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Reflections on Leadership

Thursday, 2. July 2020


We asked some of the International Council to provide their thoughts on the question ‘what does ethical leadership mean in the 21st century?’ Here are their thoughts, experiences and some recommended reading to help you explore what ethical leadership means in your own life.

Barry Hart (USA)

Barry Hart

According to Parker Palmer, ‘[A] leader is someone with the power to project shadow and light’ onto their world, with the result being ‘as light-filled as heaven or as shadowy as hell’. Leading from the light implies leadership that is steeped in moral and ethical thinking and practice. Such a leader honours the dignity of those served, engaging them in constructive and reparative ways by participating in restoring relationships and constructing systems that sustain them. This leadership is defined by the psychological and often spiritual impact it has on others, as well as its interdependence with other servant-leaders and the people served.

No leader ‘gets it right’ all of the time, but those who attempt to lead from the light rather than the shadows are usually aware of both personal and institutional factors that challenge their role as an ethical leader. This awareness is due to a reflective practice that is dependent on an underlying set of values/principles such as honesty, transparency, integrity and a belief in justice that is grounded in equity. Personal and institutional power are also understood by such a leader, seen as critical forces that shouldn’t be abused, but used well.

Of course, ethical leadership is more than the values and actions of a leader, since leadership is influenced by context, circumstances and history. Ethical leadership therefore implies awareness of the contextual circumstances and often the psycho-historical realities of the people served. From microsystems of family and community to large social, economic and political systems, ethical leadership strives to engage people in a manner that leads to a partnership; one that gives everyone a sense of safety, dignity and equity and the basis to act together for the benefit all.

Recommended reading:

Let your Life Speak by Parker Palmer, published by Jossey-Bass

Leading with Dignity by Donna Hicks, published by Yale University Press

Cecilia (Thembi) Silundika

Cecilia (Thembi) Silundika

The COVID-19 pandemic has tested leadership principles and leaders around the world. It has also taught us the challenges of maintaining ethical considerations in decision-making. For example, uncertainty has meant that leaders have had to make choices between the economy on one hand and human lives on the other. A crisis can be a good opportunity for ethical leaders to live out their values, but the pressure involved can force people to lose sight of key principles, especially when they feel a strong sense of moral obligation to their stakeholders. One of these key principles is humility, the idea of staying open to the ideas of others.

At moments like these, leaders need to recognize that they will end up disappointing some of their stakeholders at least some of the time. Researchers have pinpointed ‘moral stress’ as a specific mental and emotional condition. Stress and anxiety are inevitable in times that are full of threats and uncertainties. By understanding and anticipating these pressures, leaders can be armed against the worst effects. It is important to step back and look beyond the moment of crisis.

So how can leaders stay inspired and maintain the resilience they need to cope with and combat moral stress? It appears that one of the most effective ways is to practice self-compassion and self-care. Like all forms of stress, moral stress can lead to depletion and exhaustion. Exercise, sleep and mindfulness are all proven ways to help you manage the inevitable strain.

Recommended reading:

The Search for Ethics in Leadership, Business and Beyond by Joanne B Ciulla, published by Springer Nature

Cookie Thief by Valerie Cox

Bill Hamilton (USA)

Bill Hamilton

‘A (leader’s) hardest task is not to do what is right, but to know what is right.’

This simple statement has come to embody my view of what ethical leadership means and originally comes from the closing lines of the 1965 State of the Union Address delivered by President Lyndon Johnson. He delivered this speech to the United States Congress as he assumed office after winning the 1964 presidential election, on his own merits, after serving for 14 months as President following John F. Kennedy’s assassination.  Although Johnson had served many years in Congress, he was now saying he was in awe of, maybe even humbled by and feeling ill-equipped to handle, the power and responsibilities of the President as a national and world leader.

Early in my career in public affairs, I always thought the best form of leadership was proactive problem-solving and decision-making, always following the guidance of best-practices based on what was known to be true.  The concluding step was implementing the decision as deliberately, quickly, and efficiently as possible, often simply as a matter of technical conclusion - all the goal of a trained and well-meaning social scientist.

However, over time, I came to believe that, in the course of human events and human relations, leaders are overall best served when they also engage in reflective meditation, looking internally and prayerfully for guidance toward a righteous outcome.  Decisions can be far-reaching not only because they have direct impacts on those affected, but also on those less affected.  I’m not talking about the proverbial law of unintended consequences – I’m talking about the ultimate task of all leaders, including servant leaders, that is to solve problems before they happen.

For the 21st century ethical leader, knowing what is empirically true is still important but it’s not enough.  Knowing what is right is hard work.  The people we serve always expect us to know what’s right, especially in these complicated times worldwide.  Let us encourage the next generation of leaders to embrace both the challenges and rewards of first seeking to know what’s right and then setting to doing it, in that order. 

Recommended reading:

Profiles in Courage by John F. Kennedy