• Michael Stern

Emotional Intelligence, Ethical Leadership & Social Change



Note: This article was originally published in West End News (Portland, ME).

Developing Our Ethical Mind


Howard Gardner, a developmental psychologist and professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, says our sense of ethics develops with the influence of three sources of support.


The first is institutional support and mentorship, which gives us models of who we aspire to be like (or not).


The second is our fellow citizens, peers, and community members who help us act on our ethics and drive our moral compass forward (or not).


The third are periodic Wake-Up Calls. Good or bad, these are the pivotal moments that reveal to us where we stand on matters of ethics and justice.


REFLECT: What core values make up your ethical foundation? What institutions and mentors have shaped your values? What type of community can support you in acting on your values? And what are the pivotal moments, large or small, that have opened your eyes, connected you to your own sense of justice, and affirmed your values?


Ethical Leadership


America is in the middle of a Wake-Up Call.


With the combination of Black Lives Matter demonstrations occurring in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic and related economic recession, we must ask ourselves some tough questions:

  • What kind of society do I want to live in?

  • What am I willing to sacrifice, or to fight for?

  • What am I doing to stand up for what I believe?

With so much at stake, we need ethical leadership now more than ever.


So far, responses from leadership at the local, state, and national levels have varied greatly.


We have seen that being an elected official is not the same thing as being a good leader, and that being ethical is not exclusive to the political left or right.


We have also seen that we don’t have to be in positions of formal power to demonstrate leadership. And that acts of kindness and compassion can help bridge painful cultural divides.


I work with what I call “Emerging Leaders” every day – people who are committed to the courageous work of building a better life for themselves and a better world for all of us.


No matter what your current situation is, you can start where you are and do what you can to make things better in a way that matters to you and the people you care about.


REFLECT: What is your “cause” – an issue, topic, or world event that matters to you and impacts many people? Why does this cause matter to you? What are some practical ways you can contribute to your cause? (Tip: start by considering how you can build on what is already working.) Who can you collaborate with to reach your goal?


Emotional Intelligence


Emotional intelligence is essential for great leadership. However, without ethics, the basic EI skills can be used to manipulate and harm others.


Our “ethical rudder” can be the difference between creating positive social change and repeating age-old patterns of trauma and suffering.


Compassion is empathy in action. When we unite our capacity to act with our capacity to care, emotional intelligence becomes a powerful tool to help us stay true to our ethical compass and demonstrate leadership in our communities during challenging times.


REFLECT: What self-limiting beliefs, unconscious habits of mind, emotional triggers, or impulsive reactions tend to get in the way of achieving your desired outcomes, and how can you better manage those obstacles? What is the best possible future you can see around your cause? What will enable you to keep going despite obstacles, or to bounce back from defeat? Who do you have a genuine interest in helping, who could benefit from your experience?

© 2016 by Integral Alignment LLC