With Martin G. Moore

Episode #196

Virtue Signals Aren’t Enough: Leadership requires more

It may surprise you to learn that organizations across the globe spend over US $370 billion annually on leadership development programs. This doesn’t include the millions of other leadership resources that we tap into each day: books, podcasts, networking groups, websites, blogs, social media posts… the content is literally everywhere you turn.

But despite this, none of it seems to move the needle.

Leadership appears to be in as poor a state as it’s ever been, and people continue to cite poor leadership as the biggest issue they face at work.

Why aren’t all these leadership development efforts making a difference? Some blame surely rests with our slide towards virtue-signalling. Leadership has become about publicly expressing opinions that demonstrate good character and moral superiority, as much as anything else.

 But leadership is so much more… and your people know it!

Generate Your Free
Personalized Leadership Development Podcast Playlist

As a leader, it’s essential to constantly develop and improve your leadership skills to stay ahead of the game.

That’s why I’ve created a 3-question quiz that’ll give you a free personalized podcast playlist tailored to where you are right now in your leadership career!

Take the 30-second quiz now to get your on-the-go playlist 👇

Take The QuizTake The Quiz


Episode #196 Virtue Signals Aren’t Enough: Leadership requires more

It probably won’t surprise you to hear that organizations across the globe spend over $370 billion annually on leadership development programs. And this doesn’t include the millions of other leadership resources that we tap into each day: books, podcasts, networking groups, websites, blogs, social media posts – you name it, the content is literally everywhere you turn. Despite this, none of it seems to move the needle. The investment of trillions of dollars and countless hours of individual dedicated learning over the last decade, hasn’t produced a new generation of great leaders. On the contrary, leadership appears to be in as poor a state as it’s ever been.

People across the whole spectrum of organizations, countries, and industries continue to cite poor leadership as the biggest issue they face at work. Of course, I have a hypothesis as to why this might be the case. The pendulum for what constitutes good leadership has swung from one extreme to the other: from the command and control authoritarianism of the post-war business era, all the way through to this soft, permissive 21st century world that focuses on making people happy.

But clearly people are not happy.


If you haven’t heard the expression virtue signaling, it’s pretty simple. It’s the public expression of opinions or sentiments purely to demonstrate your good character and moral superiority. Desirable personal attributes seem to have become the central focus of leadership development. The goal is to acquire these virtues and espouse them to your people in the hope that you’ll be seen as a noble, compassionate leader, who has their best interests at heart.

When people acquire this sense of caring and belonging – so the theory goes – it motivates them to bring the best version of themselves to work each day. It’s a nice theory, right? If, as a leader, you can put aside self-interest, competitiveness and hubris, and replace these things with more humanistic, encouraging attributes, surely your people will be more inclined to follow you. They’ll be more likely to offer their discretionary effort, they’ll be happier personally, and the organization is going to be better off. Becoming more aware, empathetic, and connected to your people’s needs must be a good thing, right? Well, maybe…


The trouble is, many leaders who say they live by these desirable values, don’t actually act like it. They simply hide behind the noble rhetoric using it like an invisibility cloak that hides their true persona – and their true persona can range from naked self-interest to deep-seated insecurity, and even a paralyzing fear of failure. What their people see instead of a benevolent and caring leader, is hypocrisy and a lack of authenticity. This leads them to become deeply cynical about the whole process, and it’s incredibly counterproductive.

If leaders actually lived by the virtues they talk about, it’s much less likely that we’d be experiencing the current backlash to poor leadership. This may explain the ever increasing chasm between leaders’ self-perception and the perception of the people who work for them.

One of the basic principles of virtue signaling is that you talk publicly about things that no one can dispute. It’s just common sense, right?! And if you have the temerity to offer an alternative viewpoint, you can find yourself on the outer pretty quickly. Let’s take one of the more common scenarios for a quick test drive:

Most of us have heard a leader say, “Our people are our greatest asset.” I’m a huge fan of irony, and the irony in this statement isn’t lost on me. Although it’s designed to show how important the human element of business is, in the very same breath people are being likened to other corporate assets – like money, inventory, buildings and computers. Saying that people are your greatest asset is a noble sentiment that no one would dare to disagree with. Why? Because it sounds like it should be true, and I’m sure that many leaders absolutely believe it when they say it.

Unfortunately, more often than not, it’s complete bullsh!t! People probably aren’t your company’s greatest asset. They are pretty much the same as the people who work in the equivalent roles in your competitors’ businesses. There’s nothing extraordinary about them, and they don’t provide any competitive advantage. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m sure they’re wonderful people, and you love that they work for you. They’re certainly not stupid – because they can recognise an empty platitude when they hear one. They may sit there and smile, but in all likelihood, they’re thinking to themselves, “Oh, so I’m one of your greatest assets, am I? Well, how come you don’t listen to any of my opinions? And you don’t give me the slightest autonomy in how I do my job?”

If we were being a little more honest and less concerned about the virtue signals, we’d probably realize that our people are our most underutilized asset. You see, if we value our assets, we invest in them. We maintain them diligently. We ensure that their useful life is maximized, and we focus a lot of our energy on getting optimum performance from them. But unfortunately, most leaders treat their team with benign neglect. Not because they’re bad people, but just because leadership is hard, and they’re not prepared to do the hard work of leadership.

Wondering how you can keep yourself honest and reduce the likelihood that your people will brand you a hypocritical leader? Listen to Episode #191: Are You A Hypocritical Leader? You may be surprised…


So here you are, diligently trying to become a better leader. You tap into books and podcasts that give you the latest leadership thinking – that may have even brought you here! You’re hungry to learn and improve, and the aspirational attributes really hit the spot for you. It’s hard for them not to – you can easily identify with the virtues that you are told are mandatory for great leaders. You feel that unmistakable rush of motivation and inspiration, and then you go to work and you do… Nothing. Nada. Zip. Donut! You don’t change because you aren’t given the faintest clue about how to make a change. For example, if you decide you want to be more humble, where do you start? What should you do? What habits and disciplines would you have to adopt?

Here’s where it gets even more dangerous: for many leaders, while they’re identifying with these aspirational attributes, they just happen to get a promotion – and maybe that happens to them a couple of times. All of a sudden, they begin to believe their own bullsh!t! “Yes, I am a great leader. I’m humble and transparent and fallible, and that’s why I’m being promoted.” Or it might be because they’re smart, experienced, and strategically capable – but it doesn’t mean they’re not a sh!t leader.

They rarely find out the answer to that question because to protect themselves, they avoid being exposed to any scrutiny that might run contrary to their carefully curated self-perception. From there, it often just snowballs out of control. They decide to jump on the bandwagon and talk about the attributes they want to see in the leaders below them. Leaders should be humble. Leaders should be fallible. Leaders should have integrity. Leaders should be collaborative – and no one argues against that. Why would they? If you did argue, it would potentially expose you as being a bad person, someone who didn’t care about others. Not signing onto these obvious virtues would risk your reputation… or would it?


Whatever happened to common sense? These desirable attributes that people like to use for their virtue signaling might be good qualities for a leader to have, or they might not. It really depends what else is going on because that grossly oversimplifies the conversation.

It takes a lot more to lead than simply demonstrating desirable personal attributes – even if those attributes do genuinely represent who you are. Let’s take humility, for example. Is humility good? I don’t know, maybe – it depends! Humility in a leader who lacks the confidence to make decisions can be disastrous. I don’t care how humble you are, if you are indecisive, timid and overly conservative, you are going to be a sh!t leader. Want to be a better leader? Well, don’t congratulate yourself for being humble. Get out and work on building your confidence.

How about fallibility? Is fallibility good? I don’t know, maybe – it depends! If you are highly competent and capable, fallibility is like rocket fuel. It could be an incredibly powerful attribute in shaping team culture. Fallibility effectively sends the message “No matter how good I might think I am, I can still be wrong from time to time. I don’t have all the answers.” This gives your people permission to make mistakes, to try new things, to adopt the excellence over perfection mentality that drives innovation and organizational momentum.

But what if you are incompetent? Demonstrating your fallibility, won’t change the fact that you’re incompetent. It will just make it more obvious to more people, so don’t lean into your fallibility. Instead, spend every waking hour trying to get better at what you do. Keep learning, growing, and developing your knowledge, skill, and judgment, otherwise your virtuous fallibility will hang over your head like the Sword of Damocles.


Aspirational attributes are nice. There’s nothing wrong with them at all, and don’t get me wrong, they are genuinely worth pursuing – but not at the expense of real leadership. In my mind, the biggest issue with today’s virtue signaling obsession is we seem to have completely lost the connection with the primary imperative of leadership: to deliver value. Now, if you’ve listened to any of my content, you’ll realize that value is not just measured by financial performance, it can come in many different forms:

  • providing a safer working environment for your people can create value,

  • developing products that are more environmentally sustainable can create value,

  • better compliance and risk management can create value,

  • innovations in customer service can create value.

No matter how you define it, your job as a leader is to take the resources that have been entrusted to you by your organization and optimize their use to deliver value. Think about that, because it bears repeating: No matter how you define it, your job as a leader is to take the resources that have been entrusted to you by your organization and optimize their use to deliver value.

Great leadership remains an elusive state and overall, it would appear that the quality of leaders in all walks of life isn’t really improving, which is one reason why we are now seeing the type of pushback that says, “Maybe we don’t need leaders at all?” I have to admit, this is just a little worrying and I’ll probably dive deep into this sentiment in the future.

I often say that the older I get, the less certain I am about practically everything, and that’s because now I can really see the merit in the gray areas. I’m much more attuned to the nuance and the wildly different perspectives that people tend to hold – all of which may have merit. But there’s one thing I’m pretty sure about in a work context: nothing happens unless a leader makes it happen. Leadership drives culture and culture drives performance.


It is actually possible for a leader to turn people into the greatest asset a company has. A true source of competitive advantage. Imagine if your people were so driven, having so much impact and getting so much professional satisfaction from the results they were achieving, that they never wanted to leave. Their performance would be world class. What would that look like though?

If a leader wanted a team like that, there’s some fundamental actions she would take:

  • She’d start by setting high standards for behavior and performance without exception. There would be no tourists on that team.

  • She would give people clarity about what was expected of them and make sure their efforts were directed to the most important things.

  • She’d hold people to account for delivering the agreed outcomes and ensure that they had the necessary control, support, and resources to do so.

  • She would instill a sense of team identity and belonging. Not based on an insipid culture that tolerates anyone who wants to be there, but one where the A team plays with other A players.

  • She would create a no blame, no excuses culture, where people felt safe to try different things in order to get the best outcome without fearing inappropriate consequences for a minor failure.

  • She would constantly give people feedback to make sure they knew where they stood, could calibrate their performance and what they needed to focus on to be their best.

  • She would protect her people from the irrationalities of corporate politics, and the sometimes weak leaders from above.

  • She would create organizational momentum, instilling a mindset of excellence over perfection, speed of decision-making and single point accountability.

A team like this is primed to perform, and with a culture that looks and feels like this, you will get outcomes, I promise you – and your people may even be your greatest asset!

Being virtuous is good, and if you do the work to become a strong leader, you will strengthen these virtues as your journey progresses. But no one’s going to be fooled by the virtue signaling leader whose only identifiable attribute is hypocrisy. Leadership drives culture and culture drives performance. You’re not being paid as a leader to meet people’s personal desires. You’re being paid to achieve outcomes – and if you’re not achieving outcomes, well… maybe the new wave is right. Maybe we don’t need leaders at all!

If you want to dip your toe in the water a little more and find out what real leaders do to get results, check out my free Leadership Level Up Masterclass.


  • Episode #3: Excellence Over Perfection – Listen Here

  • Episode #42: First, Deliver Value – Listen Here

  • Episode #191: Are You A Hypocritical Leader? – Listen Here

  • Avoiding Burnout by Streamlining Your Leadership Approach Replay – Here

  • Join the Crush Your Career Challenge 2022 – Here


  • Explore other podcast episodes – Here

  • Take our FREE Level Up Leadership Masterclass – Start Now

  • Leadership Beyond the Theory – Learn More


Here’s how you can make a difference:

  • Subscribe to the No Bullsh!t Leadership podcast

  • Leave us a review on Apple Podcasts

  • Repost this episode to your social media

  • Share your favourite episodes with your leadership network

  • Tag us in your next post and use the hashtag #nobsleadership