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Moral or intelligent?

Leaders are often judged by the extent to which they usher their organisation closer to its vision. The vision might reference share price, GDP per capita or dominance in a particular domain.

Increasingly there is an expectation that leaders also display a moral compass in respect of the path they take. Observers increasingly judge leaders on whether they have a sense of right or wrong. The Machiavellian adage ‘The end(s) justifies the means’ is not held in high esteem.

Moral tailorism

The problem is that right and wrong are social constructs, as is cheating. What is considered right varies in time and context. Different cultures value different things. It would be unwise to talk in terms of absolutes when it comes to morality. As such it is not useful in respect of assessing a leader’s performance.

Oi, you!

Consider a scenario where you are being goaded into a fight, as is a tradition in many inner city, town and village pubs in the UK around closing time. You raise your fists, implying Queensbury rules. UK pugilists well understand this, so it is likely that your provocateur will do the same. As you come closer, you side stomp his knee, thus rendering him unable to stand or fight. This is not in the rules. However you were not signing up for a boxing match, you simply wanted to get home unscathed.

It might be better to think of effectiveness, including leadership effectiveness, in terms of intelligence. This is not to be conflated with knowledge or education. Street smartness trumps certificates.

Greed is good?

But surely deceiving others / being greedy are neither good nor intelligent?

Imagine we have rewound the clock back to when our ancestors descended from the trees and realised that if they were to avoid lunch eating them, they would need to collaborate with other humans.

Back then, your ancestors, and mine, focused minute by minute on survival. They likely didn’t reflect on this (what’s my purpose? what’s my legacy? Pilates or Zumba? etc). They just had this feeling that staying alive was important. Thankfully, our ancestors were intelligent. We are the proof of that - they survived long enough to reproduce and raise the next generation, as did all their descendants.

What's best for nearly everybody?

Being intelligent means having the ability to:

· Sense what is happening around you (emotional intelligence)

· Decide what to do based on what you sense (cognitive intelligence)

· Act based on what you decide (physical intelligence).

Once we realised that we were more effective operating as a tribe we then had to think not only of our survival but that of the tribe. Thus we might sacrifice ourselves to save the tribe because if we didn’t, and the tribe survived, we would have the stigma associated with not being a team player, which in turn would lead to expulsion from the tribe. This would in effect be a death sentence.

Deception or greed that leads to the tribe losing resources would lead to a similar outcome. Though deception or greed that increased resources for the tribe might be seen as a virtue, particularly if they didn’t lead to intertribal strife.

So to some modern observers, ‘taking one for the team’ would be considered morally good. Though others would not see it that way as they consider life as sacred. Again morality is relative.

Berry the hatchet

The question arises as to what happens when your tribe and my tribe are pursuing the same resource. The berry bush capacity for only one tribe. Back then intelligence meant weighing up the risks and perhaps recognising you were likely to lose out in a fight, and potentially lose some of your most able people. So you went looking elsewhere. Today we might mask this with, ‘we took the moral high ground as fighting is uncouth’. In fact morals can be a sign of cowardice or weakness. It is easier to say that it is uncouth than to admit that you can’t fight.

Random bets of kindness

Today we regard kindness as a virtue. We are in fact wired to be kind because, as organic prediction engines, we know that not so long ago we could quite easily be that person in need. Thus an act of kindness is a hedge bet on the future. And so we behave in a manner that increases the chances of others being kind to us. Thus kindness is an act of intelligence. It feels good not because it is a moral act but because our body is rewarding us for being intelligent.

Stagnant intelligence?

Morality is, in many senses, intelligence codified. Religious and philosophical moral frameworks have their basis on what is good for their adherents. Cult leaders sometimes skew the framework so that they are the primary beneficiary.

But as mentioned intelligence in practice is context-sensitive. What was codified in a bygone era in a far-off land may no longer serve those who embrace it. Even if the cult, religious or political leader refreshed their morality framework, the chances are that a one size fits all (people, time and environment) model will always lag reality.

Intelligence is absolute. Ultimately intelligence is how we adapt to the environment we find ourselves in. We use our senses, often stimulated by external forces, to adapt (or not). If your survival or that of the tribe is the goal, you do not need to view this through a moral framework.

A new morality

We are back on the savanna. We are playing the infinite game in a fast moving and uncertain world. Moral frameworks, for all their value in maintaining social order, cannot keep up. Staying in the game is the priority not slavish adherence to an outdated moral code. But we need to do that in the context of us being social animals (and needing social order).

Thus I would advocate that we focus on intelligence rather than morality. You could say that intelligence is morality for a hyper-uncertain world. We need intelligent leaders. In fact we need everyone to be an intelligent leader.


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