I was watching the first round of the 2020 Democratic Presidential debates with friends recently, when one of them turned to ask me that fateful question:

“Which candidate do you like the most?”

It’s an innocent, simple, yet immensely complex question.

Particularly complex, because it leaves ample room for each of us to design our own criteria:

1. Is the candidate the most “likeable”? (aside: I happen to simultaneously think there’s a very fake, disingenuous, and largely bullsh*t media obsession with candidate “likability,” and the very real, deeply-ingrained social behavior we all consciously or subconsciously practice at some level of stereotyping and pattern-matching by appearance.)

2. Is the candidate the “smartest”?

3. Is the candidate the “best” leader?

So I thought I’d share my answer here with you too – by explaining the rating and ranking criteria I used to get to my answer. Being able to effectively evaluate the ethics, morality, and effectiveness of leaders is a critically important task that ultimately transcends politics and applies to most aspects of social and civic life.

Here’s my starter framework for this fundamental question: how do you assess a high-quality or great moral leader?

To me, it comes down to four foundational principles and how well the leader(s) we’re evaluating practices each one:

Moral Leadership Framework

Let’s work through each one:

1. Values – What’s the right thing to do?

Your value system as a leader informs what’s the “right” thing to do, which in turn should act as the fundamental logic or algorithm guiding your decision-making.

Everyone employs some variation of a value system to guide day-to-day decision-making.

Different leaders – and, by extension, people and groups – may have different value systems. We see value system conflict a lot in business and politics today when it comes to corporate regulation. Most people believe in a value system where’s it’s perfectly fine for a business to make and sell a product, hire employees, pay taxes, and conduct its business. But, if that corporation starts doing harmful things (like releasing hazardous, toxic chemicals into the neighborhood where it operates), laws should be used to stop that behavior, the same way laws deter individual people from physically hurting one another (and punish them if they don’t). Some people however – primarily a small yet powerful and typically wealthy minority – clearly disagree and hold different values.

Occasional moral dilemmas aside, I’m generally a fan of utilitarian values that maximize health, happiness, and well-being for the most people in a population or organization. Personally, I like moral leaders who care about the greater good and use their power to lift up and improve the lives of people who don’t have power.

But if you operate with a different value system, logically you’ll assess leaders differently than I do. By definition that’s how democracy operates.

2. Strategy – What’s the most effective thing to do?

Strategy, as I’ve written in the past, is an operating logic that can be used to achieve goals and solve problems. Strategy bridges the gap between what you aspire to be and what you go do. In other words, strategy is the logic layer that connects your values and your actions.

Product Strategy Framework

You may have excellent, principled values, but if you can’t translate those values into action then you’re a symbolic figure – but not an effective leader.

The best moral leaders get others to take collective action in support of shared values by developing (and relaying) an effective strategy.

3. Reality – What present and historical context are we operating in?

We could have a nice philosophical (or neurological) debate about objective reality (let’s please not), but, ultimately, successful moral leaders are closely in touch with public or communal reality. They make efforts to understand culture, context, history, and tradition. After all, culture itself is in many ways the collective manifestation of shared values. And historical timing always matters.

Knowing what people already value (and why) allows leaders to make better decisions about how to frame and communicate their values, understand what effective actions should be, and adapt to changing aspects of our present environment.

4. Empathy – What are the consequences of what needs to be done? Who will be impacted (and how)?

Empathy ties closely to understanding one’s reality (as well as the reality of others), and the best moral leaders are adept at seeing, feeling, and forecasting impacts and consequences. How will this new bill or law impact people’s livelihoods? How will this new company policy impact our culture? How could this small gesture or piece of communication be perceived by someone accessing it from a different perspective?

Empathy is the glue for building community and shared reality. It also provides the most sustainable long-term form of leadership, by sharing power democratically rather than grabbing and tightly holding it.

Ultimately, if there is such a thing as leadership “likability,” my view is it extends from a leader’s values, strategy, reality, and empathy – particularly their choice of values and capacity to operate with empathy.

That’s how I answer the question – by asking a different set of questions:

Which politician do I rate the highest across their values, strategy, reality, and empathy?

This way there’s certainly still personal bias in the selection process, but it’s much less about “who seems like they’d be cool to get a beer with” and more about actually being equipped to perform well in the role.

And you can ask the exact same questions about a CEO, manager, or any other type of leader.

That’s how I’m choosing candidates to endorse and support in 2019 and 2020.

And now you can too.

Moral Leadership Assessment Framework

(Feel free to adapt this to your desired candidate universe, preferred scoring methodology, use case, criteria, etc.)

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