“It is curious that physical courage should be so common in the world and moral courage so rare.”
– Mark Twain
Moral versus Political Leadership – is there a difference? Should there be a difference? I argue that there is.
Every political leader needs a hefty dose of morals and ethics, but it might not be enough to effect the kind of social upheaval that moral leaders can bring about.
My definition of a moral leader or authority is a person who recognizes a social problem, brought on by political, religious, financial or even climatic reasons and through an idealistic stand effects change. Often such people are respected for their work and character. They tend to have lots of empathy and understand the human condition. A political leader on the other hand is a person who is able to lead a community or nation, successfully navigating the web of human intrigue with vision and foresight. To me, they are two distinct roles. They may overlap but I think historically, moral leaders have made ineffective political leaders whereas political leaders often do not have the moral authority to pull off a massive social upheaval like the end of Apartheid.
In Stephen Covey’s book “7 Habits of Effective People”, he has a story that illustrates the difference between a leader and a manager. I am going to borrow that story and remix it to show the difference between political and moral leadership. Imagine a group of men who are supposed to cut a path through a thick jungle to reach a river. There is one guy who climbs up the tallest tree, looks ahead and screams, “That way!” He is the one who envisions the path to the river – the leader. Beneath him, are the men with machetes cutting through the foliage, some with saws, felling trees and branches. There are men preparing food, providing water, sharpening the machetes, oiling the saw blades and so on. Overseeing each group of men is a manger who makes sure each group is doing what it’s supposed to do. (Now to the meat of the remix). One of the workers is Mr M. He is very hardworking, warm and kind. He is the one the men go to with problems. He is the one who always has the good advice and a listening ear. Mr M notices that the men are not getting enough breaks, food or even water. Their machetes are old and blunt. The saws aren’t working. Injuries are neglected and overall morale is low. He has had to share his food several times with some of his co-workers and had personally taken care of injuries. Mr M mentions his concerns to a manager. He is blown off. He mentions it to a second manager. No reaction. He tries to climb up to talk to the leader. He is pulled down. He calls a meeting of all the workers. He tells them they are going to sit and do nothing until management listens to them. Due to his hard work and the respect the men have for him, they listen. The managers try to coerce the men to work. They do not budge. Soon the leader notices that work has ground to a halt. He climbs down to find out what is going on. He realizes the men are striking and that he has to deal with Mr M. They talk. The leader agrees to ensure better working conditions. Once most conditions are met, Mr M asks the men to go back to work. The leader has a chat with the managers and climbs back up to lead.
In this story, the man up high in the trees looking ahead to chart the way is the political leader. Mr M is the moral leader.
History has given us several moral leaders – Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Mandela are a few of the famous ones. From Nigeria, I think of Ken Saro-Wiwa who tried to fight for a clean environment in the Delta and got killed for it in 1995. I think of Vaclav Havel, who stood against the Communists in the then Czechoslovakia or even Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma. These are all people who recognized a social need and through a force of character and the respect they had through their deeds and words, effected peaceful change. Compare that to the change effected by Lincoln – the end of Slavery in the US. It came through a bitter Civil War that claimed 620 000 lives! By all accounts, Lincoln was a good political leader.
Moral leaders have a hard time transitioning to political leaders. I even argue that moral leaders should not transition to political leaders because they do not make very good political leaders. In another post, I pointed out that political leaders are compromised because politics by it’s very nature demands a give-and-take that can lead to concessions that infringe on one’s beliefs. Moral Authorities do not have that problem. Political leaders often do not deal in absolutes but have to weigh the relative merits of a situation. A superpower might have to prop up a dictator to ensure stability in a region of the world where there might otherwise be chaos. Such a decision goes against all ideals and might be difficult for a moral leader to make but will not be for a political leader.
Every society needs one of each. A strong political leader to lead a country onwards and a moral authority, who appeals constantly to the better version of men and women. I think the relative strengths of both should be respected and the desire to make a political leader out of a moral authority avoided. At the same time, a political leader should recognize his shortcomings and enlist the help of a moral leader for effecting important social changes.
Whatever the case, lack of any kind of leadership in any organization or society leads to chaos. Blessed is the society that has both a strong political leader and a moral authority whose words call for peace, justice, fairness and love for the fellow man or woman.