Leaders Without A True Compass Don’t Inspire Greatness

by Michael D. Hume, M.S.

When I was nineteen, I decided to take on a project I hoped would become an awesome best-selling book called “Morality In America’s Youth.” I was a rising-star Army journalist whose big aspiration was to become a non-Army journalist, and writing a meaningful book seemed like a good start. So I enlisted help from people my age (late teens and early twenties) from around the country, and got as far as cranking out a couple of now-embarrassing newsletters about the qualitative research I was going to conduct.

I got sidetracked by such things as getting out of the Army, getting married and starting a family, and beginning to earn something of a living… “Morality In America’s Youth” never got done – by me. So imagine my intrigue when I turned on the news the other day and saw pretty-much those exact words under the face of a pundit who was holding forth on a study done by some Notre Dame sociologists, who interviewed 230 18-to-23-year-olds about exactly that topic.

Read the researchers’ book – or the volumes written about it recently in the New York Times – if you want the details. But the upshot is this: as I had suspected thirty years ago, America’s youth have a changing sense of morality which continues to progress away from a standard set of moral rules (“values,” if you will) to a blend of individualism and relativism. In other words, as one of the study’s participants says, “I don’t really deal with right and wrong that often,” and when I do, as a young person in America, my sense of what’s right is what feels right, to me, at the time.

The effect of this is obvious. Doing the right thing continues to be a moving target. Something that was “wrong” when someone else did it some other time might not be as wrong when I do it now… and, in fact, it might even be right. If it feels right to me, it must be.

This is not new, of course. People grow up and have to learn, somehow, what is right and wrong. Then they have kids, and to varying degrees, they try to teach them the moral compass they learned. The kids, as they start to grow up, have to distance themselves from their parents, and one easy way is to challenge those values. As one writer to the New York Times said in response to a recent editorial about the morality study: “It’s not that we don’t have a shared vocabulary to address moral issues – we just don’t have theirs.”


Indeed. Does anyone have the exact values their parents had? Maybe. But it’s much more common to assume you should figure it out for yourself… and, as a society, over time, that common tendency has led to the progressive rise of moral relativism.

It starts by finding one thing in your parents’ (for lack of a better target) moral system which seems absurd, attacking it, and then asking yourself what else they must’ve been wrong about. Our art and literature are full of stories celebrating just this sort of adventure. One example: “Fiddler On The Roof,” a new musical from almost half-a-century ago. Young kids the age of my parents learned from “Fiddler” that rules were meant to be broken – this idea that you had to marry whomever the matchmaker hooked you up with was absurd. Within the show itself, once we find a way around that crazy rule, the notion that you have to marry someone your dad at least likes is also easy to dispense with. Finally, who says you even have to marry within your religion?

And that’s just the progression within the three hours of one silly musical comedy from 1965. Nowadays, of course, if it feels right to you, you can marry (figuratively, if not legally) anyone or anything.

The study apparently showed that today’s American youth still see murder and rape as pretty-much universally wrong, but not much else… including drunk driving, cheating on a school exam, or even cheating on a “significant other.” Those things might be wrong, but I guess it depends. And the researchers found that, alarmingly, most participants could not even describe a single true moral dilemma they’ve ever faced. They didn’t seem to know, really, what a moral dilemma might be.

Given all this, it’s small wonder to me that many of my young rising-star clients have struggled with how to be an inspirational leader. They are not immoral or “bad” people in any way… but, lacking any clear set of absolute personal values, they wouldn’t describe themselves as “good,” either. They are hard-working, and able to do everything from start a great business to advise high-powered clients and make an operation successful that otherwise wouldn’t be. But they aren’t inspiring. They aren’t even inspired.

If you want to be an inspirational leader, figure out your values. Sure, there might be exceptions… but the existence of very-rare exceptions shouldn’t destroy the need for the moral “rules” that separate good behavior from bad. And, to put it bluntly, you will never inspire greatness in anyone if you don’t have an obvious set of moral rules by which you consistently live.

If you’re a leader who wants to cling to your moral relativism, hey, knock yourself out. But if you’re placed in a leadership position, it’s what you are that will inspire the same attributes and behaviors in others. Relativist leaders “inspire” relativism. So don’t be surprised when your team decides they can’t actually make that lofty goal, because, after all, it doesn’t feel absolutely “right” to them.

Maybe some other goal. Maybe some other time. It just depends.


 Michael Hume is a speaker, writer, and consultant specializing in helping people maximize their potential and enjoy inspiring lives. As part of his inspirational leadership mission, he coaches executives and leaders in growing their personal sense of well-being through wealth creation and management, along with personal vitality.Those with an entrepreneurial spirit who want to make money “one less thing to worry about” can learn more about working with Michael at http://www.caym.tv/18812Anyone wanting to jump-start their vitality can browse through the best (and most travel-friendly) nutraceuticals on the market at http://shop.enivausa.com/239824Michael and his wife, Kathryn, divide their time between homes in California and Colorado. They are very proud of their offspring, who grew up to include a homemaker, a rock star, a service talent, and a television expert. Two grandchildren also warm their hearts! Visit Michael’s web site at http://michaelhume.net
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