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
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
If we are unable or unwilling to do that, then the hope for a truly ethical
leader is rather slim.
November 3, 2005