Module Note | April 2009 (Revised July 2009)

Delivering Personally on Responsibility

by Joshua D. Margolis


How can individuals equip themselves to exercise leadership in the face of moral adversity? This six-session module aims to prepare students to meet moral responsibility when it is simultaneously most essential and most difficult. Moral adversity refers to situations in which a person confronts a pressing moral responsibility-to oppose wrong-doing, aid others in desperate need, or stand up for inviolable principles, for example-yet meeting that responsibility is very difficult. The difficulty may arise because the situation entails personal or organizational sacrifice, for example, or colliding duties, or unfavorable conditions-such as time pressure, uncertainty, and uncooperative third parties. The module explores two forms that leadership can take in the face of moral adversity: taking direct action oneself to meet one's responsibilities and guiding others to meet collective responsibility. By examining protagonists who encounter moral adversity and must respond to urgent and complex calls to leadership, the module aims to provide students with: (1) An understanding of characteristic challenges and complications that make it so hard to exercise leadership in the face of moral adversity; (2) A map of the process for delivering on responsibility in the face of moral adversity; (3) A developmental perspective for approaching moral adversity, which casts ethically challenging situations not solely as tests of character but as opportunities to build one's personal capacity to shoulder responsibility and exercise leadership; (4) A moral compass that outlines the personal capacity students need to build, specifying capabilities and commitments students need to develop in order to navigate through moral adversity.

Keywords: Ethics; Leadership; Moral Sensibility; Leadership Development;


Margolis, Joshua D. "Delivering Personally on Responsibility." Harvard Business School Module Note 409-093, April 2009. (Revised July 2009.)