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Column 2: Leadership and Ethics
By Dan Krejci
In the previous column, I discussed the various ways people perceive and react to confrontation. In The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership, author Steven B. Sample states, “[The leader] needs to be able to look at complex human situations and sense how the outcome would be affected depending on the sequence in which [the leader] interacts with various participants.” It is important to understand that people can perceive and react differently to confrontation, because the ways individuals of an organization deal with confrontation affects a person’s ability to lead.
In this column, I discuss two closely related topics—which are tied to confrontation—leadership and ethics. This column is based on scholarly literature, as well as my observations of public organizations spanning forty-two years working at federal, state, and local levels of government.
For this article, I use the operational definition of leadership presented in Montgomery Van Wart’s book, Leadership in Public Organizations: An Introduction. Van Wart notes, “…leadership is a complex process involving the acts of assessing one’s environment and one’s leadership constraints, developing numerous leadership traits and skills, refining and modifying one’s style (behaviors) for different situations, achieving determined predetermined goals, and continually self-evaluating one’s performance and developing one’s potential.”
The tendency to classify leaders into one of two categories—good or bad—is a poor taxonomy, particularly if the evaluation is focused more on personality rather than effectiveness. A leader may have meager social skills yet accomplish the organizational mission, especially if the leader uses a delegative style of leadership. In addition, a leader that is well-liked may be ineffective at achieving the organizational mission. After all, leadership is not about going around the organization doing what is sometimes referred to as “the wink and grab-and-grip handshake.” Leaders who are well-liked, yet do not adhere to the Van Wart’s operational definition of leadership, should not be considered good leaders. Clearly, a leader needs a repertoire of leadership traits in order to be effective. If a leader is adept at only one type of approach, the leader will only be effective in those situations that are best handled by that one leadership style.
When we think of leaders, we focus on those displayed on an organizational chart. Leadership refresher courses are often reserved for the formal leaders of an organization, yet leadership training is needed at every level of an organization. In Nobody in Charge: Essays on the Future of Leadership, Harlan Cleveland implies that everybody in an organization has the potential to be in charge of something—whether as a member of committee, focus group, task force or even the daily activities of the organization. This enables personnel to acquire a sense of ownership in the organization. However, accomplishing the mission, while maintaining the morale of the organization, is not accomplished solely by leadership—a leader needs to be ethical. It is important that leaders of public organizations effectively deal with how individuals perceive and react to confrontation, and it is equally important that this is done in an ethical manner.
James Svara notes, in The Ethics Primer for Public Administrators in Government and Nonprofit Organizations, “Ethics refers to well-based standards of right and wrong that prescribe what humans ought to do, usually in terms of duties, principles, specific virtues or benefits of society.” Yet how do we establish right and wrong, and what method(s) could be applied to making this determination?
According to Paul and Elder, in The Thinkers Guide to Understanding the Foundations of Ethical Reasoning, it is essential to develop ethical reasoning abilities in order to overcome our negative characteristics (i.e., self-importance, prejudices and self-deception). They further note that there is the temptation to rely on other areas—such as social convention, religion, political ideology and law—to aid in our ethical reasoning and conduct. Paul and Elder refer to the aforementioned as pseudo-ethics, and these pseudo-ethics can be problematic.
Religion can be problematic because of the variability of religions and the argument between theists and atheists. The possible problem with the law is what is ethical may violate the law and vice versa. Political ideologies fail us at times due to the nature of politics— a conflict as to what values will be adopted in a society. Social convention is perhaps the most problematic because social conventions change based on a society’s whims. In the United States, it once was considered legally, morally, and ethically justifiable to own slaves. With the issues involved in ethical reasoning, how do we get individuals and organizations to act ethically?
One trap is to rely solely upon professional codes of ethics. The purpose of these professional codes of ethics is to set forth the behavioral expectations of organization or association members, yet these professional codes can have serious issues. The difficulties with professional codes of ethics are not a recent observation. Phillip Monypenny noted in his 1953 article, “A Code of Ethics as a Means of Controlling Administrative Conduct,” that when it comes to professional codes of ethics there are issues of enforceability, individual acceptance of all points of the code, a person’s ethical grounding (a person may or may not live up to the code). Others have arrived at similar conclusions (see Harold Gortner’s 1991 text Ethics for Public Manager; The Ethics Primer for Public Administrators in Government and Nonprofit Organizations by James Svara 2015). Gortner notes that a professional code of ethics may not be enforceable because members of professional organizations perceive the codes as, “…irrelevant or inadequate to deal with problems they face as managers.” Since professional codes of ethics cannot be relied upon entirely to promote ethical conduct, what can we use besides ethical reasoning as posited by Paul and Elder?
There is a model that applies a combined ethics approach, which is preferable because it provides a more comprehensive approach for ethical conduct. Svara notes that each approach to ethics (utilitarianism, deontology and virtue ethics) has its shortcomings, yet when combined in a comprehensive model, can be more effective since a comprehensive model can deal with the shortcomings of a single approach.
Based partly on the work of Charles Garofalo and Dean Geuras, Svara posits a unified approach to ethics—the “Ethics Triangle.” The three points of the Svara’s triangle are “(1) Principle (justice, fairness and equity); (2) Consequences (greatest good); (3) Character (virtue/intuition).” The final ingredient Svara depicts is the center of the triangle—the concept of duty. This is important for public administrators since duty (serving the public) is the core of what we do.
Clearly people perceive and react differently to confrontation (precursor to conflict), which is important for public sector leaders to know in order to promote the public interest. In promoting the public interest, public administrators must operate from a sense of ethics that relies on ethical reasoning and a unified model of ethics, which Svara’s “Ethics Triangle” is designed to accomplish. In my final column, I will discuss diversity in the workplace and social equity in order to provide a comprehensive approach in the development of public sector leaders.
Author: Dan Krejci is an associate professor of political science and public administration and Director of the MPA Program at Jacksonville State University, Jacksonville, Alabama. He received his MPA Degree from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte; his MA and PhD in Political Science from Texas Tech University. He can be reached at [email protected].