Looking at Ethics and Leadership Part 1.

May 03, 2023

Using terms like “ethical leadership” is often done without critical or reflective thought. The words ethical and leader are so entrenched in everyday speech that it is difficult to dislodge them from their popular, though largely unexamined, meanings. When most people think of ethical leadership, they tend to imbue leadership with values or a certain kind of moral character we have witnessed in particular individuals. These associations are correct, but ethics and leadership are a lot like love and war: all is fair, but underneath their common employment lie a multitude of sins and methodological errors. The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) challenged his listeners to look at a phenomenon beyond its accepted linguistic configurations and ask the harder question of “What do I mean when I say x, y, and z?” For instance, ethics in certain contexts does not properly apply in others. The moral quagmires of gun rights, sexual identity, unjust incarceration, euthanasia, diversity and belonging, AI, abortion Etc. are testaments of what is at stake for ethical questions raised in public life. Moral norms and customs that are so easily accepted within certain communities of discourse and practice run into complex conundrums when placed in a larger public debate where diverse views prevail.

The question of leadership is just as difficult to address when we are forced to look at it. For instance, are all leaders, by virtue of the label, good leaders? Can one be a leader and not be good? Is there something inherent in the definition of leader that suggests some moral obligation? When leaders fail to be “good,” what are we implying about the definition of leader? Is leadership tied to position only, or are other assumptions being made about “leadership” and “good”? If all leaders are not “good,” and position is not the defining variable of leadership, what is? What do we mean by a “good leader” anyway?

At WEFA, our work in ethical leadership asks these fundamental questions as an orientation to thinking critically and making practical applications within different contexts and contests about moral meaning. We believe that leaders who aspire to ethical life, in personal and public spaces, need to cultivate certain habits and practices that allow them to negotiate and hopefully transform the intersection. We are not all convinced that the proliferation of rules, laws, and penalties that promote governance, transparency, and accountability among public leaders—though necessary—are adequate.

We believe that we need to look at the question of ethics and leadership differently to address the challenges at dangerous, noisy and conflicting intersections of everyday lifeworlds and powerful systems dominated by money and power. Ours is a call to leaders at these intersections to remember, retell, and relive their stories as a basis for personal and social transformation. Stay tuned, more to come . . .