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Moral Intelligence—a trait of a remarkable leader

Right and wrong taught as values remain the compass for decisions that define moral intelligence. Like in life, in business, too, a moral intelligence lapse leaves a hole in the company’s trust and value systems.

February 28, 2021 / 09:01 AM IST
Moral Intelligence is a lesser known leadership trait but is essential for a leader, actually for everyone.

Moral Intelligence is a lesser known leadership trait but is essential for a leader, actually for everyone.

Note to readers: Soch to Success is a weekly column to enhance critical thinking skills for you to achieve success. Each article is packed with insights, tools, and a roadmap to action.

During one of the summer holidays in our ancestral village, I remember a kid in the neighbourhood being reprimanded for stealing. His mother pleaded innocence and covered up for him. I don’t know who that child grew up to be but I do remember my father’s words. He had said, “A mother makes a thief.” Sounded odd at that time but I understood the words years later when I had to talk to my son who wasn’t even 5 to return a candy he had slyly picked up in a store. I remembered the words again recently when I had to take care of my teenager’s act of watching Netflix during online school hours. Mothers have a knack for understanding a child’s behaviour and they can either confront or cover up wrongdoing. Mothers become the first moral intelligence police for the child.

Right and wrong taught as values remain the compass for decisions that define moral intelligence. Moral intelligence was first developed as a concept in 2005 by Doug Lennick and Fred Kiel. They defined moral intelligence as “the mental capacity to determine how universal human principles should be applied to our values, goals, and actions”.

Michele Borba in her book Building Moral Intelligence: The Seven Essential Virtues that Teach Kids to Do the Right Thing defined seven essential virtues of moral intelligence as empathy, conscience, self-control, respect, kindness, tolerance and fairness.

Moral Intelligence is a lesser-known leadership trait but is an essential tool for a leader, actually for every person in the room not just the leader.


Watching Netflix during an online class is not a crime, nor are what may seem like minor trespasses of values in the course of business. Sometimes these small moves climax into a big one and backfire and sometimes a small harmless move comes on the radar of law and order. It doesn’t matter whether an unethical practice causes legal trouble, it definitely deviates the business and its processes from the path of competency.

If you are wondering, consider some of these headlines:

Rajat Gupta’s Lust for Zeros

Videocon loan case: Srikrishna panel indicts Chanda Kochhar; what we know so far

Big names. Bigger body of work. Yet, tarnished by what seems like deviation in moral intelligence. Some stories come out in the public domain. Some don’t. Yet, from time to time, leaders miss a step or two in moral intelligence. It leaves a hole not just in their lives but also in the company’s trust and value systems. Sometimes these small, unharmful yet unethical steps might look natural and acceptable in the value system. Like we have seen in the case of Harshad Mehta scam story, where many others were also following similar practices.


Moral Intelligence is not rocket science but it is helpful to understand how it is defined by researchers. Lennick and Kiel say that the construct of moral intelligence consists of integrity, responsibility, forgiveness and compassion:

Integrity: It is a) acting consistently with principles, values, and beliefs, b) telling the truth, c) standing up for what is right, and d) keeping a promise

Responsibility: Its three competencies are a) taking personal responsibility, b) admitting mistakes and failures, and c) embracing responsibility for serving others (RH Clarken, 2009).

Forgiveness: It involves a) letting go of one’s own mistakes and b) letting go of others’ mistakes (Clarken, 2009).

Compassion: It is actively caring about others (Clarken, 2009).

Moral intelligence is separate from emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence is about understanding and controlling one’s feelings and reactions. In today’s Habits for Thinking, we discuss how carrying the knowledge of moral intelligence impacts leadership style.

The advantages of building moral intelligence:

A compass for decision-making

Moral intelligence, though, spoken less about as a leadership trait is central to leadership. The beauty of this intelligence is that it can be acquired by practice but this is a compass that needs to be the true north.

The roadmap for purpose

Bringing the purpose, individual or a business purpose, depends on the moral roadmap. Moral intelligence paves the roadmap for continuing on the mission of purpose. It is the guide for why we do things and how we do things.

The competitive edge

How many times have you been told that your team has earned the business because your team’s integrity stood over competitors? We may be technologically enabled but business relations are based on human relations. The moral intelligence of an effective leader makes way for everyone in the business. A leader’s moral intelligence defines the right processes and functionality at the core of the business.

A tool for ethical design

We are governed by privacy policies. That is the law. But there is no law to suggest that as a brand when or how many times can you call the customer? In another example, leaders who are employing artificial intelligence have to make several ethical decisions. The more we are driven by technology, more we will have to be morally conscious and intelligent to drive technology.

The responsible influencer

I wonder had Elon Musk not tweeted about GameStop, would fewer Redditors have suffered losses? I have no scientific way to prove it but there is a possibility that Musk’s tweet would have influenced some more retail investors to jump in the GameStop saga, resulting in both gains and losses for individuals.

Moral intelligence is not just for people with a large following on social media platforms, it is with anybody who has influence over people around them.

Moral Intelligence is not just a responsibility towards a team or a business. It is also a responsibility towards the community, our work communities, our social communities and the members of that community.

This Saturday will mark 65 nights in judicial custody for Partho Dasgupta* (BARC case). At some point, maybe in months or years, the judiciary will define whether Dasgupta had a lapse of moral intelligence.

Events around us teach us lessons and make us reflect. As a member of the community, one can reflect on their moral intelligence to see if they have been able to forgive and yet be compassionate enough to offer help.

When a community comes together morally, it forgives and extends help. The compass for moral intelligence towards a community could be the one like this popular social kindness quote, “We are all just walking each other home.”

Business leaders need to become mothers as they practice moral intelligence. They must remember, a mother teaches her child by not just preaching but by practising. She doesn't say only “be kind”. She says, “let us be kinder today.”

*The author is a former colleague of Partho Dasgupta. She worked with him from 2005-09.

(Vishakha Singh, author of a forward-thinking course SHIFT, is a business strategist & a design thinking practitioner. She writes at, offering insights into the ever-changing business environment.) 


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Vishakha Singh is an author of a forward-thinking course SHIFT, is a business strategist & a design thinking practitioner. She writes at, offering insights into the ever-changing business environment.
first published: Feb 27, 2021 08:08 am
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