January 23, 2009
It is too soon to say of course. It is clear however that his worldwide appeal and victory are, at least partly, due to the image of integrity, of moderation and care he successfully projected during the campaign. This more than compensated for the apparent weaknesses and lack of substance in his campaign program. During France’s presidency of the European Union coinciding with the climax of the financial crisis, Sarkozy was also praised for having acted as a “strong” leader. Still, given what we know about his personal life and the way he talks and acts, few would be ready to qualify Sarkozy as “wise”. In the UK, Gordon Brown’s leadership image has widely fluctuated in function of recent events. Closer to home, in Belgium, many Banks CEO’s have been heavily criticized for their leadership (or lack of) while others, although they apparently made similar financial mistakes, succeeded in keeping the respect of their employees and of the citizens at large.
These few examples show how important it is to reflect today about leadership and more precisely about leadership ethics. We live in a world where leaders are often ethically or morally disappointing. Meticulous biographers sometimes diminish the image of great leaders by probing their ethical shortcomings. It’s difficult to have heroes in a world where every wart and wrinkle of a person’s life are public. Ironically, the increase in information that we have about leaders has increased the confusion over the ethics of leadership.
In this entry, I would like to set the scene by raising a few questions related to leadership and ethics. This will be an opportunity to praise two radically different but complementary books about ethics (Mark Strom’s “Arts of the wise leader” and Joseph Nye’s “The powers to lead” and to pay a tribute to one of the “wise leaders” of my life, Bill Tracy, a wonderful father and successful businessman and politician.
Leadership is not a person or a position. It is a complex relationship between people, based on trust, obligation, commitment, emotion, and a shared vision of the “good”. Ethics, as we have seen in more depth in another entry (see Should you develop your imagination to be ethical), is about how we position ourselves in an environment, how we pursue a particular art of living the “best possible life”, how we make decisions, how we distinguish between good and bad. “Ethics lie therefore at the heart of all human relationships and hence at the heart of the relationship between leaders and followers”, as Joanne Ciulla argues in a very interesting book, “Ethics, the heart of leadership” (part of what follows is directly inspired by her introduction to this book).
In this Ciulla follows James McGregor Burns, an American historian and presidential biographer who coined the term transformational leader in his book “Leadership” considered by some as the best one on the subject. Burns describes leadership as a relationship in which leaders and followers morally elevate each other. What does he mean with that? For Burns, the values of moral leadership are those of the Enlightment – liberty, equality, and community. This is of course a big-picture view of the ultimate ends of leadership. Most authors on leadership probably believe in these ideals, just as they would agree that leaders should be honest, fair and just. Nevertheless, in ethics, as with many other things, the devil is in the details.
This shows in the following questions:
- Most people agree that coercion is not leadership, but what is coercion and what is a willing follower?
- How do we draw the moral line between free will and subtle forms of manipulation, deception, and the pressure that group norms place on the individual?
- If the leadership relationship is one that morally elevates both parties, from what to what does it have to elevate?
- Who determines which moral values are better and what are the criteria for better values?
- What if they incorrectly understand the common “good”?
Overall, one can investigate three very general facets of leadership ethics:
1. The ethics of the means:
- What do leaders use to motivate followers to obtain their goals? In other words, how do leaders get people to do things (impress, organize, persuade, influence, and inspire) and how is decided what is to be done (forced obedience or voluntary consent, determined by the leader, and as a reflection of mutual purposes)? Are leaders more effective when they are nice to people, or are leaders more effective when they use certain techniques for structuring and ordering tasks? (for some reflections on how to motivate people see this blog’s entry How do you motivate staff in the public sector?).
- What is the moral relationship between leaders and followers?
2. The ethics of the ends:
- What is the ethical value of a leader’s accomplishments?
- Did his/her actions serve the greatest good?
- Who is and isn’t part of the greatest good?
3. The ethics of the person:
- What are leaders’ personal ethics?
- Are they motivated by self-interest or altruism?
These may all seem like obvious questions until you consider cases in which a leader is ethical in some of these areas but not others. For example, some leaders may be personally ethical but use unethical means to achieve ethical ends (remember Machiavel); other leaders may be personally unethical, but use ethical means to achieve ethical ends (Clinton?), etc.
This of course raises the question: Do leaders have to be ethical in all three areas to be ethical? Some might argue that the only thing that matters is what the leader accomplishes (consequentialist or utilitarist ethics; for more details see slide 9 on the following presentation, already introduced in this blog’s entry, titled Should you develop your imagination to be ethical). Others might argue that the means and ends are ethically important (kind of “ethics of responsibility”), but the personal morality of a leader (“virtue ethics”) is not.
Whatever the answers you provide to these questions, one can argue, together with Ciulla, that a greater understanding of ethics should improve our understanding of leadership. There are today in academic circles (as witnessed by Strom and Nye’s books reviewed below) big debates about the definition of leadership. But one can argue that these debates are really debates over what researchers think constitutes “good” leadership. The word “good” refers to both ethics and effectiveness. What is important to note is that these “academic” debates influence the “real” world: the definitions of leadership used in managerial books influence the image they form about their role and how they should act while “the witness of moral leadership” plays an important role, more and more recognized by researchers, in improving the standards of business and everyday life. The question of what constitutes a good leader lies at the heart of the public debate on leadership. We want our leaders to be good in both ways. It’s relatively easy to judge if they are effective, but more difficult to judge if they are ethical because, as mentioned here above, there are many factors and possible views which are relevant to making this kind of assessment.
Yet, given the central role of ethics in the practice of leadership, it is remarkable that there has been little in the way of sustained and systematic treatment of leadership ethics by scholars. As Ciulla argues: “The state of research on leadership ethics is similar to the state of business ethics 20 years ago. For the most part, the discussion of ethics in the leadership literature is fragmented; there is little reference to other works on the subject, and one gets the sense that most authors write as if they were starting from scratch. […] It’s hard to tell when researchers are not explicit about their ethical commitments. The point is that no matter how much empirical information we get from the ‘scientific’ study of leadership, it will always be inadequate if we neglect the moral implications. The reason why leadership scholarship has not progressed very far is that most of the research focuses on explaining leadership, not understanding it.”
During the Christmas holidays, I read two excellent and complementary books about leadership: “The powers to lead” by Joseph S. Nye, Jr. and “The Arts of the wise leader” by Mark Strom. They are very different but complementary books.
Crisp, compact and yet wide-ranging, “The powers to lead” provides a good mapping of the different styles of leadership and the various hard (ability to bully and bargain,…) and soft (emotional self-awareness and control,…) power skills that can be used and combined to lead “smartly” (understanding evolving environments and adjusting style to context and followers’ needs,…). It also provides criteria to help distinguish “good” from “bad” leaders, eg. Gandhi and Hitler. A leader is for him “someone who helps a group create and achieve shared goals”. So, for Nye, Hitler is a “bad” leader but a leader nevertheless (unlike McGregor Burns who would not consider Hitler to be a leader but a just a “mis-leader”, a tyrant).
Inspired and inspirational, “The Arts of the wise leader” (for more info see http://www.artsofthewiseleader.com) is at first glance more limited in scope. It focuses on what it takes to be a “wise” leader, in Strom’s words. Strom therefore tends to disregard “less positive” (eg. machiavellian or bullish) styles of leadership or the use of “hard” powers. He explicitly refuses to define leadership (“Wisdom is like love: it’s about engagement, not definition. So is leadership. Love has as many faces as the personalities of those who love, but we know it: we know it when we see love, when we experience it, and we feel when it is absent. […] It is a work of wisdom, common sense, intuition or a word from another that helps us distinguish love from its imitations. So is it easy to define love in all its manifestations? No. Is it necessary to define love in order to love? No. But ought we to love? Of course, and to love well. And nobody loves well from a dictionary or a recipe book. It’s the same with leadership. Definitions are not nearly as important as doing it well.”). One can nevertheless easily deduce from his book that the scope he gives to leadership is broader than Nye’s: he seems to consider a father can be a leader a leader for his son. That would probably not fit Nye’s definition.
In a future entry I will provide a more in-depth analysis of these two books but in the meantime, I would like to stress my belief that Strom’s book, despite some weaknesses and lack of rigorous definitions (unlike Nye’s), is a great help to “understand” leadership and to become “wise” leaders (which does not mean we should always lead – as Storm writes: “to lead wisely is to pay attention [among other things] to how a person comes to the fore in one context and gets behind someone else in another”)
Now, whatever the theories, a good way to help you make up your mind about such questions is to ask yourselves the following question: who has played the role of a “wise” leader or mentor in my life so far? Such questions, like many other suggested by Mark Strom in his book are kind of “spiritual” exercises. In these challenging times, these exercises give interesting new insights about leadership and more specifically about who you are and who has shaped you.
For me, answering this question has been an opportunity to pay, in my thoughts, a modest tribute to these wonderful people. Many of them probably don’t even imagine the importance their example has been in shaping my character and my view on the world (actually I even did not meet a few of them but what I read or heard about them has been so powerful for me I felt the need to include them in my “list”). The exercise of identifying who has been so far a “wise leader” in my life helped me to realize how lucky I have been to cross the path of so many interesting and challenging persons. In a previous entry to this blog, I already referred at length to a great mentor in my life, François Vassart (see What does it mean to ‘become’ human?). Future entries will probably also provide an opportunity to explain why others have played and still play such an important role as leader or mentor in my life.
In any case, among these “wise leaders”, one has a particular place in my heart: Bill Tracy, my American foster father who welcomed me some 25 years for a year, as an exchange student, in his wonderful family. Bill is for me a particularly “wise” leader because, in my eyes, he has been a model and mentor to many people, not only professionally and politically but also privately. Bill not only succeeded with his brother, cousins and sons to develop and diversify a large farm (which grows cotton, potatoes, almonds, pistachios, cattles,…), the Buttonwillow Land & Cattle Company. He also entered politics and became Deputy Secretary of California Agriculture (the 10th biggest agricultural “country” in the world if I am not mistaken). He also served as chairman of many national associations and environmental committees. Last but not least, he and his wife Susie succeeded in happily raising 4 children (2 from each previous marriages) and found even the time to welcome for a year a fifth teenager from an obscure little country, Belgium. I will never forget those wonderful evenings when Bill and I went jogging across the cotton fields around the house, under the rose and light-blue sky.
He generously shared with me his wisdom. One of his most memorable lines, which is common knowledge among farmers, is “Nature always fills a void”. A simple sentence but full of insights and that you can ponder on during a lifetime. Just like “Nature loves to hide”. Pierre Hadot (see my favorite thinkers) dedicated decades of his life studying this sentence and wrote a wonderful book about it, “Le voile d’Isis” (translated into English: “The veil of Isis”). Or “Nature is infinite in time and space”. Marcel Conche (see also my favorite thinkers) dedicated a big part of his life and works to explain what this sentence means to him and to other authors (as some of you know, I currently translate one of his books on this subject – I’m more than halfway through – very soon, I will publish on this blog some chapters for review).
Some of you might wonder from where comes this urge to pay tribute to so many people, in such a “discrete but public” way (this blog is indeed open for reading to all but unlikely to be regularly read by other people than friends or relatives). Here are possible answers to this question:
- This is not exactly new from me. From a fairly young age, I have felt the need to thank people for what they meant to me (I remember how often I thanked Bill & Susie Tracy for having as an exchange student while I was there). It is not only a question of making them feel good: it also makes me feel good. It often feels like my “body and soul” are filled with so much love and gratitude that it spills over 😉 It needs to get out of me. I guess it is an expression from my love for life which crystallizes this way. There are worse ways to do so, I guess ;-).
- There is nothing new about this way of expressing publicly gratitude. It is an old literary genre. I don’t remember if it is Plato or Aristotle who starts one of his major works by thanking a legion of people for all what they have taught him.
- In my early forties, I am at a time of my life when one usually makes a balance of his life so far and when, having received and absorbed so much is getting ready to give to others in return. That is an ideal moment to express gratitude. But it is also a good way to start reflecting upon those for whom I could play the role of leader or mentor. I’m not just talking about managing a team. I’m talking about “coaching” people, setting an example, supporting others to grow. As I will argue at more length in another entry discussing the works of Howard Gardner, this is a crucial role we kind of have forgotten in many of our restructuring, in pursuit of efficiency,… something we crucially need if we want to help young professionals to have the strength of character to behave ethically.
So, before detailing in another entry what Strom means by “wise leader”, what does it mean to you? Wherever you live, in the European Union or elsewhere in the world, who are the leaders (politicians, CEO’s,…) in your country or abroad you view as “wise” leaders? Is Obama (potentially) a “wise” leader?And, more personaliy, who are the “wise leaders” of your life? And, perhaps most importantly, for whom are you or do you want to be a “wise” leader?
With these hopefully stimulating questions, I wish you a very happy new year 2009!Laurent Ledoux