Immoral, amoral and moral leadership?

I inadvertently excited my prof., Marty Linsky, this morning. I had read the course material – notably three chapters in a book co-authored by Marty (together with Ronald A. Heifetz) – and whilst I benefitted from a number of valuable insights, I couldn’t entirely agree with the underlying assumption. The subtitle of the book hints at the problem: Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading. Leadership is dangerous for those doing the leading. Staying a leader is what counts. Losing leadership foolhardily is – well, foolhardy. Avoid foolhardiness and you can continue to lead and retaining leadership is the most important consideration because leadership is a good thing and if you retain leadership then you can continue to … lead. Now, I am the first to argue that leadership is frequently a public good, but surely not always and perhaps not even mostly. And I just couldn’t agree that all leadership is intrinsically good. One of Linsky’s own arguments, for example, is that false clarity wins over honest confusion every time (because people crave clarity and continuity in their leaders). So I tried to argue that the ethical dimension was also necessary. There was, I ventured, a trichotomy of immoral, amoral and moral leadership. (In the absence of such an ethical or normative motivation, leadership would, it seemed to me be primarily amoral leadership – coincidentally of precisely the sort so well portrayed by Jeremy Irons in Margin Call.) Marty feistily swatted my semantic distinction aside on the pretty reasonable grounds that everybody in the room was a moral leader because otherwise they would not have come to the Kennedy School to improve themselves. Fair dos.


  1. Russell Zehtab-Noghiu


    Sound like an interesting discussion, and I personally like and tend to agree with your trichotomy. The counter argument however is a slippery slope. Determining motivation is rather difficult. While it is a noble thought that everyone would take leadership classes to improve themselves, I could think of many other much less noble motivations. How many questionable leaders have graduated from top schools? Yes, immoral, amoral and moral leadership, they all exist – and yes, motivation is key…..and with regards to leadership literature and discourse, we need to work harder to understand human motivation and make a case for motivations of the nobler kind.

    Russell @

  2. Martin

    I couldn’t agree more, Russell. There’s too much false clarity and amoral leadership around at the moment.

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