July 16, 2013 Leave a comment
Pretty interesting stuff here, and in truth there are few things more important than teaching those who would lead to do so ethically. But, and this is important, define ethical in this context, and can it be taught, at all, or by a school, and if not, why not?
Lots of questions, not all of which we, or anybody else have completely solid answers for.
Can ethical leadership be taught? In the typical business school, this question would be interpreted, or “refurbished.” Can students be trained to become ethical leaders? While often conflated contemporaneously, these two questions are indeed distinct. Instructors, professors and school administrators should first decide which question is more relevant to their purposes. The question chosen should fit with the education, pedagogical method, and philosophy of education of not only the instructor or professor, but also the school itself. In this essay, I distinguish the two questions in order to unpack them with their full significance.
And that’s a good starting point, because educating is not the same as training. Educating carries connotations coming down from the ancient Greeks having to do with teaching one to think (recall Plato and Aristotle, if you will) while training most often pertains to a skill or skill set. For instance, one can train an electrician but one would educate a philosopher. See the difference?
And that, I think is part of the trouble, I can, perhaps, teach you to be a leader, comprised primarily of a set of skills applied to a short-range goal. But ethics is a long-term belief structure based on either religion or philosophy, and goes far more to core of who a person is.
I would also posit, in a bit of an aside, although closely related, is that much of the problem in American business is not so much a lack of ethical leadership at its base, although that is sorely lacking, as it is a complete lack of long-term thinking. I can’t think of a single large business (which includes government for this statement) that has any thoughts about where they intend to be in a year, let alone 5 years. We have let the quarterly balance sheet come to dominate our thinking, and it is hurting us badly.
I also think that this short-term thinking militates against ethical leadership, we all know that doing the right thing is often hurtful in the short-term. Don’t we all remember how much trouble we got in when we told our parents about the candy bar we stole, short-term, we would have been better off to keep quiet, long-term we started to engender trust for us in our parents, which is an unalloyed good. Again that is the difference.
The question, Can ethical leadership be taught, can be interpreted as being centered on knowledge of the concept and theories of ethical leadership. Can this particular knowledge be taught? That is to say, if a student were to ask, What is ethical leadership? could the instructor or professor answer with a definition? [...]
And even more to the point, in my opinion, is ethical leadership even an appropriate combination? Shouldn’t we be teaching ethics as core curriculum in elementary school? Actually parents should be teaching it starting at about 2 years old, in my opinion.
Leadership is something else. One can, if one chooses, enjoy a quiet and relatively stress free life and never learn to lead. In other words, I think: Everyone needs to be (at least reasonably) ethical; not everyone needs to lead. they are not the same thing and shouldn’t be conflated.
Moreover, whether or not the students are more able to become ethical leaders themselves is theoretically separate even if, as Plato wrote, knowing to do the good is all one needs to do it on a regular basis. In other words, understanding what ethical leadership is may contribute toward a student being able to practice ethical leadership, but this byproduct is not the immediate goal in getting students to understand what ethical leadership is. In this perspective, moreover, a business school’s faculty studies the phenomenon of business so as to understand it better.
Alternatively, a business school may be oriented to training its students to be practitioners of particular skills in business. Here, the question of whether teaching ethical leadership can facilitate or enhance a student’s ethical leadership skills in practice is relevant. Crucially, we have shifted qualitatively from education to training—from knowledge to skills.
In their article on teaching ethical leadership, Carla Millar and Eve Poole point to character, or moral intuition, as being improvable in the classroom setting if experiential learning is used. Whereas case studies involve examining how someone else exercised, or should have exercised, ethical leadership, experiential learning focuses on the decision-making in the student. “How would I handle this situation,” according to the authors, stimulates a student’s own moral compass, which in turn can facilitate the student’s skills in ethical leadership. Here, how is the operative question word, as it befits skill as primary.
A good example of this that my readers will be familiar with (and has been used in this way) is the role of General Savage in 12 O’Clock High which we featured here.
In terms of institutional conflicts of interest, being able to recognize them in practice, which is presumably preliminary to an ethical leader being able to avoid them, depends on first knowing what an institutional conflict of interest is. What is the relation between the two roles in a conflict of interest? How do they differ? What is a conflict of interest? Is such a conflict unethical even if it is not exploited? [...]
With all due respect, the only way to avoid conflicts of interest is hide in your office closet, they are a fact of life, although only sometimes life and death. We all have them right down to looking out for the welfare of our people or completing the mission, or getting oneself a raise.
This like so many things comes down to that old saying:
- The mission
- The people
The reasoning for this in business is this: If we don’t complete our mission in almost every case, even at some cost to our people, soon we will have no more missions and so our people will no longer have jobs. It’s fairly obvious, isn’t it, that my people are ‘force multipliers’ for me, if I have 4 people who can do half of what I can do, there are now effectively three of me. Obviously that’s not entirely accurate, it always depends on a lot of factors but in general it’s true.
It should be pretty obvious where I stand with respect to the two approaches. I contend that paradoxically learning what we know of an applied concept is the best means of enabling students to use the concept in praxis. Abstract knowledge and praxis are synergistic rather than antithetical. If I am correct here, then business school deans who are under the impression that companies want the schools to train future employees are not even serving those companies well by replacing education with training. Generally speaking, if something looks too convenient, it probably is better to take a more arduous route.
Continue reading The Worden Report: Teaching Ethical Leadership.
I agree with the final conclusion, and I would state it: