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Metaphors and Public Administration Ethics

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

By Richard M. Jacobs
November 7, 2021

Public administrators invoke a variety of metaphors—visionary, leader, coach, mentor, CEO, among others—to describe their multifaceted roles.

With research indicating that metaphors can influence how subordinates perceive administrators, what metaphors might public administrators consider invoking to promote themselves as ethical leaders—as “trustworthy”—as the ASPA Code of Ethics portrays this concept?

What the research suggests

With public administrators enacting various roles, the metaphors they invoke should convey how they intend to conduct themselves. For example:

  • When pitching a complex idea, invoking the “CEO” metaphor signals competence in seeing the project through to a successful end.
  • When networking, invoking the “entrepreneur” metaphor signals personal warmth, making it possible to form relationships in more casual settings as well as expressing closeness, approachability and interest in collaborating with others. However, doing so also communicates distance.
  • When raising money, invoking the “CEO” metaphor conveys greater stability.

Concerning the “entrepreneur” metaphor, administrators should exercise caution. Research indicates that when entrepreneurs think about their startups and ventures, their brain patterns mimed those present when thinking about their children. This finding resonates with commonsense:

  • Entrepreneurs delay monetary gratification and commit to a startup or venture hoping for success over the long term, just like parents willingly sacrifice on behalf of their children for years, if not decades.
  • Like parents, entrepreneurs can also be oblivious to their “child’s” faults, perhaps overly estimating the value of a startup or venture. They may also be unwilling to accept expert advice concerning improvements that might prove critical for the healthy growth and development of a venture or startup.
  • Successful team-led ventures and startups require people to feel a sense of ownership. Yet, an entrepreneur—the “parent”—may not generate the same sense of attachment for the startup or venture, causing team members not to persist when confronting difficulties and setbacks.
  • A startup or venture can dominate an entrepreneur’s life the way a child dominates a parent’s life. Ultimately, the signs will augur it’s time to forsake something essential. Yet, many entrepreneurs express reticence even though it’s time to share power or perhaps turn the organization over to another person or team to take it to the next level.

Assessing subordinates’ perceptions of four metaphors—entrepreneur, scientist, advertiser and CEO—in terms of communicating competence and warmth, the data indicate administrators who invoke the metaphor of “entrepreneur” are perceived as “warmer”—meaning “good-natured, sincere and trustworthy.” However, they’re also perceived as less competent than administrators who describe themselves as “CEOs” or “scientists.”

These findings alert public administrators to the importance of communicating their intent by invoking the most appropriate metaphor—aware of its limitations—to describe the role they will enact and the goal to be achieved.

The “entrepreneur” metaphor and building trust

Invoking the metaphor of “entrepreneur,” public administrators can generate trust by conveying personal integrity that’s rooted in and emerges from a consistent and dependable character.

ASPA’s Code offers public administrators eight practices to promote this outcome:

  • Exercise integrity, courage, compassion, benevolence and optimism.
  • Maintain truthfulness and honesty; do not compromise either for advancement, honor or personal gain.
  • Resist political, organizational and personal pressures to compromise ethical integrity and principles and support others subject to these pressures.
  • Accept individual responsibility for one’s actions and their consequences.
  • Guard against using public position for personal gain or to advance personal or private interests.
  • Zealously protect against conflict of interest or its appearance by disclosing any interests that may affect objectivity when making decisions and recusing oneself from participation in those decisions.
  • Conduct official acts without partisanship or favoritism.
  • Ensure that others receive credit for their work and contributions.

Invoking the metaphor of “entrepreneur,” avoiding its negative connotations, and engaging in these eight practices, a public administrator demonstrates the kind of personal integrity that begets trust. In this way, this administrator’s trustworthy example of ethical leadership forges a culture of trust.

Then, as subordinates develop trust, they can collaborate as colleagues in making the sometimes difficult and challenging decisions concerning what the organization’s purpose and its values require to achieve shared goals, which is to build a more ethical public service organization.


Author: Richard M. Jacobs is a Professor of Public Administration at Villanova University, Immediate Past Chair of the ASPA Section on Ethics and Integrity in Governance and former Acquisitions Editor for Public Integrity. 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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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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