April 26, 2006
I have been asked to share with you today some of my ideas about leadership. However, I know that you have read more than enough information about theories and styles of leadership during your graduate work here at GSPIA. You have explored, written papers, observed and experienced many versions of effective leadership. You have already been leaders at many levels, and have learned about what works and what does not work for you as a leader. Thus, you are well on your way to developing your own leadership philosophy and style. You have learned that there is no “one size fits all” approach to leadership, but that there are some basic principles and parameters which should be integrated into your understanding and exercise of leadership.
My focus today will be on principles of leadership which are grounded in ethics. As a result of my academic preparation, my professional experience and my personal values, I have developed my own perspectives on, and commitment to, ethical leadership. Let me provide some context for the presentation of my position on ethical leadership. My academic preparation was in Philosophy. The focus of my Masters work was ethics and world religions, and of my Doctoral work was social and political philosophy. In all of these studies, I found a strong underpinning of ethical theory. My professional experience as a teacher in all elementary grades, as faculty member in Philosophy departments of several colleges and universities, and as academic administrator at all levels of higher education, has been characterized by a strong commitment to applying ethical standards to my own performance and decision making. In the spirit of full disclosure, I will also tell you that my personal values are grounded in the religious traditions of the Jewish and Christian ethics and the principles of a democratic/pluralistic society. In my personal experience, I have been a student, mentee, mentor, daughter, sibling, spouse, parent, employee, supervisor, colleague, employer, teacher, coach and friend. Each of these experiences has contributed to my understanding of the role and value of ethical leadership in the varied contexts of our lives. A final thing you should know about me as I explain my view of ethical leadership is that my favorite animal is the giraffe, since I find it to be an excellent symbol of leadership in its ability to keep its feet on the ground while being willing to lift its head above the crowd to get a “bird's eye” view of the landscape and ‘the bigger picture'.
When I was an undergraduate in Philosophy, I was required to take a course in Social Philosophy. The instructor entered the room on the first day of class and began the session with the following comment: “Jean Paul Sartre tells us that hell is other people. This course is about other people. Welcome to hell.” Needless to say, he got our attention. Although dealing with others can be a challenge, it is essential to our nature as social beings. Life is all about our relationships with others, difficult as these relationships might sometimes be. Relationships express the interplay of needs and desires, the conflict between right and wrong actions, the intersection of individual and collective rights and responsibilities. This is the domain of ethics: how we relate to others through our choices. At the heart of Confucian philosophy are five essential human relationships, each obligated by ethical reciprocity. In each pair of relationships, the parties are bound by commitment to rights and responsibilities: my right is your responsibility, your right is my responsibility.
Just as there are multiple and conflicting theories of leadership, there are multiple and conflicting theories of ethics. However, they all address the essential reality of human relationships and choices. Leadership is inwardly developed and outwardly directed, as is ethics. We develop (and constantly refine) our theory and then decide our actions and attitudes towards others based on our inner commitment to certain principles. Thus, as with developing your own adaptation of leadership theory, you need to develop your own ethical theory based on principles which seem sound, reasonable and effective for you. Key to any theory of ethical leadership will be how you see others and your relationships to them. The Economist magazine has a great marketing slogan which appeals to a readership of senior managers: “It is lonely at the top, but at least there is something to read.” I suggest that true leadership is neither at the top nor lonely, but there IS always something to read… about how to lead. Leadership is about others, and there is no leadership without others to lead. Leaders emerge at all levels of society and organizations, and need not have a high position to motivate others and to effect change.
A discipline within Philosophy which helps put ‘others' in perspective is philosophical anthropology (or theories of human nature). Today we see offshoots of this discipline in sociology, psychology, organizational theory, etc. The ancient philosophers claimed that humans share a common nature, and that we all ‘wonder' about who and what we are, what we need, what we value, how we live together, and other questions related to our humanness. If we are essentially the same (in a philosophical sense: have the same essence), then learning about ourselves is related to learning about others, and vice versa. Since leadership is more about others than about self, it becomes important for leaders to seek to understand the others with and for whom they work. An age-old ethical tenet is to “do to others as you would have them do to you”, or, in the negative: “do not do to others what you would not have them do to you”. How simple a rule for ethical leadership! It translates into understanding the needs and abilities of others, sympathizing with them in their crises and other ‘downs', celebrating their successes and other ‘ups', motivating and encouraging them when they need a ‘push', modeling behaviors by personal example when they need a ‘pull', setting reasonable but challenging expectations and standards when they need goals, and directing them toward achievement and performance when they seek self-actualization. Such a theory and practice of ethical leadership includes being there for those you lead. It assumes caring about them as persons as you lead them to higher achievement.
Ethical leaders will bring others along with them through broad empowerment, not just through ‘succession planning”. Such leaders do not ‘climb over others on the ladder of success,' but rather embrace and encourage others to bring them to a higher place. In one version of Buddhist philosophy, the greatest ‘saint' is the one who, in life and death, works to bring others with him into Nirvana…even postponing his own entrance into that post-life state until many more can join him through his efforts on their behalf.
Ethical leaders understand the limitations of human nature, and are neither afraid nor hesitant to show their own humanness as an example which further empowers others to recognize and respond to their own humanness. For these leaders, it is acceptable to admit to failure and to learn from it (and to have those they lead do likewise), to admit their need to learn more by recognizing they do not know everything, to demonstrate that they can not do everything and thus need the help of others.
In his ethics textbooks, Robert Solomon identifies the following elements of ethics: consistency (treating similar cases similarly), universality (applying to ourselves the same considerations we apply to others, and vice versa), reasons (which must prevail over whims and which back up our actions with justifications), concern for others (which rescues morality from the extremes of rigidity or excessive flexibility), responsibility (which requires us to answer for what we do), and character (personal integrity). While these principles are theoretical, it is clear that they can be directly applied to ethical leadership.
An ethical leader will not only lead others, but will also serve them. The better you serve the others with and for whom you work, the more effective will be your leadership. Data shows that many of the most successful businesses are those which care about and empower the employees to be more successful. At Carlow University , we capture our culture of caring about each other in the living phrase: At Carlow, I Matter. This is more than a marketing slogan; it reflects the reality of our values.
‘Administration' is grounded in latin roots meaning ‘to minister to'. Leadership is about empowering others more than about personal entitlement. Ethical leadership abhors the six ‘P's' of some versions of leadership: position, power, prestige, privilege, perks, and pomp. The ethical leader knows that the only P which matters is persons, and treats persons as ends and not as means.
There are daily challenges for a leader who believes and acts on ethical principles. I identify five examples which need your attention as you implement the principles of valuing and empowering others:
Communication: many problems can be avoided with good communication which is grounded in respect for others. Communication should be based on a willingness to share and seek information, on a desire to effectively shape and convey messages clearly, on being ready to listen and not just to be the speaker or message-giver. In a busy daily schedule, this can be a challenge, but it is of the utmost importance to a leader who values others.
Delegation: sharing responsibilities with others requires trust in their ability to accomplish the task assigned. With constructive feed-back and guidance, the ethical leader will help others to develop their skills, but there is no denying that this takes time and patience.
Decision - Making: every leader must be responsible for making the final decisions which move the organization ahead. The ethical leader will seek to hear from others before making decisions, and will give credit to them for their contributions to the decision or positive outcome. This also takes time and trust in others in the process of reaching decisions and achieving success.
Continuous Learning: there is always more to learn about ourselves, others, our organization, the world in which we live, and leadership. Again, this requires a commitment of time.
And Time itself can be a daily challenge. Caught up in the daily tasks of being visionary, fireman, mentor, manager, team leader, public relations expert, financial guru, etc., it is difficult to schedule quiet time for reflection, reading, and renewal. But good leaders need to find some ‘retreat' time to become refreshed for further work.
Genuine self-fulfillment is the actualization of the whole person: the physical, the rational, the spiritual and the moral in a social context. Effective leadership is the actualization of the whole unit in a context of social and moral responsibility and responsiveness. In this process, the ethical leader must be true to himself as an ethical and social person, grounded in reason and guided by conscience. This requires a commitment to values, courage in times of challenge, compassion in working with others, and respect for the contributions of all.
Life has a higher purpose than self-satisfaction, and that is responsibility to and for others. Leadership has a higher purpose than personal gain, and that is responsibility to and for others.