Moral Leadership, Political Philosophy and Hastings College (2005) - Alexander Bertland
Hastings College has many organizations to help you learn how to lead. You should take advantage of them. Leading a campus organization is not altogether unlike running other sorts of organizations. It requires working with people, taking responsibility, holding other people responsible and anticipating problems. Gaining experience in these areas will help you no matter what leadership environment you encounter in the future. Further, as a citizen of the community of Hastings College and the city of Hastings, you have a duty to contribute by becoming a leader. Do not shy away from this responsibility out of a lack of confidence. Hastings College would not have accepted you if you could not lead.
This essay will raise three questions to get you to think about what kind of leader you want to be. It draws these questions from the history of Western political philosophy to uncover three specific questions. Sometimes answers to these questions will be suggested. Sometimes the questions will be left open. While reading this essay, think about some of the organizations you have already encountered at Hastings College: for example, Student Association, media production, sports teams, peer educators. Think about how you might answer these questions as you come to lead some of these organizations.
How does one prepare to be a moral leader?
Do leaders need role models? This might seem like an odd question since our culture seems constantly to cry out for better role models. Renaissance Philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli argues that one should imitate a successful leader.1 After all, one of the main challenges of leadership is preparing for the unexpected. Presumably, those who have come before have faced the unexpected and responded accordingly. So even if one cannot see why a leader does something a certain way, it is often because the action prevents problems that are hard to see.
The ancient Greek philosopher Plato would make two significant counter arguments to this. First, he would question whether one can really understand what someone does just through observation. If one cannot understand the action, can one imitate it?2 Second, Plato would argue that all humans have responsibilities to others. Each one has a responsibility to understand for himself or herself what these responsibilities are. Blind obedience to the example of another is never a sound justification for failure to fulfill a moral duty.
This is not to deny that it is significant to learn from others. One of the most important experiences a first-year student can have is listening to the ideas of juniors and seniors. It may seem intimidating to talk to an advanced student, but most people enjoy talking about themselves. It is very unlikely that a third- or fourth-year student will not want to share valuable war stories. Nevertheless, heed Plato's warning and try not to blindly follow others.
Then how should one prepare to lead? Plato's student Aristotle makes an important distinction to help answer this question. He posits an important difference between two ways of knowing: craft and prudence.3 To know a craft means to know a method for producing a specific end result. However, knowing a craft does not necessarily mean that you know why the craft works. For example, one may have craft knowledge of how to fill out a purchase order from the business office. This would mean that one could actually fill the proper information in the spaces yet not know why the information is necessary. Aristotle writes that "Craft is fond of luck and luck is fond of craft."4 This is because the person who has craft knowledge — perhaps following the advice of Machiavelli to follow a role model — simply hopes that what has worked in the past will also work in the future, but has no reason to think this is necessarily true.
An individual with prudence, by contrast, understands why things work and therefore can find creative solutions to unexpected problems. Returning to the above example, a leader may have to explain to someone else — a new member of the group or even a store clerk — how purchase orders work. This would be much easier if the leader grasps the entire process.
Aristotle argues that a moral leader needs prudence.5 First, a moral leader with prudence will have a much better chance of seeing what problems might occur and what unique solutions could solve them. Every event or activity has unexpected problems. A classic example of this occurred during an Artist Lecture Series student symposium. While most of the plans developed flawlessly, the student committee had not anticipated a downpour. They had not anticipated the difficulty of getting speakers from the sidewalk into the French Chapel unharmed by the rain. Ultimately, they had to rearrange personnel to track down umbrellas. Fortunately, the leaders of the symposium had enough prudence to have a communication network and people in place to do these kinds of last-minute errands.
A leader's actions affect many people. A leader must be able to foresee those implications. This is difficult. Let us suppose, for example, a symposium committee invites a biologist to speak on campus. The biologist agrees to have lunch with some students and faculty. The leader will have to use all of her or his powers of perception to know who to invite and who not to invite. If the leader forgets someone, then that person will be hurt by being left out. If the leader invites someone who does not want to be there, the person will be hurt by the unnecessary obligation. While the pain incurred is minimal, a good leader is able to reduce the likelihood of any pain by using prudence to understand the situation, recognize problems and find solutions.6
To learn to be a leader, then, Aristotle suggests that one develop a particular attitude toward classroom study. Take an active role in learning and try to understand why concepts and institutions are the way they are. Then use that knowledge to think critically and solve problems. Further, be excited to take a variety of classes. The more experience one has in sol-ving a wide variety of problems, the more of a chance one will be able to find solutions when and where they are necessary.
Aristotle's suggestion raises the important point that classroom study should carry over into learning leadership. Do not fall into the trap of thinking that classroom learning exists in a world separate from the rest of life. This gap only exists for those who allow it to exist. Those who look for ways to apply classroom learning will find many ways of doing so.
Should a leader take responsibility for transforming members into moral beings?
This could be the most important question concerning moral leadership. For example, a fraternity president recognizes that the first-year members are not studying enough. The president has two approaches. He could step in to develop the work ethic and ethical character of the members. He could encourage members to study either by rewarding those who do (like buying them food) or punishing those who do not (by revoking certain privileges). Alternately, one could hold that the sole purpose of a leader is to make the organization function effectively. Unless a member of the group is actually threatening the group's ability to act, the leader has no business telling the members how to live. So unless the fraternity is actually on double secret probation and the fraternity is in danger, the president has no right to tell his members how they should or should not study.
Ancient philosophers would suggest that leadership includes the role of transforming members into moral beings. They compare the role of a leader to the role of a father or mother of a family.7 A leader is, presumably, the best member of the group and therefore the one with the most prudence, just like a father and mother would be. Therefore, the leader should make moral decisions for the members of the group.
Aristotle would make at least two arguments for this. First, developing moral sensibilities requires a positive environment. If a fraternity member spends all his time with people who do not study, the chances are that the student will also not study and become a slacker like his friends. Therefore, the leader must be more than a secretary who organizes people so that the group may function. The leader must create a positive moral environment. The leader must do something to get his members to study.
As another example, the leader of Alpha Chi, the academic honor society, is deciding whether or not to send a member to a national conference. On Aristotle's view, it is not enough for the leader to just find someone to go. Rather the leader should think about whose character stands to have the most positive development as a result of the conference. Aristotle would also argue that for a group to be a group, it must work together to achieve a goal. Any goal worth achieving would help develop moral character in some way. Therefore, the development of moral character must be an element of deciding how a group will function.
Eighteenth-century English philosopher John Locke would take serious issue with Aristotle's view. He argues that the metaphor of an organization to a family is incorrect. In a family relationship, there is an inherent superiority of the parents to the children.8 There is no reason to think that this is the case in an organization. A leader, unlike a parent, rules because the people consent to be ruled. This consent is grounded not on the leader's inherent moral superiority to the group. Rather, it is based on the belief that the leader can execute the will of the people. So the leader is just a person to organize the group and ensure its survival. It is misguided to think that a leader should work to transform the members of the community into virtuous people. Rather, the leader's sole responsibility is to administer the organization so that it may function.
The leader would still have to be moral in that the leader would have to organize the group justly. In the Alpha Chi example, the question of what would be best for the individual's moral development would not be an issue. It would be fair to ask whether the conference would help the individual learn how to run the organization, thus allowing the organization to function well. However, to ask in a paternal way whether this would help the person grow would be outside of the realm of the leader's role. It is up to the person chosen to decide if this is an opportunity to grow.
Locke would say that it may be the case, as Aristotle suggests, that social environment shapes the way people act. Nevertheless, it is not really the leader's responsibility to create that environment. Rather, the group as a whole needs to decide what that environment will be. In the fraternity problem discussed previously, the leader would have no right to tell members when and where and how much to study. It is up to each member to decide how much studying he wants to do. The leader should not interfere with this unless a) the existence of the fraternity is questioned or b) the group tells the leader that it wants there to be activities set up to encourage study.
Locke's argument, while compelling, becomes problematic when applied practically. Aristotle would respond to Locke by examining recent corporate disasters like Enron, MCI and Parmalat. Corporations are usually run on a Lockean model. CEOs will make decisions about what is financially sound for the company and will leave ethics to the lawyers. CEOs will rarely invade someone's privacy by telling them how to be moral. Indeed, corporate executives will rarely even use moral language (words like "good," "bad," "right" or "wrong") to refer to actions. This takes all moral discourse out of the workplace.
Aristotle would suggest that by removing this discourse, the value of moral norms becomes forgotten. Once this happens, moral norms lose their strength. If no one uses the term moral responsibility, how will they recognize situations when and where injustices are happening? Without moral discourse and without executives willing to use moral language, how can there be a sound moral environment?9
This argument may be compelling, but it hardly resolves the issue. Locke can respond by returning to the point that executives may be misguided about the nature of sound moral character. For example, say the executives of a company all go to some type of New Age self-help seminar and feel morally enriched by this. Do the executives of this company then have the right to make all the employees go? Locke would suggest that to avoid this, leaders should not be allowed to try to transform their followers.
The solution to this dilemma, then, is unclear. Contemporary philosopher Martha Nussbaum suggests a possible solution structured on what is called the capabilities approach.10 This assumes that everyone can develop into virtuous individuals by developing their capabilities. What those capabilities are, however, differs from person to person based upon their natural talents and dispositions. As a result, a leader should not try to force people to be virtuous. Rather, a leader should shape an organization in such a way that she or he puts people in positions to develop themselves. This would leave the freedom of Locke's position, while not removing questions of morality from the discourse, as is Aristotle's concern.
Returning to the Alpha Chi example, when the leader starts to think about whether to send anyone at all to the national conference, should he or she question whether this opportunity will give members the chance to better themselves? If the answer is yes, then the leader should open that opportunity to the group. This encourages people to develop their capabilities while not forcing them to do so in a particular way.
In the other example, the fraternity leader should not force members to study. Rather, the leader could find information about what tutors are available in different disciplines and then make it easy for members to get access to those tutors. This gives members a context in which they can develop their capabilities but does not force them to develop them in any given way. It keeps moral issues in the discourse but does not force individuals to act in certain ways.
It is unclear if the capabilities approach fully resolves this dilemma, but it is a helpful suggestion. Each leader is going to have to make a choice about how he or she will act with regard to membership in his or her organization.
How can a leader allow for open discourse?
Contemporary philosophers recognize that philosophy has long ignored the problems inherent in communication. A leader must be able to communicate effectively; this means both being able to be understood and being able to understand others. Perhaps providing open discourse is the most important element of moral leadership. That is, providing a forum where people are allowed to speak and where the leaders are forced to listen.
Practically speaking, good decision making depends upon being able to face the unexpected. The more people a leader has looking for problems and solutions, the better a chance the leader will be able to find the right one. This depends, above all, on the leader being able to listen. If the leader does not listen, positive suggestions get lost. Theoretically speaking, really listening to someone is one of the most noble and most difficult acts one can do for another. Saving another's life is clearly a great thing, yet one does not have to come to an understanding of another to do this; one can simply see the danger and respond. Listening requires being open to another, which is difficult to do.
Everyone has experienced misunderstandings. Hermeneuticists — philosophers who study interpretation — suggest this as one of the fundamental causes of misunderstandings. To comprehend any piece of communication — a statement from another, a poem or a piece of art — one has to put it in his or her own terms. One has to make the unfamiliar
familiar before processing what is being said. Before understanding what another says, one has to bring his or her worldview to bear on the other statement. Reading a difficult poem by Coleridge forces one to relate it to one's own experiences and worldview, even though one may not know the nineteenth-century context in which the poet was writing.11
Leaders often face this problem. Say an event needs to be promoted. A member suggests that a flyer be handed out to attract attention. The leader, who has stuffed many mailboxes full of flyers in the past and not seen results, rules out the idea. However, the member's suggestion was actually to hand people flyers rather than put them in mailboxes. The leader did not take the time to listen to the suggestion. As a result, the member felt less included in the organization and was hurt. Certainly this was a small hurt, but the mark of a good leader is to reduce these kinds of pains so as to make everyone feel more comfortable. This will allow the organization to move forward.
So the leader will have to learn how to listen. This is facilitated by creating a common ground in which people feel free and secure to speak and to be heard. There are a number of practical things a group leader can do to create this common ground. He or she can take the time to get to know every member of the group. In doing so, the leader will know where each member is coming from and may be able to understand him or her better. Leaders run meetings so that certain people do not dominate over others. The list of practical ideas continues. Nevertheless, two important philosophical problems come out of the need for discourse.
The first has to do with the value of tradition. It is often thought that tradition is a good thing because it provides a common ground. Contemporary German philosopher Jurgen Habermas argues that tradition is actually an impediment to the creation of this common ground.12 After all, most traditions have an element of exclusivity to them. They are usually set up by one group of people in opposition to other groups of people. As a result, traditions keep people from entering into the created common ground, thereby impeding the common discourse. For Habermas, the only way for a tradition to be legitimate is if there is real agreement that the tradition still makes sense. The fact that something is a tradition in and of itself does not justify it.
Traditionally, for Homecoming, there is a parade where people on floats throw a variety of unhealthy snacks and candies to the crowds lining the streets. A member of the Homecoming Committee could argue that this promotes bad health and suggest a rule that only healthy snacks be distributed from floats. On Habermas's view, the rest of the committee ought to take this suggestion seriously. The fact that students have always thrown candy is not a legitimate reason to continue doing so. Perhaps there are good rational and logistical reasons for throwing candy from the floats. For example, will five-year-old children be able to catch apples and bananas thrown at them? There may be sound rational reasons for doing things the old way, but they should be articulated.
Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor argues against this view. He suggests that tradition makes communication possible. Shared traditional experiences provide a ground for building mutual understanding and respect. Taylor suggests that competing traditions do create a problem. However, the solution to this problem is not to ignore the value of tradition but to understand better how traditions work and to preserve them whenever possible.
Taylor would suggest that the Homecoming Parade is a major event both for Hastings College and the community. Children look forward to getting candy as much as students look forward to building the floats. To change this would unnecessarily undermine the common feeling of goodwill. Taylor might look for a way of requiring some healthy foods to be incorporated to remind the students of the importance of eating well. That would help start a new tradition while preserving the old.
The second overarching problem is that of passion and sympathy. Traditionally, leaders are praised for making hard decisions rationally and objectively. While this may be sometimes called for, it does not allow for open communication. Communication often requires an emotional element. Contemporary feminist philosopher Luce Irigaray suggests that there needs to be a place for sympathy in open discourse.13 She suggests it is not enough simply to think rationally about what someone is saying. Instead, one has to try to sympathize with the parties involved and have that be an element of any resolution to come forward. This can be especially true when dealing with people coming from a tradition other than your own. It is hard to understand someone's position on an issue without knowing from where that position originates. Often you cannot know where a position comes from without knowing the emotional trials of a group, race or gender. A leader should work not only to know what these trials are but also to come to an emotional understanding of them.
So, creating a context in which people can speak openly is a difficult thing. As a leader, you will have to make fundamental choices about how you will set up a ground within which people make speak openly and be heard. It will be a difficult task, but by recognizing it as a problem you may have a better chance of solving it.
The history of Western Philosophy suggests three challenging questions about moral leadership. Underneath these questions lie many more questions. Nevertheless, the rewards of leadership — both to yourself and to your community — make facing these questions worthwhile. All leaders have these questions to address. The more we face up to these questions, the more understanding we develop. Ultimately, all we can do is our best.