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The Need for Ethical Leadership

Morehouse College in Atlanta (where I attended many moons ago) is opening a new leadership center as a part of it's curriculum. The goal is to motivate, instruct and inspire a new generation of leaders and to empower them with the tools needed to be effective leaders for the progressing century.

This weekend, Morehouse will be hosting a symposium on ethical leadership, what it means to be an ethical leader and how that leadership can be effective in the 21st Century.

For me, while it is no surprise that Morehouse would do such a thing, considering the caliber of men it has produced in the last 130 or so years, and while I think it is a worthy and laudable goal, I am unsure if it is realistic or practical. Perhaps it actually is both, but it requires a fundamental shift in how we view ourselves, each other, and what is expected from our appointed and elected leaders.

The problem is the issue of ethics themselves. A lot of people, rightly or wrongly, confuse ethics with morality, often assuming they are one in the same. Also, you have people who assume that one persons brand of ethics or morals should apply to the whole.

Now, to counter this issue, first we must separate ethics from morality if we are truly to have "ethical leaders." Morality is usually based on a system of religious or spiritual principles, which in and of itself is highly subjective, depending on your spiritual bent. Ethics, however, should operate on a more secular and insulated level.

Ethics are usually defined by the governing body of a given group. Lawyers, doctors, politicians, police officers, businessmen and others - they all agree to uphold a certain set of standards agreed upon by what best represents the body as a professional organization. The standards are put in place to promote and uphold the honor of the system that is attempted to be preserved.

Problems occur when moral standards of a personal nature are injected into one's professional behavior. Obviously, there are some overlapping instances, but on the whole, the choices a make for their own personal life which does not impact on job performance or professional dealings, in my opinion, should have no impact.

To use a specific example, we have a culture which seems to believe that someone’s consensual and private sexual behavior somehow has an effect on their ability to perform their various duties. Again, if such acts are of a consensual nature, bring harm to none, yet are out of the mainstream of "acceptable behavior", how can such behavior be viewed as unethical?

Additionally, judgments are also made regarding other types of personal behavior. People are judged or penalized for everything for things like smoking, eating meat, where they vacation, where they lives, what they wear, what their children do, what websites they visit, what magazines they subscribe to, or what they did 20 years ago as a rebellious youth. There is an imposed standard that is almost impossible to live up to, partially because it demands a level of perfection of behavior that very few people are able to live up to.

This demand for moral/ethical perfection for our appointed/elected leaders is unrealistic because we don't personally live up to the standards that we hold our leaders accountable to. Because we expect a certain level from "those above us", we place an unreal and often hypocritical burden on our leaders who act more out of a sense of paranoia rather than what they actually believe in. And when the mighty fall for being human and making human mistakes, we shake our head in disgust, as we and our neighbors do the very same thing the next night.

We live in a culture that impeached Clinton, drove Jack Ryan out of a gubernatorial race, yet we still play Michael Jackson and R. Kelly on the radio, and award Roman Polanski an Oscar. We allow our celebrities to get away with the most abhorrent behavior, and continue to support them, yet when our leaders and politicians commit the same acts, we scream bloody murder.

We have an imbalanced system in which we celebrate the wrong areas, all in the name of morality or ethics.

So obviously, we need a public discourse to distinguish between ethics and morality and separate the two.

If we want to have ethical leaders, we need to make sure we have an established rule of ethics, devoid of moral judgments. We need to teach leaders that to follow a code of ethics is to be consistent in word and deed. And we as the constituents need to stop demanding perfection from our leaders, and stop caring what they do when it does not directly effect their job performance. Now, if they participated in a illegal deal whereby people lose money, jobs or their homes, that is a breach of ethics and should be condemned. If they smoke marijuana as a teenager, but they are now 50 years old, or if they put a public hair on a coke can as a tasteless joke, that hardly rises to the level of a capital offense. Even if someone takes their wife to a sex party or gets nude on a beach in Europe or Jamaica, or if they have a box of sex toys under their bed, none of these things have any bearing on their ability to serve the public good.

It has been said before, and it bears repeating. American society needs to stop worrying so much what people do in their private lives. We need to stop imposing and injecting a subjective set on morals which prevents good and qualified people from performing their duties.

Dr. Cornel West said (to paraphrase) "In order to be an ethical leader, you must begin with an ethic of Love." I am a little on the fence about that statement, because on one level, it requires a moral position that we should take steps to eliminate, but on the other hand, if we act in Love, on behalf of Love, for Love, then we act in a more pure form than we've acted on before.

Ethical leaders need to demand to be judged on what they can do, their accomplishments, and their platforms. Not who they slept with (or sleep with), not where they go or what they do in their free time. Ethical leaders must demand that the constant intrusion into their (often) irrelevant private affairs must no longer be in the public discourse. And society, those of us who understand the different between harmful and benign behavior, must demand that our counterparts stop prying into irrelevant areas of our leaders affairs.

If we are unable or unwilling to do that, then the hope for a truly ethical leader is rather slim.

Chuck Smoot

November 3, 2005

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