Thursday, 4 August 2011

Courage & Leadership

A friend of mine, Kenn Butler, wrote recently in his newsletter that "New Zealanders do not, by & large, like having unpalatable facts placed in front of them" (Butler, 2011).

He went on to say that he felt our debate in this country is trending more towards personal attacks than answering arguments. We are becoming more emotive than rational when shaping our arguments.

Kenn said "generally I have found [people] tend to take a cue from their leader creating a situation where one becomes the subject of nasty attacks, not to mention the odd politically motivated whispering campaign. To doggedly stick to one[']s message & not respond to such attacks in kind involves a strand of moral courage which can be recognised".

Lawrence Kohlberg (1976) felt that there were three stages of moralisation. We start at level one as children at an ego-centric place, where we balance punishment and reward, and where we look for the payback to ourselves. Children and some adults are in this space. If we look at the type of emotive argument employed by the media, we can see clearly that our society is becoming more and more targeted towards level one.

We reach Kohlberg's level two when we conform to what others expect of us - conformity to "good boy-nice girl", where one earns approval by being "nice". This stage is also characterised by a "law and order" orientation, by doing our duty. Kohlberg felt that most adults were at this point.

Kohlberg's level three is where we impartially apply 'universal' standards of behaviour to resolve moral conflicts, where we balance self-interest with a concern for others and for the common good. Less than 20% of adults are at this stage. You need a very internal locus of control to be in this area, and may break laws that are unjust - such as Emily Pankhurst, Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Ghandi, Mother Theresa and Martin Luther King. This is the moral stage where people display uncommon courage by whistleblowing, acts of selflessness, or philanthropy when they have nothing to give.

However, it is not only having a strong personal sense of 'rightness'; it is also having the courage to stand up for that rightness. That's true leadership.

These are the leaders who have the courage to think for themselves, and encourage their followers to do the same, and to expand their understanding of moral issues. While I have mentioned some great ones, those leaders with level three morals are also the simple folk who unthinkingly enter a burning building to rescue a child; who gives their lunch to another because they are hungry; or who champions someone because they are being unjustly treated.

By the same token, people whose moral development have reached level three are usually better able to put aside personal attacks, because the issues they champion is not about them personally; it is about a higher, broader and deeper level of justice.

Perhaps if we considered the reaction to media attacks, we might gain more insight into the calibre of the person being attacked, and how well developed they are.

  • Butler, Kenn (2011). Week # 226: Certain things don't change. NZ: Author. Retrieved 14 June 2011 from
  • Kohlberg, Lawrence (1976). Moral Stages and Moralization: The Cognitive-Developmental Approach. In T. Lickona (Ed.), Moral development and behavior: Theory, research, and social issues (pp.31-53). USA: Holt, Rinehart & Winston

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