Friday, August 26, 2011

Ten Common Characteristics of Principled Leaders

It is impossible to have any meaningful discussion of ethics without acknowledging the fact that there is no single standard of ethical conduct that all reasonable people can agree on. A reasonable, honorable person who draws her ethical system from a relativistic, teleological school of ethics like utilitarianism will inevitably clash with an equally reasonable and honorable person who bases his ethical system on one of the ethical schools under the umbrella of deontology. The ethical decisions of the former will be informed by her relativistic view of right and wrong, while the latter's will be informed by an equally valid but inconsistent ethical system in which the intended consequence of one's actions is largely irrelevant in gauging the ethical value of one's conduct. Thus, when viewed under a utilitarian filter, if one were able to travel back in time, strangling a baby Adolph Hitler in his cradle when he had not yet committed any atrocities is justifiable conduct as it will save the lives of more than seven million innocent victims in the future, but under a filter of deontology (both religious and secular) such conduct would be morally wrong because it would involve the killing of an innocent infant who had not yet committed any crime.

In a similar vein, we must recognize the simple pragmatic fact that there are political and ethical issues on which we as a society may never agree. The death penalty and abortion immediately come to mind. Despite the best efforts of each side on those polarizing issues to marginalize, misrepresent and even dehumanize the other, the honest, simple fact is that both sides can justify their positions with equally sound ethical arguments based on diametrically opposed schools of ethics. No amount of acrimonious debate can change that fact.

Fortunately, on most issues at least, people of conscience can agree on what constitutes ethical conduct. This is certainly true in the realm of business, government and academe where principled leaders abound whose ethics are informed by both absolutist and relativistic schools of ethics. In my experience what makes these individuals ethical leaders is their consistent adherence to the following ten principles:

1.   They put the interests of the institution they serve above their own self interest;

2.   They understand that character is defined by the small acts they perform when nobody is looking;

3.   They recognize that respect must be earned and nurtured over time but can be lost in an instant;

4.   They promote their people, not themselves;

5.   They take responsibility for their personal failures and for the failures of the groups they lead;

6.   They share credit for their successes with the individuals who made them possible;

7.   They are consistent and predictable in their decision making and in the exercise of their discretion;

8.   They strive to do what is right rather than what is expedient, regardless of the consequences to themselves;

9.   They do not fear making unpopular decisions and clearly communicate their rationale for making such decisions to those affected by them;

10. They only serve institutions that do not require them to compromise their principles.

Principled leaders make an enormous impact on the organizations they serve at all levels, and are often most appreciated after they retire or move on, their contributions and impact most poignant and palpable in their absence.

PLEASE NOTE: I have written about this issue before in various venues, and most recently published an article on the issue in the University of Botswana Law Journal (available here).

For more information about me or my published works, you can visit my home page at

Principled Leadership in Academia

The following essay was written in 2005, while I was Dean of the Business Division at Broome Community College (Binghamton, New York). A year after writing this piece (it appeared on an online blog which is no longer active), I decided to return to the classroom on a full time basis after four years of service as dean at BCC. My views have remained consistent through two postings as a dean and nearly twenty years of full-time university teaching experience.  For what they're worth, I'd like to share these again here.

April 11, 2005

As I sit down to write this in the wee hours of the morning a day after Pope John Paul II was laid to rest, the loss of his passing is numbingly palpable, and humanity’s ethical equilibrium somewhat less stable. Religious and secular leaders representing the major world religions attended his state funeral, and poignant moments of ancient enemies shaking hands served as a powerful reminder and compelling symbol of the ability of a single principled leader to quite literally change the world. The strength of his character and the persuasive power of his leadership by example won him the respect of those who shared and those who opposed his religious views and religious philosophy within and outside of the Catholic Church. Agree or disagree with the His Holiness, we always knew where he stood, and never doubted his respect and love for those who did not share his views or his religion.

We celebrate truly principled leaders like Pope John Paul II precisely because they are so very rare and precious. Yet even the lowliest religious practitioner is presumed to possess high ethical standards by virtue of her or his office. At the very least, men and women of the cloth are deemed to be on the side of God by the faithful. Alas, no such presumptive mantle of moral rectitude rests on the shoulders of academic leaders who are less likely to be seen as soldiers of God by those they lead than as mercenaries on the opposing army trying to lead the righteous on the road to perdition. Add to this the fact that in institutions with a tenure system and strong faculty and support staff unions it is very difficult to discharge or discipline the subordinates for whom they are responsible, and one can understand why many academic administrators find themselves in a position not unlike that of Sisyphus, forever pushing their action agendas up steep mountains only to see them roll downward again within sight of the summit.

College deans most often supervise departments or divisions whose chairs, program coordinators and faculty are protected by tenure and faculty unions, while they themselves serve at the pleasure of the president, vice president for academic affairs or provost they serve. Provosts or vice presidents, in turn, serve at the pleasure of the president, and presidents themselves serve at the pleasure of their colleges’ boards of trustees. As a result, academic administrators who consistently pursue the moral high road and base decisions on principle rather than on political or budgetary expediency do so knowing that they may risk their careers, their future advancement and perhaps their jobs.

Given these realities, we should not be surprised to find Machiavellian administrators at public and private colleges and universities throughout the country. By all rights, we should find more of these leaders there than in the private sector, where it is far easier to manage subordinates than it is in academia, and, therefore, less tempting to engage in duplicitous manipulation and political machinations in order to achieve one’s desired ends. And yet, in my experience, this is not the case. To be sure, there are some academic administrators who will engage in underhanded tactics to promote themselves and/or their academic areas, often justifying their actions to themselves as the necessary means by which to reach worthy goals. These wily leaders will use triangulation to set people against each other, exploit the politics of polarization, and even engage in subtle and not so subtle campaigns of character assassination to undermine those whom they see as competitors or as obstacles to their ends. Yet these individuals are the exception, rather than the rule, and they ultimately fail much more often than they succeed. The reasons for this go to the core of what makes academic leadership so challenging in the first instance.

At institutions with a tenure system and unionized faculty, an administrator’s ability to manage the faculty (and support staff, if they are civil service and/or unionized) is relatively limited. They wield no real stick with which to punish those who withhold their performance or oppose needed change and no real carrot with which to reward those whose exceptional efforts they would like to recompense and reinforce. Moreover, the faculty and staff know this. For administrators to effectuate meaningful change in a department, division or institution, overcome the force of inertia, and begin to move towards new goals, they must earn the trust and respect of the faculties whom they lead. This cannot be accomplished through words alone and requires a genuine commitment to demonstrating not just one’s ability, but also one’s worthiness to lead. Surface level respect comes with a position, but the deep level respect and trust needed to effectively lead in an academic environment must be earned over time.

Academic management is inextricably entwined with academic leadership. No one can manage an independent faculty who has not earned the right to lead it. And no one can lead a faculty where it is not convinced that it should go. Furthermore, the wisdom of a group of academics worthy of the title will invariably trump the intelligence or political skill of any given administrator. The simple reason that most Machiavellian academic leaders fail is that those whom they try to influence see through them. An intelligent, scheming administrator may successfully maneuver individual professors along a desired path, but almost never an entire faculty. And they may successfully manipulate one or more administrators as well, but almost never an entire administration. It follows, then that if the only path to effective academic administration is for administrators to earn the trust and respect of those they are entrusted to lead, only principled leaders can thrive as academic administrators in the long term.
Academic administrators cannot command action as easily as their private sector counterparts, nor can they as easily manage their subordinates. Indeed, academic administration at the dean level or above when a competent, engaged faculty is involved requires little management and much leadership. Academic administrators need to clearly communicate their vision to their faculty and motivate them to embrace it as their own. If they are trusted and respected, cognitive conflict can take place that will help to resolve even the most challenging issues and facilitate even radical change. Faculty members appreciate the honesty, integrity, and predictability that principled academic leaders provide every bit as much as they resent and resist its absence. Search committees for administrators would do well to scrutinize candidates on issues of honesty and integrity as closely as they scrutinize candidates’ academic credentials, for only principled leaders can ever hope to be legitimately viewed as first among equals by those they must convince to follow through the capacity of their intellect