Sunday, August 24, 2014

Toward a Theory of Ethical Leadership: Exculpating Interlarding Ideologies

Constructing an accurate ethical-leadership concept that is not over-extended by one’s ideological agenda ought to begin with defining leadership itself. That is to say, more attention should be paid to thinking about what leadership is. Beyond its attributes and any contextual artifacts, leadership itself must be identified as a distinct phenomenon before we can go on to highlight the ethical dimension that completes “ethical leadership.” Then what counts as the ethical dimension of leadership can be clipped back to that which is implied in the definition of leadership, which in turn is entailed in the essence of the phenomenon.

How we characterize the ethical dimension depends in large part on how we define leadership. For example, if leadership is defined as making sense of actual and desired social happenings, then ethical leadership is the obligation to satisfy followers’ need for meaning. On the other hand, if leadership is defined as distinguishing and favoring a desired value relative to actual values, ethical leadership is the obligation to instill the desired value in others. In his text, Leadership, James M. Burns claims that transformational (as distinct from transactional) leadership is geared to the followers’ development.[1] While doubtlessly salubrious, such an accretion is dogmatic, or arbitrary, if we are to base the ethical dimension of leadership on our definition of leadership itself. I suspect that the arbitrariness here comes from the scholar’s own values, which he intentionally or unintentionally “slips in” or superimposes as being necessary to ethical leadership itself.

To tease out the presence of ideology in the formulation of a practical concept like ethical leadership, I submit for your consideration the possibility that Hitler was a transformational leader even though he did not lead in order to develop all of his followers. I suspect at least some German Jews supported Hitler because of his job-creating success from re-militarizing Germany—at least until the Nazi regime broadened its anti-Communist mandate to go after the Jews. Rather than merely exclude some Germans from being his followers, Hitler went after some of his existing followers. It cannot be said, therefore, that Hitler’s leadership was in keeping with the development of his followers.

Even so, Hitler’s leadership was transformative in terms of meaning and values pertaining to Germany itself. In re-formulating it from “the vanquished” to the third German empire, or Reich, Hitler sought to transform Deutschland. He was not merely a transactional leader, micro-managing incremental change within a given social-political paradigm or framework.

So we have a case of transformational leadership in which the development of followers is not that which is necessarily being transformed. Burns might have used the term in that way, but actually transformation has to do with systemic as distinct from incremental change; paradigm change rather than reforming existing programs. Adding content or application to transformational beyond this likely comes out of someone’s personal ideology rather than what is entailed in the construct itself.

For example, the redistribution of wealth or power is not inherent in ethical leadership defined as “making” and “selling” meaning. Redistribution does not necessarily come to mind as a leader formulates and sells a particular social reality whose meaning is valued by followers. The particular prescription comes out of an ideological agenda superimposed on ethical leadership rather than being implied in sense-making or valuing itself. 

To be sure, one could get out of the straightjacket here by widening the definition of leadership beyond that which is intrinsic to the phenomenon itself. For instance, one could say that redistribution is part of fairness, which in turn is an ethical principle, so ethical leadership must entail redistribution. This is essentially cheating, however; a definition that goes beyond the nature of that which is being defined is not accurate. The ethical dimension of leadership is delimited by what leadership itself is, rather than what ethics may entail. As a methodology in coming up with a working definition of leadership, and then of ethical leadership, we should be as strict as possible so not to leave any fat on the bone. No freeloading ideological trappings allowed.

Rather than being excessively stark or hopelessly minimalist, this approach emphasizes essence or the nature of something as the basis for delimiting a concept. Thwarting any potentially interloping ideological agendas is gravy. I believe that ethical leadership can indeed be understood and explained in terms of its essence in spite of the encroaching nature of the interlarded opinions and ideological agendas that seek to monopolize the concept for their own purposes. Put another way, the development of knowledge on ethical leadership, I contend, is being held hostage by ideologues who seek to use the label to further their own agendas. The ethical dimension intrinsic to leadership itself may be much thinner than we suspect.

[1] James MacGregor Burns, Leadership (New York: Harper & Row, 1975).