Should Leaders be as Moral as Possible?

Reflecting on Authenticity using Ursula K. Le Guin’s Short Story
‘The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas’

Last year I began my thesis research by exploring the concept of authentic leadership. While I ended up abandoning this theoretical approach, the complexity of authenticity as a ‘way of being’ (both as ‘leader’ and ‘follower’) raised myriad questions for me regarding my own approach to ethical and moral decision-making.

At its core, ‘authenticity’ refers to “the degree of congruence between internal values and external expressions,” and, as such, is concerned with developing a deep awareness of one’s moral values and beliefs (Roberts, 2007, p. 329). Bill George and Peter Sims, the scholars who popularised authentic leadership in the early-2000s, argue that authentic leaders do not compromise their values, particularly in difficult situations. Rather, “authentic leaders use adversity to strengthen their values…[they] take the most difficult road and do not compromise [their] values” (McManus & Perruci, 2015, p. 220). Ultimately, being as moral as possible in all circumstances is the only ‘authentic’ choice.

However, making moral or ethical decisions is not always clear-cut, and making distinctions between right and wrong actions is often difficult, resulting in situations termed “ethical dilemmas.” Many of the hardest questions, in organisations and in life, are conflicts among multiple competing responsibilities (Badaracco, 2006). Based on my experience as an arts student, I want to explore this conundrum using a short story by Ursula K. Le Guin, asking and answering: ‘As a leader and follower, should I be as moral as possible, regardless of the circumstances?’

Why use stories to explore complex leadership questions? Using the humanities to study leadership is an emerging and important field of management research (Marturano, Wren & Harvey, 2013; Badaracco, 2006). Joseph L. Badaracco, a professor at Harvard Business School, contends that classic literature and fictional narratives provide valuable frameworks for examining ethical leadership, as stories not only heighten emotional engagement but encompass a more diverse range of ‘real-life’ circumstances than traditional, prosaic business case studies. In this way, literary analysis adds an important ‘human’ dimension to leadership development, since it is concerned with “trying to explore, make sense of, and capture something” about individuals’ and communities’ lives” (Marturano, et al., 2013, p. 2). Consequently, ‘The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas’ by Ursula K. Le Guin, with its complex postulations on moral dilemmas, choice and compromise, has the potential to help me develop “new ideas – about possibility, risk taking, and courage” (Simon, 2004, p. 101) in situations where there is no clear right or wrong moral answer. I will begin my analysis with a short summary of the story before reflecting on what it has taught me about my moral compass.

In ‘Omelas’ Le Guin invites the reader to envisage a utopian city, “bright-towered by the sea” (p. 902), a place of never-ending joy and happiness. But not all is as it seems. We are told that the prosperity and success of Omelas depends entirely upon the perpetual misery of a single child who is kept locked away in squalor beneath the city, where “it has become imbecile through fear, malnutrition, and neglect" (p. 904). Naked, covered in sores, and left to sit in its own filth, the child bears a horrifying burden – suffering for the sake of its fellow citizens. Sometimes the child begs for its freedom: "I will be good,” it cries, “Please let me out. I will be good” (p. 905). But even though every person in Omelas is aware of its existence, no one responds to its pleas. Many, however, have chosen to visit the child, and those who do so are invariably outraged and repelled:

They would like to do something for the child. But there is nothing they can do. If the child were brought up into the sunlight out of that vile place, if it were cleaned and fed and comforted, that would be a good thing indeed; but if it were done, in that day and hour all the prosperity and beauty and delight of Omelas would wither and be destroyed. Those are the terms. To exchange all the goodness and grace of every life in Omelas for that single small improvement: to throw away the happiness of thousands for the chance for the happiness of one: that would be to let guilt within the walls indeed (p. 905).

No one, then, chooses to sacrifice the good of the many for the good of the one. But they know that they, like the child, “are not free,” and this knowledge makes them more compassionate, more noble, and more gentle (p. 906). However, there are those who individually "opt out" from the “terrible justice of reality” (p. 905) and the uneasy moral compromise the citizens of Omelas have made with the child’s suffering. They leave the city, “they walk ahead into the darkness, and they do not come back” (p. 906).

On the surface, Le Guin’s dystopian narrative appears to be a critique of Western society’s tendency to adopt utilitarian approaches to ethical dilemmas, that is, choosing the greatest good for the greatest number (Wyman, 2012). When I first read ‘Omelas,’ I believed the ones who “walked away” were acting courageously by refusing to participate in the torturous treatment of the incarcerated child. By following their ‘authentic’ moral compass, they were ‘doing the right thing.’ The story appears then to pose a simple challenge: would you be among those who walk away?

But is taking a ‘moral stand’ by absolving responsibility and ‘walking away’ from a difficult situation the right thing to do? Wyman points out that “while the choice to walk away from the hideous bargain Le Guin puts forth may seem correct at first, a more careful reading suggests that Le Guin would elect to stay in Omelas, imperfect as it turns out to be” (Wyman, 2012). Abdicating responsibility for the child’s lot by leaving Omelas may be a good moral decision for the individual, but it not only fails to resolve the dilemma, it undermines the community, leaders and followers alike. Does that mean we should abandon the idea that good leaders (and followers) should have a reliable, strong, internal guide to right and wrong? This is a disturbing question because “we want leaders with moral clarity, who can guide and inspire organisations, especially in tough times” (Badaracco, 2006, p. 32). However, rather than offering a utilitarian excuse—the good of the many outweighs the good of the one—or encouraging individuals to ‘be as moral as possible’ by “walking away,” I conceive Le Guin as insisting on the development of a dynamic ethical system which is dependent upon all community members, existing and evolving as they work collaboratively to solve the problem.

This story resonated with me in a way no business ethics case study ever has before. Having been brought up with a strict moral code which emphasised, as George and Sims do, that you should never compromise your values, my moral compass was only suited to straightforward questions of right and wrong, so much so that I failed to see any alternatives for the people of Omelas. It has highlighted the need for me, as both a leader and follower, to work on developing a more flexible moral code that is as complex, varied, and as subtle as the situations in which I will find myself in the future. As Badaracco (2006) points out, this does not mean “abandoning basic values or adopting moral relativism” (p. 33), but in my quest for ‘authenticity,’ being willing to embrace a wider set of human values which will allow me to look beyond myself and my moral code to find better, more innovative solutions.

References – APA 6th Edition

Badaracco, J. L. (2006). Questions of character: Illuminating the heart of leadership through literature. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press.

Le Guin, U. K. (2003). The ones who walk away from omelas. In A. Charters, The story and its writer: An introduction to short fiction(6th ed., pp. 902-907). New York, NY: Bedford/St. Martins.

Marturano, A. J., Wren, T., & Harvey, M. (2013). The making of leadership and the humanities. Leadership and the Humanities, 1(1), 1-5.

McManus, R. M., & Perruci, G. (2015). Understanding leadership: An arts and humanities perspective. London, UK: Routledge.

Simon, L. (2009). William James’s lost souls in Ursula Le Guin’s utopia. Philosphy and Literature, 28(1), 89-102.

Wyman, S. (2012). Reading through fictions in Ursula Le Guin’s “the ones who walk away from omelas”. ANQ: A Quarterly Journal of Short Articles, Notes, and Reviews, 25(4), 228-232.