Ethical Foundations for Leadership

Presented on March 7, 2008, for the USC chapter of the Order of Omega.

It is commonly thought that, at some point, one in a leadership or professional role has to choose between being a good person and being a good leader: that, in some circumstances, at least, one cannot be both.  Also, though it is widely acknowledged that to lead effectively one must appear to be a good person, it is not necessary to actually be a good person.  There is a wide spread suspicion that selective wickedness and hypocrisy is necessary to effective leadership. (A view often associated with Machiavelli.) Your theme of “Ethical Foundations for Leadership” suggests—does it not?—that this suspicion may be mistaken, and that in fact leadership as it should be depends upon excellent moral character in the leader.  Let us begin with some clarifications:


Who Is The Morally Good Person:

Morally good persons are those who, in their overall existence, are devoted to advancing the various goods (plural)  of human life with which they are effectively in contact, in a manner that respects their relative degrees of importance and the extent to which the actions of the person in question can actually promote the existence and maintenance of those goods.  Thus, moral goodness is a matter of that organization of the human will called "character" around the advancement of human goods. 

"Character" refers to settled dispositions to act in certain ways, given relevant circumstances.  There is good moral character as well as bad. Character is mainly expressed in what one does without thinking, as well as to what one does after acting without thinking.  The actions which come from character will usually persist when the individual is unobserved, as well as when the consequences of the action are not what he or she would prefer.  A person of good moral character is one who, from the deeper and more pervasive dimensions of the self, is intent upon advancing the various goods of human life with which they are effectively in contact (etc.), even at great personal cost or self-sacrifice.

The person who is morally bad or evil is one who is intent upon the destruction of the various goods of human life with which they are effectively in contact, or who is indifferent to the existence and maintenance of those goods.

Being morally good or evil clearly will be a matter of degree and there surely will be few if any actual human beings who exist at the extreme ends of the scale.  (An interesting but largely pointless question might be how humanity distributes on the scale: a nice bell curve or...what?)  One could fail to be particularly good, as a human being, without being particularly bad. The appearance of banal decency may be what many people aim at as their moral objective.  Is that enough for effective leadership in positions of great significance?

John Dewey: “We have reached the conclusion that disposition <habit> as manifest in endeavor is the seat of moral worth, and that this worth <moral goodness> itself consists in a readiness to regard <effectively care for> the general happiness, even against contrary promptings of personal comfort and gain.” (Dewey and Tufts, Ethics, Henry Holt and Co., 1908, p. 364.)  Just substitute “the various goods of human life etc.” for “general happiness,” which has no clear meaning that can be applied in conduct.

I suggest that this orientation of the will toward promotion of human goods is the fundamental moral distinction: the one which is of primary human interest, and from which all the others, moving toward the periphery of the moral life and ethical theory, can be clarified.  It is, as ethical theorists from Socrates up to 1900, at least, have understood, a matter of the inward organization of personality around the promotion of things that are good.  For example: the moral value of acts (positive and negative); the nature of moral obligation and responsibility; virtues and vices; the nature and limitations of rights, punishment, rewards, justice and related issues; the morality of laws and institutions; the role of moral principles, rules and codes; and what is to be made of moral progress and moral education.  A coherent theory of these matters can, I suggest, be developed only if we start from the distinction between the good and bad will or person—which, admittedly, almost no one is currently prepared to discuss.  That is one of the outcomes of ethical theorizing during the 20th Century.  That outcome is directly opposite to the consensus of the late decades of the 19th Century, which was that the fundamental subject of ethical theorizing is the will and its character. (See T. H. Green, F. H. Bradley, Henry Sidgwick)  What has happened since then is a long and involved topic which we cannot take up here.


A few further clarifications must be made before turning to leadership:

1. I have spoken of the goods of human life in the plural, and have spoken of goods with which we are in effective contact, i.e. can do something about.  The good will is manifested in its active caring for particular goods that we can do something about, not in dreaming of "the greatest happiness of the greatest number" or even of my own 'happiness' or of "duty for duty's sake."  Generally speaking, thinking in high level abstractions will always defeat moral will.  As Bradley and others before him clearly saw, "my station and its duties" is nearly, but not quite, the whole moral scene, and can never be simply bypassed on the way to "larger" things.  One of the major miscues of ethical theory since the sixties has been, in my opinion, its almost total absorption in social and political issues.  Of course these issues also concern vital human goods.  But moral theory simply will not coherently and comprehensively come together from their point of view.  They do not essentially involve the center of moral reality, the will and character.

2. Among human goods--things that are good for human beings and enable them to flourish--are human beings and certain relationships to them, and, especially, good human beings.  That is, human beings that fit the above description.  One's own well-being is a human good, to one's self and to others, as is what Kant called the moral "perfection" of oneself.  Of course non-toxic water and food, a clean and safe environment, opportunities to learn and to work, stable family and community relations, and so forth, all fall on the list of particular human goods. (Most of the stuff for sale in our society probably does not.)

There is no necessity of having a complete list of human goods or a tight definition of what something must be like to be on the list.  Marginal issues, "Lifeboat" cases, and the finer points of conceptual distinction are interesting exercises and have a point for philosophical training; but it is not empirically confirmable, to say the least, that the chances of having a good will or being a good person improve with philosophical training in ethical theory as that has been recently understood.  It is sufficient to become a good or bad person that one have a good general understanding of human goods and how they are effected by action.  And that is also sufficient for the understanding of the good will and the goodness of the individual.  We do not have to know what the person would do in a lifeboat situation to know whether or not they have good will, though what they do in such situations may throw light on who they are, or on how good (or bad) they are.  The appropriate response to actions in extreme situations may not be a moral judgment at all, but one of pity or admiration, of the tragic sense of life, or of amazement at what humans are capable of, etc. etc.

3. The will to advance the goods of human life with which one comes into contact is inseparable from the will to find out how to do it and do it appropriately.  If one truly wills the end one wills the means, and coming to understand the goods which we effect, and their conditions and interconnections, is inseparable from the objectives of the good person and the good will.  Thus, knowledge, understanding and rationality are themselves human goods, to be appropriately pursued for their own sakes, but also because they are absolutely necessary for moral self-realization.  Formal rationality is fundamental to the good will, but is not sufficient to it.  It must be acknowledged that one of the moral strong points of Naturalism is its concern about advancing the goods of human life and about combatting the forces of ignorance and superstition that work against those goods.  One cannot understand Naturalism as a historical reality or a present fact if one does not take this point into consideration.


Why It Matters If  You Are Moral:

The reason it matters should be fairly clear, once you understand who the moral person is.  Everyone around you, including yourself of course, will benefit in general from your devotion to the human goods that make for human flourishing, especially if you are surrounded by similar people. Your devotion to these goods will provide a structure to your life that will keep it directed toward what is productive, honorable, and deeply satisfying to yourself and others.  You will have a solid basis for self-esteem, while at the same time you will be held back from arrogance and self-importance by your regard for goods beyond yourself, in the lives of others and in the world around you.  Matthew Arnold, in the opening paragraph of his essay "Marcus Aurelius," in Essays in Criticism, Vol. I, expresses the view that has predominated among ethical theorists for most of Western history: "The object of systems of morality is to take possession of human life, to save it from being abandoned to passion or allowed to drift at hazard, to give it happiness by establishing it in the practice of virtue; and this object they seek to attain by presenting to human life fixed principles of action, fixed rules of conduct.  In its uninspired as well as in its inspired moments, in its days of languor or gloom as well as in its days of sunshine and energy, human life has thus always a clue to follow, and may always be making way toward its goal."

People desperately want to be good and to be recognized as good.  It is, finally, a matter of mental health and well-being.  They deeply need to be worthy of approval.  The quest for self-esteem is based upon this need.  But you can’t just pump yourself up with self-esteem, you have to achieve genuine human worthiness; and this is done by attaining moral character and life as described above.  Otherwise self-esteem rings hollow and creates inauthentic and unsatisfying self-absorption—the “little Jack Horner” syndrome: “What a good fellow am I.”


How Rules and Codes Enter Into the Moral Life:

Those rules state standard ways in standard situations of caring for the human goods which our actions influence.  In this way they give us knowledge of what we ought, morally, to do when we (as in the usual case) cannot fully see how our actions influence human goods.  Rules are an essential part of moral education, but they serve that purpose well only when we understand how they are grounded in human goods and human character.  Codes standing alone are merely ways of holding others responsible and of being held responsible by them.  Codes standing alone, and not reaching into character and the good, are the way of the Pharisee and the legalist or formalist.  They have nothing to do with the kind of person one is—and that is one reason why some people today like to stay at this level and to avoid any issues of character. (It is now widely regarded as morally “bad” to go into questions of peoples’ character or make judgments to the effect that certain persons are bad or evil.  It is “okay” or even automatically good, however, to say that they are good—though that is now largely meaningless.)

If a code proves to be generally effective in governing life it will only be because of character in the people governed—character that expresses itself in virtues such as benevolence, honor and integrity; and it will be from these virtues, and not from the code, that people act.  Indeed, one never acts merely from a code.  A code by its very nature never addresses the question of motivation.  If you only knew that someone had kept the code, you would have no idea of whether or not they were ethical or morally good people, or of what they would choose to do if they were sure they would never be found out, and hence would not be known to have broken or kept the code.

Most so-called “professional ethics” today is restricted to codes and have nothing to do with character, and that is one reason why they have such little power over behavior.  They are basically telling us how to stay out of trouble with clients, the law, and our fellow professionals.  They have nothing to say about our moral identity, about who we are as a doctor, lawyer, engineer, professor, etc. etc., or about how such a professional status fulfills our moral identity.  Leaders are vitally concerned with how to stay out of trouble.

Now how does this relate to leadership and being a leader?


Who is a leader?

A leader is someone who influences individuals in a group to act in a way conducive (ideally, most conducive) to the end or ends for the sake of which the group exists. The leader in a group would be the one person—if there is just one—who most comprehensively and strongly influences the members of the group so to act.  Leaders in a group are not necessarily the ones designated as leaders, for the influence at work in the group may not come from the ones designated as leaders. “Leader” is relative to a group and to an objective for the sake of which the group exists as a group.

A leader in a group must possess requisite technical competencies—hopefully, masteries.  That is a given. These would involve knowledge and skills bearing upon the specific subjective matters and activities of the group, but also abilities to observe and understand what is going on in the group and to make decisions about persons and responsibilities within the group.  Moral excellence—being a good person—cannot substitute for these competencies and masteries, or can do so only to a very limited extent and for limited times.  Generally, a leader must be a person of good judgment.

But this is not unrelated to good moral character.  Good judgment is often overruled or made impossible by failures of moral character.  For example, personal grudges may cause a leader not to treat members of the group fairly. Insecurity can lead to favoritism. Anger and vengefulness, desire for approval, resentment and contempt, obsession with personal objectives, greed and sexual lust etc. etc. all can destroy steadiness in good judgment.  Established good character allows one not to be dominated by emotions and desires and to act with a view to the good of the group and its members.  The extent to which a leader is known to be free of domination by “feelings,” and to be guided by what is good rather than by what he or she wants, will, in general, correlate with their effectiveness in influencing members of the group enthusiastically to fulfill their role in the group.  Among other things the members will need to be assured that the leader is not just going to “use” them, but, as a person of moral character, will responsibly care for their goods and the good of the group as a whole.  They will need to know that he is prepared to sacrifice, and not just one who calls upon others to do so. Sacrifice, or readiness to sacrifice “when necessary,” is one of the major components of the moral influence necessary to effective leadership.

Leadership is not the same thing as being in control, though in some situations one must be in control to exercise leadership.  Control can be based upon force, but leadership goes beyond force.  There is always an uneasy relationship between control and leadership.  Control does not make the individual enthusiastically embrace their place and role in the group.  It does not enlist the inner sources of action, as does leadership.  Control with leadership would be the ideal, where the control hardly came into play as a separate factor.

“Admiration” is perhaps most comprehensive term for the desirable attitude toward the leader: admiration for both competencies and for good character.

Moral perfection is, of course, not an issue here.  But to have obvious moral failings diminishes the moral influence necessary to leadership.  This is because they indicate that the will of the individual is at some point submitted to their desires and emotions, not to what is good.  That is what prevents most people from thinking that technical competence is all that is required in a leader. The kind of person they are cannot totally be without consequences for “how they do their job.”  If they are liars “off the job,” for example, it is difficult to imagine they would not lie “on the job.”  And perhaps they would lie to you.

A just sense of one’s own moral character goes far to enable one to deal with difficulties in leadership position, to be open and vulnerable, to listen to others, and to correct ill-advised courses of action.

This does not mean that one must be “moralistic” (devoted to self-righteousness and observance of rules more than to what is actually good), or that one be a “push over,” a softie or a door-matt, or that one does not appropriately look after one’s own interest.  It means simply that one is “devoted to advancing the various goods of human life with which they are effectively in contact, in a manner that respects their relative degrees of importance and the extent to which the actions of the person in question can actually promote the existence and maintenance of those goods.”  That will require intelligence, alertness, courage and a lot of luck, grace and friendly help.  But it is surely one of the major requirements of effective leadership in any context.






















“Anyone can be great, because everyone can serve others.” (Martin Luther King)

“The only ones who will be truly happy are those who have sought and found how to serve.” (Albert Schweitzer)

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