The Moral Component

When we are young, the world is an open book.

There is nothing like being 11 years old with a vivid imagination and absolutely no sense of barriers in life. Then adolescence hits, and we realize that there are some limitations.  Some people are more popular, cooler, smarter; some more troubled and broken. Others are destined for success, happiness or a life of hardship and toil.

Then the hard work of finding just how open and limitless one's opportunities are begins. It may start at 15 or at 21. It may not become important until we are 30 or even 45, and when we do, we realize that our life needs to count for something. When we discover, not just our interest or passion, but our purpose, our destiny, then life changes. Forever.

When we discover the difference our lives should make, our options are immediately reduced, narrowed, defined. We find out that life has limitations, all of a sudden, there is an end point, way out there, when we can say, "I'm done."  At least, that is what we think.

At some point, we may also discover that the pursuit of our destiny is more than just achieving something, more than simply a destination. There is something embedded in the middle of that pursuit that when we were young we could not see, maybe only feel. It was always there, but it wasn't clear to us. Then at some moment, a line is crossed, and we discover that there is a moral component to this quest to fulfill our destiny. We realize that it is no longer about just about destiny, but the journey that leads there.

This moral component is not some abstract, philosophical concept that stands as a branded idea for your life. There are plenty of people who brand their morality, wearing it on their shirt sleeve, and capitalizing on it by capitalizing it.  That is not the moral component that I see.

This moral component is something simple, deep, and intangible. It is the quality or rather the virtue that makes a difference in how we live out our purpose. It is something about who we are as individuals, about our life, work and impact.

Martin Luther King had that moral component. So did Mother Teresa, Mohandas Gandhi, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Abraham Lincoln. Each of them was their own person, standing strong as the world around them went a different direction. That is the strength that comes from the moral component.  It isn't ego that made them strong, though they probably had strong egos.

The moral component is something else. It transcends our circumstances, our place in history and the singular importance of us as individuals. It is that indelible quality that links us with others through time, and gives our destiny and purpose its meaning, and the reason our commitment and resilience matters.

Even if I live another 40 years, given my family's genetics, I see that I have now passed some indecipherable midpoint in my career.  My options are fewer now than they were just five years ago. I see it, and find peace in that. It makes things more simple, and to an extent clearer.

When you are young, there is anxiety about what your life will become, and the difference you'll make, and whether it will truly count in the end.  There are thousands of options, choices, directions to go in. Everyone tells you that you can do anything you want. However, in the back of your mind, you know it isn't true. You just want to know what that one thing is that is your destiny.

I no longer worry about that. I find that as life proceeds, the moral component grows in importance because at the end of life, it is that which is our true legacy. 

A friend said during a group conversation that he wanted his legacy to be that he was a good man, a good husband and father, and ran his business well.  The moral component for him was becoming more clear, and knowing him well, I see it in the life choices that he has made over the years. 

Philosophers and historians speak of the moral component in many ways. One of those is the difference between a naive and reflective view of history.

A naive perspective refers to a lack of self-consciousness about the values that inform our lives. There is a sense of not seeing it at all because it is so much a part of one's life, like breathing air or water to fish, we don't notice it.  There is an innocence about this approach. This experience of the moral component in life is such that we see it as continuous through time, across the generations and the foundation upon which we understand the meaning of life. It is unself-conscious because we do not hold these moral values in any objective sense. They are highly subjective and personal, quite possibly never defined in any specific sense. Yet they exist, and we tend to begin to see them when they are under threat.  They are who we are in a real sense, and this even more so as we consistently live them out in a purposeful, intentional way.

A reflective approach stands apart from the moral component, and attempts to view it objectively. Yet this is impossible in any pure, scientific sense because what brings us to this relationship with the moral component is awareness of the connection between the idea and our own lives. We become aware that we lacked objectivity in our formerly naive view of life.  We may speak of this change of perspective as a loss of innocence or coming of age or quite possibly of becoming a cynic. We experience a disjunction or disconnection between our values and the social and organizational environments where we live and work, and stand apart viewing the moral component, trying to understand how it fits in the situation we are in. 

The moral component viewed from these two perspectives is a very complex phenomenon in our lives. We may find that we want to be both naive and reflective at the same time. We want to believe in our values, seeing them as universal, transcending time, space and culture, the way life ought to be, bring purpose, peace and fulfillment.  We may see that these values are rarely lived to their fullest, that some of the greatest proponents of these values were crooks and charlatans, and that there are other philosophies or perspectives that are compelling and valid in their own right.

Where this leads for some people is to confusion and for some to an abandonment of their hope for fulfillment of their destiny. For others, they embrace the moral component as a guide to create a life of goodness and difference that matters.

The people I mentioned earlier are these people. They held to their values in a changing world where their values were not normative. We remember them as much for their courage as for the values they believed in.

As I have reflected upon this picture over the past few months, I began to see that the moral component of life and leadership matters in ways that have been lost. For many people, their naive view of the way leaders should behave and function in their roles has experienced a loss of innocence. With that loss has come cynicism. And what must come next, is a recovery of a more sober, realistic understanding of the moral component in leadership being that which brings credibility and respect to them.

Making a difference that matters, making our lives count, creating a legacy of leadership and goodness comes from recognizing and developing the moral component in our life and work.

This means that we are aware of the values that matter to us, and that we must live according to them. To stand when everyone else is running away or in cynical denial of their own loss of innocence is to live by a moral code than is more than a brand or an inspiring-idea-of-the-month. In the end, this is what separates the moralists from those who truly lead.  This is the legacy that is possible for us all if we choose.