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Ethical Curiosity: An Essential Dimension of Ethical Leadership

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization. 

By Richard Jacobs
January 12, 2018

Leadership blogger Jane Perdue writes that leadership curiosity is “essential” to a leader’s effectiveness.

Why “essential?”

Perdue maintains leadership curiosity provides a corrective to “vending machine” leadership, where followers ask questions of leaders fully expecting them to provide correct answers. When those answers conform with prior expectations, followers reward leaders for being smart. In her estimation, these interactions beget leadership ineffectiveness.

More substantively, as leaders ask “What is this?”—the question that begets curiosity—they inquire beyond superficial facts by exploring other, perhaps contradictory yet potentially significant explanations. These not only can enrich the problemsolving process but also can be “game changers” — increasing effectiveness, especially if leaders value curiosity and encourage it in followers.

What about ethical dilemmas? How might public administrators develop the “ethical curiosity” that’s essential to resolve them effectively? Furthermore, how might public administrators lead their followers to value ethical curiosity and encourage its development in them?

What’s ethical curiosity?

Ethical curiosity is a mental power stimulated by intrinsic interest in an ethical dilemma. This power fuels the intellect to probe beneath surface facts, making it possible to examine those facts more objectively, critically, and creatively. It also fuels the intellect to tease out rival, if not contradictory explanations.

In this way, ethical curiosity clarifies uncertainty and ambiguity as well as illuminates the conflict of values embedded in ethical dilemmas. It also acts as a check on the tendency to reduce complex phenomena—like ethical dilemmas—to simple solutions that conform with prior expectations. Moreover, ethical curiosity is learned and developed through exploration and experimentation, for example, as public administrators refocus their deliberations away from what’s already known and toward what’s knowable but currently unknown.

In sum, ethical curiosity is a prepotent power of the mind that can stimulate ethical imagination, making it possible for public administrators to expand their problemsolving process to include an array of scenarios that although none may offer a perfect resolution, each represents sound ethical practice.

Learning, developing and sustaining ethical curiosity

As noted above, public administrators learn ethical curiosity when confronting ethical dilemmas as it stimulates their intrinsic interest to ask “What is this?” Public administrators then develop ethical curiosity by following wherever the facts may lead. But, ethical curiosity is sustained as public administrators persist in asking follow-up questions to clarify the dilemma’s conflict of values.

Among others, those follow-up questions might focus upon functional matters:

  • “How did it come to be so?”
  • “Why is this so?”
  • “Are these opinions or established facts?”
  • “Is what’s assumed valid?
  • “What’s wrong with or potentially wrong with this picture?”
  • “What if this isn’t the case and the opposite is?”
  • “How might others define and resolve this?”

Public administrators must also ask follow-up questions concerning the normative principles guiding their profession. The American Society for Public Administration’s Code of Ethics suggests eight:

  • Is the public interest being advanced?
  • Are the Constitution and law being upheld?
  • Is democratic participation being enhanced?
  • Is social equity being advanced?
  • Are people being fully informed and advised?
  • Is personal integrity being demonstrated?
  • Are ethics being promoted in the organization?
  • Is professional excellence being advanced?

To stimulate this deeper, more probative type of deliberation, public administrators need to develop three self-disciplines. First: They must be slow to judge, criticize, label and seek or insist upon certainty. Second: They must think “outside the box” through “disciplined listening,” identifying relevant facts that challenge what’s believed to be true. The third self-discipline is arguably the most crucial: Public administrators must encourage others to ask “What is this?” as well as other follow-up questions.

Ethical curiosity and organization change

Although research indicates many leaders espouse openness to considering alternative explanations and CEOs also report wanting to inquire beyond what’s known, they exhibit a decided lack of leadership curiosity.

This finding isn’t surprising because, as Argyris and Schön noted in 1977, what leaders oftentimes “espouse in theory” differs from their actual “theory in practice.” What these leaders and CEOs value is the “knowledge of authority”—facts learned from their role and experience—more than the “authority of knowledge” — relevant facts that could and should be introduced into the problemsolving process. This avoidable schism inhibits learning, developing and sustaining ethical curiosity.

Fortunately, the process of learning, developing and sustaining ethical curiosity provides the antidote, helping to ensure that leaders practice what they espouse through double-loop learning.

How so?

When leaders encourage their followers to ask “What is this?”, ethical curiosity is stimulated, causing them to learn and develop ethical curiosity. Then, as various functional and normative perspectives are introduced into the problemsolving process, their followers’ thoughts become more complicated. Through this continuous exploration and experimentation—where the group forges a pattern of shared assumptions about how best to resolve ethical dilemmas—ethical curiosity is learned and developed. Then, as this process works well enough and is considered valid because the resolutions work, ethical curiosity is sustained.

As Schein noted in 2004, as ethical curiosity increasingly becomes normative, it can be taught to and learned by new members as the correct way to perceive, think and feel in relation to how ethical dilemmas are resolved based upon the authority of knowledge. In short, it’s “the way we do things here.”

Ethical leadership and culture building in public service organizations

More than a process for resolving ethical dilemmas and building ethical cultures in public service organizations, ethical curiosity has the potential to be a “game changer.”

As public administrators encourage their followers to engage in learning, developing, and sustaining ethical curiosity, a new culture will gradually emerge. No longer will ethical dilemmas be resolved through “vending machine” leadership and the knowledge of authority that ends in ineffectiveness. Instead, a new culture—wherein the ethical leadership and the authority of knowledge are valued—will emerge with ethical curiosity providing the cornerstone upon which problem-solving effectiveness will be assessed.

This process represents how ethical curiosity might very well be considered “essential” to ethical leadership effectiveness.

Author: Richard M. Jacobs is a Professor of Public Administration at Villanova University, Acquisitions Editor of Public Integrity, and Chair of the ASPA Section on Ethics and Integrity in Governance. His research interests include organization theory, leadership ethics, ethical competence, and teaching and learning in public administration. Jacobs may be contacted at: [email protected]

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