The Morality Map for Leaders

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Corporate gives us safe spaces, the world gives us Hamas. One reason so many companies are stumbling is they’re built for Ted Lasso, but operate in Black Mirror. And too many leaders are promising morality, when all they can deliver is moral relativism. The Morality Map can help leaders bridge this gap — to reframe the three imperatives of business and their tricky overlaps.

I advise Fortune 500 executives and entrepreneurs on future scenarios and innovation opportunities. In the last few years, I’ve noticed an alarming chasm between what the world is really like and what we’re allowed to discuss. Every conversation is laced with landmines. What’s unspoken, alone, could topple a brand. Ask Anheuser-Busch or Victoria’s Secret. So, real conversations are forced behind closed doors, while employees and customers get theater. To thrive, life and Broadway must converge. Not only will these forbidden ideas be my theme in future posts, keynotes, newsletters, and podcasts (links below), but let’s kick things off with: morality is a luxury in a world of finite resources.

Countries, companies and individual operate in a gerrymandered blotch spanning what’s moral, legal, and profitable. As always, the devil lies in the overlaps.

1. Profitable

So much we could do if profit was our only goal! Sell guns to MS-13, steal tourist kidneys, mint magic coins while on Adderall in the Bahamas. This is the domain of criminals and fallen VC darlings.

But even world leaders sometimes live in this space. From his MAGA slogan to declaring “We’re keeping the oil” in Syria, President Trump may be one of the few leaders to communicate what is profitable for America comes first, even if it’s illegal (Syria is a sovereign country). Mind you, we’ve invaded plenty of other sovereign countries, but the messaging never matched. It was always righteous and moralistic. This consistency, whatever you think of it, was part of Trump’s appeal to his supporters.

2. Moral

No one’s going broke on pure morality. But as organized faith declines, we haven’t found another vessel to deliver morals and values. So, we’re improvising…with secular faiths. (I explored this in The Future is BELIEF)

Unfortunately, this moral crisis is now a recruiting crisis, corrupting campuses, corporations, and major institutions. I’ll dedicate a future post and podcast to this.

Compare Joe Biden’s words for Ukraine and Israel to Trump’s:

“We cannot and will not let terrorists like Hamas and tyrants like Putin win…I refuse to let that happen.”
— Joe Biden, 2023

“[This is a] battle between democracy and autocracy”
— Joe Biden, 2022 on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine

Or George Bush’s response to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait:

“This will not stand.”
— George H.W. Bush

Both allude to an inherent morality and righteousness. But when Joe Biden failed to get the public support he needed, he transitioned to communicating profitability:

“Making sure Israel and Ukraine succeed is vital for America’s national security…It’s a smart investment that’s going to pay dividends for American security for generations [and] help us keep American troops out of harm’s way.”
— Joe Biden

3. Legal

Surprisingly, people still conflate morality with legality. They are loosely correlated. The most egregious example is slavery. It was legal for a long time, but now universally reviled. Conversely, there are things that may be moral, but not legal, like euthanasia for someone with terminal suffering.

Few leaders willingly communicate on purely legal terms, unless they are up on charges — or trying to justify a controversial action. This is the domain of crisis PR.

4. Amoral (Profitable+Legal)

Food and pharma industries spend billions advertising addictive drugs and sugar-laced foods. The US is by far the most medicated and diabetic nation on earth. All legal. But moral?

Amorality is where corporations naturally gravitate, operationally. It’s a byproduct of the diffusion of responsibility as companies grow. But communications are often wildly mismatched with reality. A common tactic is “wokewashing”, when companies coat amoral offerings with moralistic language or a superficial embrace of trendy social issues. Those who care about those issues see and reject the hypocrisy. While others might reject the underlying politics. It’s a dual-hazard in terms of communication. One that tanked Bud Light and Victoria’s Secret.

5. Illegal (Profitable+Moral)

Uber launched in numerous cities where there were licensed taxi cartels. Cartels keep prices artificially high by keeping competitors out. So it is moral to offer a better product for less. Uber paid drivers well and consumers saved (at least until VC money ran out). The company made a strategic decision to ask for forgiveness, not permission, knowing they’d have to fight governments in court.

The communications around this were mostly defensive, but banked heavily on the public’s love of Uber’s service. Politicians felt pressured not to take away a popular service from their constituents, some of whom relied on it for income.

6. Obligatory (Moral+Legal)

Whatever you think of the social justice movements of 2020, they ushered a new morality into corporations with DEI. Companies found themselves having all kinds of unfamiliar-and uncomfortable-conversations. But by 2023, the economy slowed and DEI was deemed a distraction. Many pulled the plug.

Recent origins of this can be traced back to Starbucks’ 2017 “Race Together” campaign, where customers were to discuss race relations with their barista. Instead of, you know, getting coffee.

Here’s Starbucks CEO Howard Schulz making the case for this failed endeavor. It is a case study on the risks of detaching moral and legal obligations from your interests.

7. Reciprocal (Moral+Legal+Profitable)

This is where most of us want to live, but can only afford a weekend bungalow. Take Apple, for example, which promised to decarbonize its supply chain by 2030. That’s great (presuming you trust the current carbon credit system). But it doesn’t take a genius to see Apple still glues in batteries, offers no expandable memory, and makes its phones from slippery, brittle glass. These are conscious choices to shorten the life of its products…and possibly, the planet. So their #7 is offset by a solid #4.

Whether it’s Tim Cook saving the planet or Joe Biden saving Ukraine, leaders will find it harder than ever to deploy moral absolutes. It’s too easy to spot the hypocrisy and breed cynicism.

“Why are we helping X, but ignoring the genocide in Y?”

“Why do you have a pride logo here, but none in Bahrain?”

We might not agree on values or priorities, but we can all agree that no one works for free — and resources are finite. There’s humility in promising to do the very best we can, within the limits of our shared interests.

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Provocative predictions & prescriptions on where innovation, economics & culture will take us. Fearless. Funny.