Thought Leadership

Moral Toughness: How Leaders Develop the Strength and Endurance to Do the Right Thing

The concept is familiar to anyone who’s ever tried to launch a business, weather a downturn, master a sport or recover from injury. It's mental toughness—the discipline and tenacity to stick with an effort until a goal is achieved or a level of performance is reached. However, what about those times when it’s not just about endurance, when the challenge is to decide what’s fair and equitable?

According to Professor Brooke Vuckovic, developing that same resilience can help leaders build a decision-making skill set and determine the right thing to do in a difficult situation. She calls it moral toughness, and it can provide crucial guidance when navigating the kind of ethical labyrinth presented by the current pandemic—or any crisis.

“In a crisis, the short-term focus of moral leadership is the immediate demands of caring for their teams, their customers and their community,” said Vuckovic, who teaches in such Kellogg Executive Education programs as Leading for Impact within Family Enterprise, The Leader Within and the Enterprise Leadership Program, and who recently explored the issue of moral leadership in an earlier Executive Education article. “Over the long term, when the effects of crises persist for months or even years, and when new moral issues such as reckonings on racism or persistent and increasingly visible social-economic divides arise, leaders need a distinct set of skills to clarify and express their positions on these pressing issues. For a leader to say that “business is business” is not enough. The role of organizations in the overall health of the society are under the microscope.”

While such a role is normally under the purview of the C-suite, all leaders in a given organization must understand where potential crises may arise, and they need to have a grasp of where they stand on the issues so that they can face them, Vuckovic said. And they need to understand that they’re in it for the long haul.

How do leaders prepare for unknown moral challenges, especially when some of those challenges will be very complex? Vuckovic outlines four key areas which make up Moral Toughness:

  • Stability: Put a stake in the ground. Leaders must find their solid ground to seek clarity and, from that position, make decisions and resolutely take action in the world. Grounding is an essential starting place for a leader faced with long-term complex situations--a deadly pandemic, deep recession and a reckoning with racism certainly qualify. This means asserting core values, knowing who you are and what you stand for, seeking larger meaning within the situation and discerning the boundaries of one’s integrity.

  • Reflection on Stability

    • How skilled are you at finding your center amidst turbulence?
    • How fluidly can you articulate the values that may drive your actions in the world as a leader?
    • And now, consider: what are your best resources to find stability? Examples include personal faith practices, meditation, written reflection and exercise or yoga.

  • Fluidity: Though it’s counter intuitive, given how quickly situations can change in the midst of moral complexity, the second attribute of moral toughness, fluidity, requires that we adopt a posture of responsiveness and flexibility. Digging in one’s heels can be counterproductive at best and damaging at worst. Moral conscientiousness means that we seek to listen and learn even when new information seems unsettling. We allow for a change of opinion and course of action based on new data, solid reasoning, and thereby provide better leadership day-by-day, adapting quickly.

  • Reflection on Fluidity

    • How fluid are you in responding to moral complexity or chaos as the situation evolves?
    • When do you dig in, and when are you able to remain open to doing the next-best thing and learn from it?

  • Community: Connect and converse. The morally tough have strong connections that will enhance their capacity for stability and fluidity. Community allows us to lead others and also adapt in response to their concerns. Being mindful of our limitations and the boundaries of our influence and insights, we can balance this by consistently reaching out to other leaders to understand their perspectives.

  • Reflection on Community

    • How connected are you to others during turbulent times? Do you have a community where you can be truly vulnerable as a leader? Rate yourself here on a scale of one to five.
    • What are the communities that provide you with the most support?
    • In what ways have you extended yourself to others, or how have you been vulnerable in ways that you may not have previously?

  • Long Term Commitment: Finally, with all these skills, play for the long game. With most upending events, there’s plenty of care and concern at the onset, but they dwindle dramatically, and the media moves on to other matters. Morally tough leaders demonstrate resolve and commitment to consistent progress over time — even when others have moved on. Truly complex issues, such as racial justice or the appropriate balancing of health and economic concerns take time, attention and consistent commitment as the situation will continue to evolve over time.

  • Final Reflection on Moral Toughness

    • What aspects of moral toughness do you already possess (stability, fluidity, community, long-term commitment)? How might you grow?
    • What are your next actions to take?

Unfortunately, Vuckovic said, the vexing moral issues leaders face resist any and all “quick win” solutions. Instead, leaders must commit to building their moral toughness and resilience through devoted practice. “As is the case for our minds and bodies, our moral fiber expands our contracts according to how frequently we use it. As new challenges arise, practicing stability, fluidity, community and a long term mindset allows us to adapt and act with perhaps the highest measure of leadership over time: wisdom.”

Previously: Moral Leadership: What’s Important in the Midst of Crisis

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  Leading for Impact within Family Enterprise
  The Leader Within
  Enterprise Leadership Program


Dr. Brooke Vuckovic teaches leadership coaching to Kellogg's full-time MBA students and has co-developed coaching programs for multiple Executive Education programs. In addition to being the Academic Director for Leading for Impact within Family Enterprise, The Leader Within and the Enterprise Leadership Program. Dr. Vuckovic teaches in many of the leadership programs offered through Kellogg Executive Education and the Center for Nonprofit Management. Outside of Kellogg, Dr. Vuckovic has an executive coaching practice working with senior executives.

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