Leadership and efficiency without moral development – a dangerous too (#MoralLeadership)

Updated: May 8, 2020

One common question surrounding leadership is related to efficiency and effectiveness. Each paradigm explains effective and efficient leadership based on a set of assumptions: for psychodynamic approach, effective leadership and followership depend on participants operating in the adult ego stage (Northouse, 2013); in the situational approach, effective leadership and followership depend on the match between leader and follower under favorable styles and situations (Northouse, 2013; CPP, n.d.); in the power and influence model, efficiency is a function of power – the capacity to produce effects (House, 1984 as cited in Pennsylvania State University, 2014) – and effectiveness is measured through the influence exerted on followers (Bass, 1990 as cited in Pennsylvania State University, 2014).

To begin with, what exactly is efficiency and what exactly is effectiveness?

Efficiency is often defined as a ratio between the real capacity to produce something versus the potential to produce that same something (Merriam-Webster Dictionary, n.d). In physics, it is a measure between the output of a machine versus the stated potential of that machine. The higher the efficiency, the smaller the losses. Effectiveness, in turn, is a measure of how much something is able to produce a desired result (Oxford Dictionary, n.d.).

And here start our problems. How can we measure the leadership potential of a leader? Effectiveness of a leader, although not directly measured, seems possible to be measured through constructs and proper operationalization such as change in behaviors inside an organization through self-report, observational data, and even corporate results. Measuring leadership potential, though, seems easier said than done.

But let’s forget about efficiency for a moment and consider that the trait approach is utterly wrong; that is, that every human being has the very same potential to become or the tools to learn how to be an effective leader. That narrows down this discussion to effectiveness.

Throughout history several leaders have been remarkably effective; several of them have been extremely influential, changing attitudes, values, behaviors, and beliefs of their followers (Pennsylvania State University, 2014). They were able to produce unimaginable changes all around the world; they broke paradigms and set up new ones; they redefined roles and expectations. Examples of such leaders, compiled by Ranker (n.d.), enfold names such as Alexander The Great, Abraham Lincoln, Julius Ceasar, Mahatma Gandhi, Adolf Hitler, and Joseph Stalin among the top 50 most influential leaders of all times.

And here we have our second problem. Power without control is temerity; an invitation to recklessness, to court with danger, to make one’s rise other people’s fall. Control, though, is not dictatorship or fencing freedom. The best form of control is an individual’s moral development, knowing what is right and wrong vis-à-vis the right of other people in conjunction with his or her own.

Effectiveness should consider Gilligan’s (1982) and Kohlberg’s (1976) post-conventional stages of moral development; i.e. the respect and the consideration for all stakeholders’ interests and the utilization of universal ethical principles to solve dilemmas, serving the common good while respecting individual rights. Effective leaders are those who move away from external definitions to reach principled beliefs in a creative process to solve moral dilemmas (Graham, 1995).

The birth of authentic leadership – “a positive, optimistic, and fundamentally moral form of leadership” (Franklin, 2010, p. 4) – tries to link together the moral development, authenticity, and self-determination, the latter a set of autonomous behaviors that arise from intrinsic motivation (Deci & Ryan, 1995 as cited in Franklin, 2010), which in turn are based on clear values embraced and embedded by leaders.

And here we have our third problem. Having clear values that a leader embraces and embeds does not necessarily mean that such values are moral in nature. And this is an issue that authentic leadership research is trying to address (Franklin, 2010). The point is: pure effectiveness without a compass means little; it is empty and dangerous.

Who dares to doubt that Hitler and Stalin were effective leaders? They changed their times; they changed the beliefs, values, and attitudes of entire peoples; they broke paradigms and set up new ones. Were they right in the sense that they have respected universal principles such as justice, reciprocity, and equality of human rights (Kohlberg & Hersh, 1977)? I doubt anyone can make this argument just as I strongly believe that nobody can deny such leaders were effective.

It is time to stop pursuing the empty discussion of effectiveness and efficiency without a north; without a moral compass. If we accept leadership and followership to exist in a moral vacuum, we run the risk of perpetuating frauds and scandals for the sake of maximizing results at all costs. Pure efficiency discussions exist for machines, and yet people question themselves all the time about the purposes of machines – what will an effective machine be used for?

Humans and leaders are not machines from which we should extract the most until their full depletion. Humans are not viruses; leaders are not viruses.

Lincoln, one of the greatest leaders of all times (Ranker, n.d.), once said, “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man's character, give him power” (LeadershipNow, n.d.). He was probably right, for a leader with power and no moral compass is likely to be a loose cannon, no matter how effective she or he might be.


Franklin, R. S. (2010). Exploring the moral development and moral outcomes of authentic leaders. (Order No. 3425733, Regent University). ProQuest Dissertations and Theses, 221. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/759831738?accountid=13158. (759831738).

Gilligan, C. (1982). In a different voice: Psychological theory and women's development. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Graham, J. W. (1995). Leadership, moral development, and citizenship behavior. Business Ethics Quarterly, 5(1), 43-54.

Kohlberg, L. (1976). Moral stages and moralization: The cognitive-developmental approach. In T. Lickona (Ed.), Moral development and behavior : Theory, research and social issues, 31-53. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

Kohlberg, L., & Hersh, R. H. (1977). Moral development: A review of the theory. Theory into Practice, 16(2), 53-59. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/616289038?accountid=13158

Leadership Now (n.d.). Leading Thoughts. Retrieved from https://www.leadershipnow.com/characterquotes.html

Merriam-Webster Dictionary (n.d.). Efficiency. Retrieved from http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/efficiency

Northouse, P. G. (2013). Leadership: Theory and practice. Thousand Oaks: SAGE.

Oxford Dictionary (n.d.). Effectiveness. Retrieved from http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/effectiveness

Pennsylvania State University (2014). Leadership in work settings. Retrieved from https://courses.worldcampus.psu.edu/sp14/psych485/001/content/07_lesson/01_page.html

Purdue University (n.d.). Sampling and survey techniques. Retrieved from http://www.stat.purdue.edu/~jennings/stat522/notes/topic5.pdf

Ranker (n.d.). The Most Important Leaders in World History. Retrieved from http://www.ranker.com/crowdranked-list/the-most-important-leaders-in-world-history

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