Leadership at a Time of Transition and Turbulence - Lecture Three

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"Where is the moral basis of leadership, where is its moral spirit, in the age of globalisation and the digital revolution?"

The final part in a series of lectures and discussions to examine the challenges of leadership at a time of financial and geo-political dislocation.

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Leadership at a Time of Transition and Turbulence

Conversation Five:

Moral Leadership in a Wikiworld

Professor Kenneth Costa



Good evening ladies and gentlemen. Thank you very much for coming to the last contribution in this series on Leadership at a Time of Transition and Turbulence.

In the preceding lectures and conversations I and my guests, General Lord Dannatt and Sir Peter Sutherland, have explored the case for leadership today and the kind of leadership best suited to a tumultuous era.

Tonight I would like to pull together the essential threads of the discussion by addressing the question: What is the moral basis of leadership, where is its moral spirit, in the age of globalisation and the digital revolution?

The matter is not abstract. The Arab Spring has posed the questions of leadership and responsibility sharply.  The part played by Facebook, Twitter and associated digital channels in the Middle East’s upheavals has shaped a new context for leadership. We have seen movements which are participatory, transparent and trust peers more than traditional authority.  

These movements have been called leaderless, so spontaneous and diffuse have they appeared. Their ideas and inspiration are plucked from many sources and, in the nature of the digital world, are often treated less critically than they should be. I call this Wikimorality.

We are clearly on the verge of something new. This new world, often generically called a Wikiworld, is inimical to command and control, hierarchy and authority by assertion of right.  We should not mourn their passing. But nor should we assume that in the Wikiworld human beings will undergo a miraculous conversion to saintliness.

In a nutshell, therefore, my thesis is:

First, that there is such a thing as morality. Good and bad behaviour towards our fellow human beings really do exist.  Nearly all societies for most of human history have shared certain fundamental and irreducible values about what constitutes right and wrong behaviour.

Second, that leadership must be legitimate.  Without legitimacy, a leader is unlikely to be followed for long or achieve lasting results. To command legitimacy and freely given support leaders must do what is right. Success – in politics, business or culture – is not enough to make you legitimate. The leader’s strategy and behaviour must be seen to be morally admirable.

And third, whatever the power of the digital revolution, I do not believe it will result in leadership becoming redundant.  The Wikiworld will not be a happy hunting ground for anarchists. I will argue that leadership in an increasingly globalised world – globalised not just commercially, but culturally, politically and in many other ways – will be more legitimate and more effective if it is based on shared values derived from deep-seated moral norms than on a Wikimorality which is nothing more than the shifting sands of lazy relativism.  The type of leadership which best meets the criteria of morality and legitimacy in the modern, globalised, connected world of relentless innovation is stewardship. The leader as servant is the leader who will have genuine authority and success rather than just being in command.

Understanding and articulating the fundamental shared values to which I have referred – recovering them from deep inside our collective consciousness – gives energy to a new moral dialogue. Such values should be part of normal life, the moral grammar for public discourse, inspiring a moral spirit which guides our relations with each other and, critically, ourselves. We should not be embarrassed about asserting right and wrong, hesitant in the face of a relativism which was unknown to our ancestors until recent times.

Ordinary people must wrench the discussion away from the clutches of the interest groups to whom it has been shuffled off: clergy, academic philosophers, secularists, moral commentators, television hosts and the rest – the ghettos of Thought for Today and the Moral Maze.  We must liberate morality from the professionals and make it the prerogative of the people. Morality is too important to be left to the bishops.

Yet there is little purpose save the academic and virtuous in discussing the moral basis of leadership unless it is put into practical effect.  That requires broad public debate, understanding and support. Indeed, that is the only sensible basis for action in a Wikiworld. I believe, therefore, that we need to reinvigorate our language, even the very concepts, of right and wrong for everyday purposes – not to preach but to furnish us with a grammar, a framework, for distinguishing the responsible from the reprehensible, the decent from the dreadful. The public must own the discussion – and the decisions which flow from it. There can be no moral leadership if only the leaders define morality.

For, paradoxically perhaps, the great opportunity the Wikiworld presents us with is to rediscover our moral spirit for ourselves, in free communion with our peers. Through the articulation and practice of that moral spirit we can integrate the moral, financial and spiritual aspects of our lives to give voice to our full humanity.

Religion is important to understanding the nature of this transformation from a moral discourse of the professional and the leader to a genuine public discourse and morality. I am a Christian, but I am not making a specifically Christian point. Religion at its most noble, of whatever faith, urges us all to live in a moral way. The injunction can be compared with what pre-Christian thinkers such as the ancient Greeks called the “good life”. Significantly, what they meant was very different from today’s “dolce vita”! One hallmark of leadership in all the great faiths is moral courage, the strength to turn minds to something better than the casual consensus, to focus on the practicalities of the good life.

As the King James Bible puts it: “Faith without works is dead”. (James ii:20)

Putting the moral back in discourse

Ladies and gentlemen, allow me at this point to step back a little. Morality has not been part of everyday public discourse for some considerable time. While the Victorians were not embarrassed by it, we are.

But our immediate context here is the financial crisis. The financial near-collapse of 2008 was a narrowly averted catastrophe which defines our era. The crisis shone a harsh light on commercial, regulatory and political leadership. As I have argued previously, neglecting the responsibilities which come with the search for profit, a perfectly moral undertaking in itself, led to a disastrous breakdown of trust. Without trust there is no community and no humanity.

We shall live with the consequences for years to come: higher taxes, lost output, deep suspicion of finance, a loss of confidence – in the west especially – in the future. People are poorer than they would probably otherwise have been. This is not just an economic point.  It is also a moral point. The value destruction running into trillions of dollars reversed the logic of profit: that it is the engine of a better future for millions who languish in inexcusable poverty. No wonder there is a prevailing sense that a great wrong was done, a wrong which many believe has been inadequately redressed.

To redress the wrong we need a far-reaching change in moral behaviour, especially in finance, both for its own sake and to preserve economic stability. For the failures we witnessed were not just the result of the moral imperfection of a handful of people. It was the temper of the times.  All this alone would demand a transition, what I defined in an earlier lecture as a move from one set of attitudes and practices to another.

This will not be easy. Over the last few months, we have seen political rupture, social rupture and ecological rupture on an unnerving scale and frequency. It seems inconceivable to think that what started as a local demonstration in Tunisia could have led to the downfall of two governments, international intervention in Libya and continued demonstrations and protest across the Arab world.

And the turbulence of our age has deeper roots than the financial crisis and political upheavals. Three big trends are worthy of note: the epochal shift in power from west to east; a sharpening contest of beliefs both between religions, for example Islam and Christianity, and between belief and secularism; and the accelerating pace of scientific and technological innovation. Establishing shared values, never a simple matter, is all the harder amid such confusion.

One response is what in this country has become known as the Big Society. The Big Society is about the intermediate groups in society – those between the individual or family and the state – taking on functions which the central state performs today. As the classic command and control western welfare state reaches the limits of its capacity, the digital revolution gives people ready access to information which was previously the preserve of the state and enables networks of like-minded people to pool their resources cheaply and effectively. The internet and social media have made it possible for a whisper of dissent to become the roar of revolution.

I will expand on this point in a minute, though I might add here, somewhat as an aside, that I am mindful of recent warnings about the danger of governments and big corporations abusing the internet. The technology which has helped to mobilise popular movements in the Middle East and elsewhere has also been used by the authorities against them. What is sauce to the protestor’s goose is sauce to the secret policeman’s gander.

The amount of data companies can gather about us from the internet is inherently invasive and disturbing. Some experts claim that they can predict with 90 percent accuracy from the pattern of our credit card spending the likelihood of our getting divorced!  The internet may not turn out to be the liberated zone earlier visionaries imagined it would automatically be.

In other words, the Wikiworld does not solve the problem of responsibility. When something goes wrong in the Wikiworld – as it will – blaming an amorphous digital network should not be an acceptable response. The Wikiworld cannot replace one kind of evasion of responsibility with another. Networks consist of people and the division of labour means that the buck has to stop somewhere. Responsibility rests with leaders. Making the transition from an unstable to a more stable state will thus require leadership.  So what do I mean by leadership?

Take me to your network

Leadership is not easy to define. Leadership falls firmly into the category of things which we all recognise but find hard to describe – love, truth, justice, an elephant.

But we can say this. Leaders usually have certain personal qualities: integrity, courage, decisiveness, persistence, ability to adjust, self-confidence, communication skills and so on. Luck and circumstance also help. It is hard to be a leader if you are not in the right place at the right time. In other words, leaders are not just born that way and leadership can be shown by all kinds of people in all kinds of situations, as the Chilean mine disaster and Japan’s nuclear disaster show.

Genuinely successful leaders seem to have two important traits in common. One is that they do not just bark orders. They carry people with them. The other is that leaders have a vision, they know how to persuade people to share that vision, and they know how to fulfil that vision. Leaders can get us to buy into something which is bigger than ourselves.

They can pull off this trick because of the nature of the bond with their followers. In the end, the followers must believe that the leader has their best interests at heart. The vision and the route to fulfilling it must chime with the followers’ understanding of their interests – even if that understanding can change on the journey.

But how does this work in a globalised world? We are really at the early stages of globalisation in its modern form.  I do not want to rehearse here all the arguments about globalisation – its scale, speed, causes, consequences, desirability. I will, however, make two broad observations which I hope are as uncontroversial as anything on this topic can be.

First, the world is becoming increasingly connected and integrated not just economically but politically, culturally and socially too. At the moment, crucially for my argument, there is no compelling reason to suppose that the process will halt or reverse in the foreseeable future.

Second, to the extent that we are forging a new world, we need leadership to do it.  But old-fashioned hierarchical leadership no longer works, as events in the Middle East prove. A host of trends is changing the balance of power between leaders and led. Modern society is too complex, people are better informed and educated, events are too fluid.  Digital technology has given people individually and collectively the power to challenge leaders in a way they never enjoyed before.

The prime source of that power is networking. We all know about the impact that social media and networking is having on our lives – personally, economically and even politically in some parts of the world. People are talking to each other all the time and everywhere, without reference to what those at the top think. Gone are the days when those in power (which is not necessarily the same things as being in authority) could command and control – telling voters, or employees, or consumers, or whoever, that this was good for them and that was bad for them irrespective of what they might think. People are choosing to trust their peers rather than authorities and finding community in social networking sites that are beyond the reach of government.

In the middle East, social media and technology have fuelled the uprisings, helping people to connect, organise and mobilise with unprecedented speed. The old broadcast model of one-to-many, epitomised by state TV and representing the tight control and propaganda of the authorities, has collapsed amid the birth of social media.

Let me cite three examples from the region.

In Egypt, there were 32,000 new Facebook groups and 14,000 pages created in two weeks after 25 January.

The Facebook page, “We are all Khaled Said”, honouring a young businessman allegedly beaten to death by police last ,was instrumental in organising Egypt’s uprising and has around 1 million followers.

The “Day of Rage” was started and co-ordinated on Twitter.

All this meant that social media did several important things in Egypt and Tunisia. It:

Organised and mobilised people very fast

Kept the momentum up

Helped to shape the narrative

Put pressure on the international community.

Locals were in doubt about the part social media played. Wael Ghonim is head of marketing for Google Middle East and North Africa and a cyber activist who emerged as a leader of the anti-government protests in Egypt. He said: “Without Facebook, without Twitter, without Google, this would have never happened.”

He might sound self-serving. After all, he is a marketing man. But outsiders agreed with Ghonim. Alec Ross, Hilary Clinton’s senior adviser for innovations, said that the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia were notable for their lack of recognizable leaders and social media made this possible. He also said: “The Che Guevara of the 21st Century is the network. It no longer takes a single charismatic revolutionary figure to inspire and organise the masses. Rather in the digital age, leadership can be far more distributed and that’s something we clearly saw in Tunisia and Egypt.”

Research recently published by the think tank Theos shows that social media are fast changing the way we engage politically. For example, the Theos research found that as many people have “started, followed or supported a campaign using social media (e.g. Facebook, Twitter)” as have “contacted a politician” in the last 12 months.

Moreover, younger people are driving this trend. This is no surprise, but the extent to which young people have embraced social media is highly significant. Nearly a quarter of 18-24 year olds have used social media as a means of protest in the last twelve months, compared with only 8% of over 55s. Nearly half of all 18-24s would consider using social media compared with less than a sixth of over 65s. In other words, the potential for further expansion in the use of social media is considerable.

What these young people and others are doing is challenging cultural and social hierarchies as well as political ones.  Take advertising.  The impact of traditional advertising is declining. People are more cynical and resistant to the messages from big companies and brands. They resent being marketed to and prefer to rely on the recommendations and expertise of their peers, which the internet and social networking sites have made possible. With Facebook updates and tweets, people are doing their own advertising, recommending a new product, restaurant or holiday destination.

The success of Tripadvisor, the travel website, is predicated on people trusting fellow travellers more than they trust travel agents, tour operators or hotels. They prefer to book a holiday on the basis of a good rating by their peers than on marketing spiel from hotels or booking agents.

Businesses have begun to see this trend emerging and some of the canny ones have been quick to adapt.  Zopa is an online service which enables people to borrow and lend money directly to each other, cutting out the banks and the middlemen. Another online business, Buzzbnk, aims to connect investors directly with social entrepreneurs, thereby cutting out traditional sources of finance such as banks and venture capitalists.

Mumsnet is a website for mothers run by mothers, offering an online community where people are able to connect and chat about issues relating to motherhood and family life. It has seen phenomenal success, with upwards of 1 million visitors a month to the site. The reason for its success? Mothers prefer to trust the wisdom of fellow mothers than health professionals or experts and now the internet has made this possible on a global scale.

Many are rejecting traditional authority and the rule of experts. Authority is now derived from ourselves and our emerging online communities. The writer A.S.Byatt has gone so far as to say that Facebook and Twitter are the new religion. She argues that in a post-Christian culture, as she see it, all we are left with is ourselves and that social networking is a way of defining a sense of ourselves.  A new era is emerging where people trust each other enough to form alternative viral communities which may begin to rival established institutions.

This is a very important development in democracy. It has given impetus to ideas such as the wisdom of crowds. Unfortunately, peers are not necessarily right and the wisdom of crowds can become the folly of crowd behaviour. We should also guard against technological determinism.  Revolutions are hardly new. They break out because people have simply come to the end of their tether – not because they can chat to other dissidents on Facebook. In the Middle East, social media did not cause the protests. They have deep roots in years of incompetence, repression, exclusion and corruption.

And as I warned at the beginning, we should not fall for the propaganda of the high priests of the digital revolution. All technologies can be subverted and corrupted by vested interests. Digital technology is no exception. The Great Fire Wall of China shows that a determined state can still try to keep its citizens in the dark. The technology which protestors use to organise opposition to a regime can also lead the secret police to them, as has happened in Iran, to cite one instance. The anarchistic idealism of early internet pioneers, who saw the net as free and open to all, has faded as commercial interests have laid claim to content and access.

The key point is that social networks allow us to talk to one another directly instead of through structures controlled by those in power. And if you are in power that is worrying – unless you are prepared to contemplate a kind of leadership which runs with the grain of the contemporary world. What kind of leadership ought we to consider then?

Seeking the legitimate leader

I shall begin to answer the question with an observation. Successful leadership depends on shared values. Leaders and followers will end up going their different ways if they do not share a common moral underpinning. Leadership fit for the twenty-first century, globalised world will be no different.

Where can we search for such values? The basis of my idea of moral leadership is simply that there is such a thing as morality, that good and bad really exist. They are not random ideas thrown up by our psyche or evolutionary development. They are not just personal opinions that we can shape and mould as suits the mood of the moment. We can accept or reject them. We can question and investigate them. But they will not disappear. They are the moral equivalent of the universe: they just are.

True leadership in this time of transition and turbulence and rapid globalisation needs to recognise this and act on it. Perhaps the greatest strength of this idea is that it crosses ideological boundaries. It is an idea that you can embrace whether you are religious or non-religious, Christian or non-Christian. It does not compel you to take sides with one of the many competing schools of moral thinking.

The great literary scholar and Christian apologist CS Lewis put this very powerfully in his book The Abolition of Man which ends with a long list of examples from a huge range of very different traditions around the world.

So for example, he quotes examples from the Bible, from the Hindu scriptures, from Old Norse legends, from Ancient Egyptian moral codes, from the Chinese Analects of Confucius, from Babylonian laws, from Greek and Roman philosophers. All lay down certain moral fundamentals: forbid murder, insist on duties to children, parents and elders, exhort people to honesty, mercy and beneficence, and tell people to treat others as they would be treated themselves – the so-called Golden Rule, which will be familiar to those of you who have followed these lectures. Morality could be found everywhere, and even though it often wore different cultural clothes, it was the same animal underneath.

This thinking is not limited to Christians or even to religion. Consider the more recent example of Ronald Dworkin, the eminent philosopher of law. In his recent delightfully-named book, Justice for Hedgehogs, he tries to unite morality and ethics, or in other words examines how it is possible to argue that being moral (treating others well) is the best way of being ethical (making one’s own life a good one). Dworkin is not a religious man – indeed he rejects religious answers to this question outright – but nonetheless he argues that there are moral principles about living well which are objectively true and not just matters of opinion or collective sentiment. Morality, like gravity, just is – whether or not we pay attention to it.

Or take the philosopher AC Grayling. He is a humanist and atheist. But he too has taken up the cudgels against the tradition of philosophical scepticism which maintains that there are no objective morals and that they are just products of sentiment. In Grayling’ writings, for example, down to earth issues such as human rights or the legalisation of drugs are moral ones.


Anthropologists tell us that most societies for most of time have had certain very real institutions or rites of passage in common: marriage, worship, burial, family groups, protection of the weak and dispensing justice, to name a few. These institutions are the practical expression of what is considered just or moral. To live well is not an abstract exhortation.

It cannot be sloughed off: morality is real whether you are doing business in Shanghai or San Paolo, Lagos or London. And if you seek to be a leader, and especially a business leader, in these culturally different contexts you need to recognise and act on that – if, that is, you want your leadership to be legitimate.

The texts and histories of the world’s great religions are littered with warriors, tyrants, deceivers, seducers, bullies. All manner of bad leadership is there. But a true leader, as I have said, is certainly not one who bullies and dragoons their staff into following him. Nor is it even someone who simply has a track record of delivering the goods – economic growth, for example, or electoral success. That may mean a leader is reliable and successful. But it does not necessarily mean he is legitimate.

A truly legitimate leader has that successful track record but has achieved it through moral leadership – through strategy and behaviour that others can see to be morally admirable. Looking back on the texts and histories of religions, we can see a common theme of good leadership: the primacy of service. The leaders who really deserve praise, and are thought to be effective, honestly strive to meet their followers’ interests.

There is an innate morality to service. It recognises the need of the other without seeking to exploit that need.  It does not eschew power, but uses it humbly. Its purpose is not subservience but mutual reinforcement. It treats people as means and not ends. People must feel they matter instead of being instruments for some end – wealth, glory, power – which a leader imposes on them irrespective of their interests. Service is a shared value all understand, respect – and need.

Taking all this together with our reflections on the characteristics of leaders, I think a pattern is emerging here. The kind of leader best suited to our time of transition and turbulence – indeed, best suited to the digital twenty-first century – is the steward leader.

The steward leader is a servant of his or her followers. He or she meets their needs, develops people to bring out the best in them, encourages self-expression by others, facilitates followers’ personal growth, listens and builds a sense of community. The servant leader’s most important trait is stewardship. This where service finds its highest expression. The leader as steward keeps in good order for the future assets placed in his or her charge. The steward leader conforms to the Biblical model of the good steward.

Stewardship is also a powerful idea because it meets the demands of the times. In financial terms, it is about creating long-term value rather than short-term gain. In ecological terms, it is about protecting rather than degrading our planet. In political terms, it is about trusting people rather than command and control.  In technological terms, it is about harnessing the digital revolution for community empowerment rather than central hoarding of information.  In cultural terms, it is liberating the spirit rather than limiting it. In pure leadership terms, it is about service rather than power. In ethical terms it is about accepting the responsibilities that go with rights rather than just exercising the rights.

The contrast with so much pre-crash leadership could hardly be starker. But the true power of the leader as steward is the moral basis on which it rests. I believe that moral basis is the capacity of the steward leader, by virtue of the qualities I have described, to do what is right.  By doing right I mean acting to the best of his or her abilities in the interests of the followers. In commerce the “followers” include shareholders, employees and others whose fortunes are closely tied to the enterprise. They can also ultimately include what I have previously called the “silent partner”, the society at large on which a business depends and towards which it therefore has responsibilities. The consequences of ignoring the silent partner have recently become all too evident again in Ireland.  It is hard to imagine the financial crisis erupting had the industry’s leaders been good stewards. Stewardship expresses the moral spirit.

Following the moral spirit

Of course, trying to act in the best interests of the followers can be fraught. The qualities inherent in steward leadership – the principle of service – naturally propel the leader in that direction. But it may not be obvious where the best interests lie. Even where it is, disagreements are possible. And honest mistakes are inevitable. You cannot keep all of the people happy all of the time, yet the leader takes the blame.

This ancient paradox of leadership has become even more difficult in our age of digital participation. On the positive side, digital technology can help people to become involved and take a measure of ownership, which is a powerful and vital antidote to the alienating pressures of modern life. President Obama’s strategy of seeking mass donations to his election campaign made people feel they were involved and equally valued irrespective of whether they had given $5 or $5 million.

The retailer Asda has also cottoned on to the consumer clamour for more participation. It recently launched a range called “Chosen by You” which allowed consumers to vote for the products they wanted to see on the shelves. It was part of a wider trend the company called “democratic consumerism”, by which consumers were being brought into the heart of the business and allowed to help shape its direction.

On the negative side, however, we can see the dilemmas freedom of information throws up. Freedom of information is participation with a vengeance. Nothing challenges the powerful more than the truth. But it is also broadly agreed that some secrets should be kept. This tension, however, is being given an extra turn of the screw by OpenLeaks, which is due to be launched soon.  OpenLeaks claims it will provide an untraceable digital dropbox in which whistle blowers can safely deposit sensitive information they wish to make public. The twist is that the whistle blower can name the body to which he wants the information passed on. OpenLeaks is forming partnerships with news organisations and NGOs which the whistle blower can nominate as the recipient.

What digital participation underlines is the primacy of shared values such as those CS Lewis identified and called the moral law. These values dwell deep in the human psyche, nurtured by evolution, experience and belief. For this reason, some Christians and others call it “natural law”. Terminology aside, these principles are the wellspring of morality. They are the moral spirit in action. Following them makes for a good person and good life. And that is why they can be shared almost regardless of race, creed and culture.

Even more important, their source also renders them irreducible. The political philosopher Michael Sandel, a Harvard professor, put it this way in his 2009 BBC Reith lectures: “Moral values are incommensurable.” Moral values can be dissected, divided, debated. But, as with splitting the atom, at some point you reach an irreducible moral core no amount of rhetoric can explain away. It is the very opposite of Wikimorality.


Ladies and gentlemen, here lies the discreet strength of stewardship: you cannot unravel it, cherry pick the bits you like and discard the bits you don’t, say I’ll be a servant of the people today and they can be my slaves tomorrow. Stewardship is incommensurable.

The same cannot be said of today’s swirl of values. All too often they are thoroughly commensurable and judged to be of equal worth.  Even to judge is thought illiberal by some. The poet John Milton comes to mind. In Paradise Lost he describes in characteristically epic verse what happens in the absence of firm, shared values:

Chaos umpire sits,

And by decision more embroils the fray

By which he reigns: next him high arbiter

Chance governs all. (Paradise Lost book ii, l 907).

At the start of this lecture I talked about recovering a grammar, a framework, for distinguishing right from wrong.  That grammar is the enduring, effective values we actually have in common but have allowed to languish.  Service, the leader as steward, is the grammar in practical action. It is the yardstick by which values and behaviour should be measured. It is the spirit and practice of leadership in this still young century.

We can talk of service without embarrassment on the one hand or arrogance on the other because it is quintessentially noble. Service brings us together. United by the practice of, and respect for, service we can integrate the moral, spiritual and financial aspects of our lives and grow as humans. And in so doing we can vanquish Wikimorality.

Thank you very much.


© Kenneth Costa, Gresham College 2011

Professor Kenneth Costa

Professor Kenneth Costa

Mercers’ School Memorial Professor of Business

Professor Ken Costa is the former Chairman of Lazard International and is the Emeritus Gresham Professor of Commerce.

Ken Costa studied philosophy and law at...

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