Who Determines the Moral Standard of Leadership?

Adolf Hitler, leader of the National Socialists, emerges from the party’s Munich headquarters on December 5, 1931. Hitler predicted his Nazi party would one day control Germany.
Leadership is a buzz word that is often thrown around at schools, in business, on sports teams, in the media… In addition to meaning “a person who guides or directs a group” (Webster), it also assumes the person is ethically and morally sound. Today, a leader is expected to be a great role model and have a strong moral compass. But is that fair?
 In Harvard Business Review’s On Leadership they challenge this idea. The book mentions that a leader is simply somebody who has a following. A great leader is somebody who has a huge following. I can think of many unethical leaders that did an amazing job creating a huge following that forever impacted our world. Here is my top ten list (in no particular order):


  1. Kim Il Sung: Kim Il Sung started the Korean war during his dictatorship of North Korea from 1948 to 1972. During the war 3 million people died. After the war he attempted to align the North Koreans by brainwashing them, causing a famine, and using concentration camps – they say as many as 3.5 million Koreans died.
  2. Adolf Hitler: Adolf Hitler was Chancellor of Germany from 1933 until he died in 1945, becoming Germany’s Fuhrer. In his effort to make Germany a great country, he created the Holocaust, which would lead to World War II. Under his leadership he was responsible for killing over 11 million people himself, with his actions causing over 50 million deaths.
  3. Nero: Nero was the 5th emperor of Rome from 54 AD to 68 AD. It is believed he started the great fire of Rome that killed many of the Roman citizens. However, he blamed it on the Christians, which began his fight against and torture of them.
  4. Attila the Hun: Attila ruled the Huns from 434 to 453. He was able to expand the Hunnic Empire during a time when the Roman Empire had most of the power. He killed thousands of people, including eating 2 of his sons and killing his brother.
  5. Mao Zedong: Mao was the dictator of China from 1943 to 1976. In his efforts to make China a world superpower, he created the world’s greatest famine and genocide in history. There were well over 70 million deaths during Mao’s reign.
  6. Joseph Stalin: Stalin was the dictator of the Soviet Union from 1922 to 1953. He created a 30-year reign of violence, terror destruction, and murdering. Up to 60 million people died under his leadership as he fought to make the Soviet Union a strong, powerful country.
  7. Saddam Hussein: Saddam Hussein was the dictator of Iraq from 1979 to 2003. About 2 million people died under his leadership and his campaign of terror against the Kurds.
  8. Osama Bin Laden: Osama bin Laden lead the terrorist organization Al-Qaeda, most famous for the 9-11 attack on the World Trade Centers in New York. He was also responsible for multiple bombing attacks on United States Embassies across the world, as well as other bombing attacks. He instigated the War on Terror, which killed an additional 1.2 million people.
  9. Ivan the Terrible: Ivan was Tsar of Russia from 1533 to 1584. In his efforts to protect his land from “enemies,” he became obsessed with killing. In the Novgorod Massacre, he tortured 60,000 innocent people to death.
  10. Vlad Dracula: Most famous for inspiring the Dracula legend, during his 3-year reign as the prince of Wallachia he killed over 100,000 people (20% of Wallachia’s population).


With a list like that, how can we assume leadership requires a certain moral compass? And if it should, who is in charge of deciding what the line of morality is? Clearly the people on the list above believed what they were doing was for the better. In fact it was Hitler who said, “As a Christian I have no duty to allow myself to be cheated, but I have the duty to be a fighter for truth and justice.” With the influence of religions, gender, cultures, wars, and professions, whose perspective is qualified to make the judgement on which leader is considered “of moral standing?”


With such confusion around the topic of leadership, how do you become a strong leader at your company and in life? How do you keep from evolving into a man or woman that finds his place on the list above? Most of the time it isn’t a bad person who makes bad decisions. It is good people – great leaders even – that find themselves in bad situations because of the little decisions they made trying to navigate the grey areas of corporate values. A recent leader that comes to mind is Mark Hurd, former CEO of Hewlett-Packard. He did a fantastic job leading the company but made little mistakes that eventually turned into big problems. Mark quoted in a press release,


As the investigation progressed, I realized there were instances in which I did not live up to the standards and principles of trust, respect and integrity that I have espoused at HP and which have guided me throughout my career.”


Everybody is a leader – there is always somebody watching to see what we do when faced with challenges at work or in life. How do you decide what standards to make and keep? What do you do to ensure those are the guiding principles in your decisions, and how do you stay accountable to them?