The Moral Center

In a recent lecture at Temple Anshe Amunim in Pittsfield MA, “Eyewitness to Power: Leadership in America,” David Gergen said, “every organization needs a moral center.” Gergen, who is a senior political analyst for CNN and Professor of Public Service at the Harvard Kennedy School, and who served as a White House advisor to Presidents Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Clinton, continued to say that the President should provide a moral center. Unfortunately, both he and many of our national leaders are failing to do so.

 It is hard for me to contemplate the current state of national affairs without thinking of William Butler Yeats’s poem, “The Second Coming.”  


Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

Perhaps the lack of national leadership makes demonstrating a moral center even more important at the local level. I have been at colleges that worked hard to develop a set of values that would inform their vision, mission and strategic plan. But a moral center needs to be more than a printed list or a poster on the wall. Leaders must be prepared to struggle with unforeseen dilemmas and make painful decisions. They must act morally and demand the same from their constituents.

A friend was recently contemplating applying for a position that would have supervised HR but doubted that she wanted to deal with the stress at this point in her career. I had just received news that a former employee had died and recalled how difficult it had been to terminate her employment when all her paid and unpaid leave was exhausted.  It went against the value of compassion I shared with the institution and the college’s perception of itself as “a family.” But there was no way to make an exception without committing to the same option for any other employee in similar circumstances. This would have been hard to justify at a time when costs were spiraling and we were trying to keep the employee share down by cutting benefits. Did the value of fairness take precedence?

On a much larger stage, employees at Google recently took their leaders to task when they felt the actions of the company betrayed its values.

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When Google was named by Comparably as the tech company with the best corporate culture, 13 members of the Forbes Technology Council cited their reasons why it deserved the ranking. These included shared values, trust and “radical candor.” Perhaps it was these very values that empowered employees to write a letter questioning Google’s alleged work with the government of China that would enable it to censor search results. “Currently,” said the letter, “we do not have the information required to make ethically-informed decisions about our work, our projects and our employment.” This employee driven action followed a similar grievance last April, when several thousand employees spoke out against Google’s involvement with the Pentagon on a project that could have led to weaponizing AI. Not all employees agreed. Do two of Google’s potentially antithetical core values, doing no evil and profitability, create a moral dilemma for the company?

Google employees clearly feel that they own the company’s moral center and will not tolerate lapses. How many of us can say the same about our organizations?

Barbara Viniar3 Comments