Are Management and Leadership are Moral?

Leadership is about the creation and exercise of power in a social context, so they are by definition political practices. Leadership and management in an organisation are focussed on the moral question of identifying how the organisation can best use its resources to maximise return on costs or investment (whether for-profit/not-for-profit).

To mis-quote George Lakoff, “When a p̵o̵l̵i̵t̵i̵c̵a̵l̵ leader proposes a policy, [they] assume that the policy is right, not wrong or morally irrelevant” (p x, Moral Politics (3rd ed), 2016, The University of Chicago Press).

Theory X suggests that people require external motivation to be efficient and productive, whether by carrot or by stick: “people do things they don’t want to do in order to get rewards and avoid punishments” (Lakoff, p 368). That is an exercise of power that has a moral dimension, for example, one might think of Amazon’s approach to productivity in its warehouses, and is analogous to the “strict father” metaphorical view of the world. In this case, the question is framed as “how can we best motivate people to deliver value?”, and has the predicate “there is always a right (moral) way to do a job (ie. a way that maximises value), and every other way is the wrong way” (after Lakoff, p 366); these are “rules” for the organisation.

Lakoff highlights that this has a whole bunch of other predicates, for example “These rules must be able to be communicated perfectly, from the legitimate authority responsible for enforcement to the person under the obligation to follow them. There must be no variation in meaning between what is said and what is understood.” (Lakoff, p 368). This is necessary: unless the employee is clear as to what is the right way to do something, they cannot be (morally) punished for failing to do it in that way. The role of the manager therefore is to tell people not only what to do, but how to do it, classic command and control.

Theory Y believes that people are intrinsically motivated to be efficient and productive, and they benefit from appropriate resources and a supportive environment. This is analogous to the “nurturant parents” view of the world, and also a has a moral dimension. In this case, the question is framed as “how can we create an environment in which people can deliver value?”, and is predicated on the idea that the “right” way to do something will vary from situation to situation, and that with proper training and support, employees can identify the right way in a context, and thus contribute not only to productive value, but also to organisational knowledge value.

Theory Y also accepts that communication is imperfect, which is why it prefers conversations over contracts (to steal an idea from Agile). Therefore, the role of the manager in this case is to continuously engage with colleagues (vertical and horizontal) in order to effectively negotiate the best concept of value in a changing environment.

Lakoff suggests that about one in three of the population use the strict father metaphor exclusively (or almost exclusively), and another third rely on the nuturant parents model, so, without doing more research, it’s a safe assumption that similar ratios of managers will adhere to Theory X vs Theory Y. However, the remaining third aren’t “morally neutral” but a mix of of both ideas in different and mutually exclusive domains. And even a nuturant manager might well still use timesheets and the Bradford factor for managing attendance.

Thus, it follows that leadership and management activities are inherently moral activities.

Agile researcher, Agilist, software developer, doctoral student in business and management