is to have a goal in mind, a result that needs to be achieved, and is to enlist people to achieve the result for him/her. The leaders job is to achieve results through people. This is the understanding of leadership that has unfortunately wormed its way into accepted business lore.

It is significantly unfortunate that it has because it is fundamentally immoral.

These common understanding of leadership violates the formula of humanity, it would have us treating human beings as mere means. Built into the 21st century definition of leadership then is an understanding of human beings as tools, as mere means, to be used to achieve a goal. Any definition of leadership that makes achieving results the direct problem of the leader as this consequence and is thus fundamentally immoral.

Of course people who offer such definitions of leadership could object that they are not treating people as mere means, people are to be compensated, financially or in some other manner, for the work they put in to achieving results for the leader.

This objection is not at all convincing.

A lawn mower is nothing but a tool but we have to pay to own it and pay to maintain it. The problem with the common definitions of leadership is the intent of the leader. Why does the leader compensate his/her subordinates? Why does the leader have anything to do with his/her subordinates?

The answer to both questions: to achieve a result; the end is always the results the subordinates are the means. The subordinates can only ever be viewed as tools if the problem of the leader is to achieve results, compensation is just what is required to purchase and maintain them.

So the majority of definitions of leadership available today are fundamentally immoral. Does that mean leadership itself is fundamentally immoral? Of course not, it just means people have become confused about what leadership actually involves.

To see that this is the case we must have a look at the definition of leadership forwarded by Schuitema Associates. Whereas the definitions we looked at all took leadership to be a matter of achieving results through people, the correct definition seems to involve an inversion of this such that we have the following generic definition of leadership: “leadership is about achieving people through results.

This definition seems counter-intuitive but it is not. The inversion recognizes the fact that it is the subordinates who achieve the results, not the leader. I am consistently baffled that the people defining leadership as “achieving results through people” do not recognise the fundamental incongruity present in their statement.

Technically the leader isn’t achieving any results, it is the subordinates that are achieving the results.You would be better off defining leadership as “asking people to do something for you and hoping that they achieve the desired results.” Saying it like this more accurately describes the relation between the leader and the results.

Now of course a leader does have a role, even if his role is not to achieve results. The role of the leader is to enable the workers.

The job of the leader is in fact to care for and grow his subordinates. Care and growth is the only mandate of a good leader. The leader’s job is to produce excellent people whose job then is to produce the result. This is a fundamentally moral understanding of leadership as it recognizes our humanity and has us treating employees as ends and not as mere means.

I think it is important that we recognise the folly in understanding leadership as achieving results through people.

We need to bring morality back into our understanding of leadership, to do this is to recognise that leadership is about achieving people through results. Leadership is about cultivating human excellence in one-self and in those around you, it is not about getting people to do things in order to achieve a results.

To think of it as such is fundamentally immoral and is productive of social discord. It is important to change our understanding of leadership because our understanding of these critical concepts determines how we function within society and the organisations we work in.

This article originally appeared in It is reproduced with permission