Teaching or Training: Ethical Leadership

Detail of The School of Athens by Raffaello Sa...

Detail of The School of Athens by Raffaello Sanzio, 1509, showing Plato (left) and Aristotle (right) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.[1] 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:

  1. The mission
  2. The people
  3. Yourself

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.


Teaching Ethical Leadership « Sago.

I agree with the final conclusion, and I would state it:

If it looks too good to be true; It is

Leadership: Preparation, and the Staff (1)

We talk here quite a lot about leadership, and many of you are in leadership or at least managerial positions. But we, none of us, are Alexander the Great. We not leading an ancient army across Asia that is responsible for feeding itself. we are leading (or hope to be) organized groups of people, trying to do whatever.

In my case, it’s make a living by doing electrical work. What I do is highly technical, some days, you would swear I was a computer tech, some days a forensic detective, and some days a driving personnel manager. Your life may be quite similar, or different.

But one thing is true for us all, in the world of today, we need to be prepared and have the correct information if we are to achieve the desired result. In my case, I have to follow various codes (there are many more of them than you suspect) ensure that the work is done on time, and very importantly (at least if I want to eat) on budget.

The thing is, I usually do most of our estimating, so I have to know another whole series of things, from how long it takes each of our electricians to install an outlet to what our insurance rate is likely to do over the course of the job. Often, all I know going into a job is what the client wants to do, sometimes I have engineers and architect to argue with work with but not always. Always, I have to make this happen on whatever the client is willing to pay.

You know what? This is why so many one or two person firms, especially in contracting, fail. I have whole bookcases, not to mention gigabytes on the server, of information in connection with this, I also have he experience of years of doing this type of work. But that doesn’t cover everything either.

For instance:

  • How will Obamacare affect us (if it will)
  • What will the next code cycle bring
  • What Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) does each employee need.
  • What equipment does a crew need
  • Should we buy it, rent it, try to get along without it, for how long and why.
  • Is it possible to borrow money
  • What is the return on investment on that equipment, training, whatever else.
  • If something goes wrong, will my insurance company really work to win or just pay money (and raise my rates till I go out of business)
  • If we get an OSHA violation (even a minor one) how many contracts will we lose (the answer is most of them)
  • Where the best supplier for this item, and is there a cheaper (and adequate) substitute

And on and on and on and on.

Through experience I’ve got a pretty good feel for all this, in a small company. But if we were to add a few more crews, it will all need to be recalculated, and I won’t have the time.

And that’s what a competent staff does, none of us can keep up with everything, there is far too much information, and it’s mostly relevant, and should be considered. For us to add two crews, We will have to add probably three staff people, and we will need to add them before we add the field people. Here’s where two things stand out: the logistical problem and the personnel one.  This, however, is not uncommon, and leads on to a consideration of how these lessons from ordinary circumstances apply to extraordinary ones.

Adam Smith — A Man who Saw the Future

Adam Smith; engraving

Adam Smith; engraving (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Here’s a segment of a post from my friend Loopy. It’s a quote from Adam Smith, and quite applicable to where we are now. I think we need to ponder this as we plan our way forward but, in any case enjoy his command of the English language, which is one thing that always strikes me with the use of prose from the 18th century.


Amidst the turbulence and disorder of faction, a certain spirit of system is apt to mix itself with that public spirit which is founded upon the love of humanity, upon a real fellow–feeling with the inconveniencies and distresses to which some of our fellow–citizens may be exposed. This spirit of system commonly takes the direction of that more gentle public spirit; always animates it, and often inflames it even to the madness of fanaticism. The leaders of the discontented party seldom fail to hold out some plausible plan of reformation which, they pretend, will not only remove the inconveniencies and relieve the distresses immediately complained of, but will prevent, in all time coming, any return of the like inconveniencies and distresses. They often propose, upon this account, to new–model the constitution, and to alter, in some of its most essential parts, that system of government under which the subjects of a great empire have enjoyed, perhaps, peace, security, and even glory, during the course of several centuries together. The great body of the party are commonly intoxicated with the imaginary beauty of this ideal system, of which they have no experience, but which has been represented to them in all the most dazzling colours in which the eloquence of their leaders could paint it. Those leaders themselves, though they originally may have meant nothing but their own aggrandisement, become many of them in time the dupes of their own sophistry, and are as eager for this great reformation as the weakest and foolishest of their followers. Even though the leaders should have preserved their own heads, as indeed they commonly do, free from this fanaticism, yet they dare not always disappoint the expectation of their followers; but are often obliged, though contrary to their principle and their conscience, to act as if they were under the common delusion. The violence of the party, refusing all palliatives, all temperaments, all reasonable accommodations, by requiring too much frequently obtains nothing; and those inconveniencies and distresses which, with a little moderation, might in a great measure have been removed and relieved, are left altogether without the hope of a remedy.


Continue reading Adam Smith — A Man who Saw the Future.



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