Virtuous leaders

The question of virtue in leadership was playing on my mind this morning. I reached for my go-to book on moral philosophy: Being Good by Simon Blackburn. It is a pithy introduction to ethics which I hoped would help me ponder the question.

Some time later I remembered that I should be doing jobs around the house rather than contemplating in the bath. The first job was to change some light bulbs high up in the eves. As I set up the ladder, I found one leg to be slightly too short. I looked around for a suitable wedge to place beneath the leg and my eyes settled on Blackburn’s book: the perfect height to steady my climb. I was able to replace the light bulbs with some ethical guidance to help me.

The irony in this anecdote is that moral philosophy is all well and good, but there is a pragmatic task at hand that needs our attention. How many moral philosophers do you need to change a lightbulb?

The moral imperative

Some days before, I had been asked to appear on a podcast to talk about a blog I had written. We were discussing the importance of school leaders understanding what is going on in their school and not assuming that they have all the answers.

“So, should we encourage leaders to be humbler?”, the interviewer asked.

“No,” I replied. He looked surprised at this response. “We should suggest they talk to lots of people and listen to what they say.”

Advising leaders to be humbler is, in my opinion, not very useful. In the example above, what they need is information which contradicts their perspective. If regularly receiving feedback which causes them to question their assumptions makes them humbler over time, then great. But the virtue is not the aim.

We readily invoke the language of virtue in discourse about leadership, but is this helpful? Clearly, morality is important in schools. We do not want school leaders who are corrupt, ill-intentioned, deceptive, arrogant liars! But should we demand that leaders are paragons of virtue, beyond reproach?

Few would disagree that we should expect all our fellow human beings to behave well. We might argue that it is particularly important that those in positions of power and influence do so as the effect of their actions will be far reaching. The morality of leaders should therefore be a concern. However, this is not the same as expecting higher ethical standards of leaders than others. Should we expect leaders to be more virtuous than we expect other human beings to be? And do we get better leaders by appeals to virtue? I am not so sure.

Virtue signalling

It is difficult to challenge the rhetoric around virtue because doing so is taken as a signal that you are not sufficiently virtuous. Social desirability bias – being attracted by statements we want to be true – proliferates. Consider the following ‘inspirational’ leadership quotes from a top 100 list in Forbes magazine:

‘A leader is best when people barely know he exists…’

‘Before you are a leader, success is all about growing yourself. When you become a leader, success is all about growing others.’

‘To command is to serve, nothing more and nothing less.’

These quotes are dripping with self-sacrifice and subservience. These virtues are simplistically appealing, but do we really want leaders who do not look after themselves or consider their own needs? And wouldn’t we rather see leaders out and about and be able to talk to them?

A preoccupation with virtue invites such truthy statements. There is nothing stopping us having a more nuanced debate about virtues in leadership, but more often we resort to catch phrases which suggest leaders should elevate themselves to a higher plain of morality, without the instructions for how to do so.

A ‘leaders as saints’ narrative is no better than a ‘leaders and heroes’ narrative. The latter fetishizes a leader’s power and the former their goodness. They both portray leaders as superior beings and in doing so simply create unattainable expectations.

As Blackburn states, ‘The centre of ethics must be occupied by things we can reasonably demand of each other.’ We are not expected to share all our possessions with those that have less than us, although absolute claims to fairness and equality might suggest we should do so. Similarly, we should not expect leaders to sacrifice their own well-being, family, or personal life because those they ‘serve’ live less fortunate lives. Absolute selflessness is not the basis for a functioning society or workplace.

Untethered ethics present a limitless demand and standards which stretch into infinity are no basis for professional development. Leaders should not be called upon to be saints, merely decent human beings. High morality is beyond the call of duty.

Striving for virtue

What if we can make our moral demands more reasonable? We needn’t expect leaders to be beyond reproach, but we might expect them to work on being more virtuous.

The question here is whether the pursuit of virtue is the best way to get better leaders?

There are numerous philosophical problems with morality which both your attention span and my rudimentary grasp of ethics mean we should steer away from here. However, let’s sum up these problems by saying that moral issues are ‘swampy’ – you are likely to get stuck and very mucky. Establishing what leadership behaviours are virtuous and whether one leader is morally superior to another is, depending on your philosophical position, either impossible, or reliant on some fairly big assumptions.

Besides which, I would argue that most claims to moral standards in a professional context are less about ethics and more about pragmatism anyway.

I’ll give an example of a moral standard which appears uncontentious and is commonly invoked: ‘Do not steal’ (or put a ‘Though shalt not…’ spin on that if you prefer).

We might all agree that stealing is wrong. This, we might argue, therefore makes a good ‘standard’ for professional conduct. The application of this is as follows: Embezzlement is a form of theft, stealing is wrong, ergo embezzlement is wrong.

We certainly do not want financial fraud to be occurring in schools. However, does this standard of public life appeal to moral absolutism (stealing is wrong) or is it simply a pragmatic rule (we cannot run a system is it is constantly being defrauded, therefore this act should be outlawed)? To test this, let us consider how we view another theft; that of a school leader taking a ream of paper for their personal use. An absolute moral boundary has been transgressed (stealing is stealing), but how much do we concern ourselves with this immoral act? The fact that most of us would shrug this ‘theft’ off is an indication that our standards are more pragmatic than ethical.

The point I’m making is that we do not need to get bogged down in the moral swamp to have standards which enable the system to function. We do not need to invoke a moral position on stealing in general, more a specific position on behaviours that are not permitted. We can finish the sentence ‘We cannot run a school system in which…’ to derive our professional standards and need not resort to moral sentiment.

Be more virtuous

Once we have established a baseline of conduct, should we then invoke the language of virtue to help leaders achieve higher standards? Do we want leaders to strive to be humbler, more truthful, have greater integrity, to be more just, more wise, more courageous, more patient or prudent?

Again, I am not sure that an appeal to moral growth is necessary or helpful. Indeed, we may behave more virtuously by turning to much more pragmatic things than virtue. Consider my earlier example about challenging one’s own perspective on a problem. Who will be more likely to act in a desirable way: a leader who spends time trying to be humbler or a leader who wants to know how other people think about things? The former is wrapped up in ‘being good’, the latter in ‘being effective’.

Put another way, which is the more helpful desire?

  1. I want to know more about what other people think about this in case I am wrong.
  2. I want to be subservient to those I lead by showing them I value their opinions.

Both leaders may appear humble, but only one concerns themselves with possessing this quality. The other one is getting on with the job with little concern for the virtue they ‘possess’.

I would go further to say that the former is seeking understanding and in doing so acting more virtuously than the latter, concerned primarily with signalling their moral superiority and growth. It is ironic that the desire to know more is often portrayed as a cold and inhuman pursuit, whilst values-based leadership is seen as morally superior. Quite the reverse may be true.

We may conclude that better leadership comes from simple enquiry rather than moral aggrandisement. Becoming a better leader need not be tied up with moral growth; indeed, it may prove a distraction.

Both moral knowledge and the concept of moral progress are ambiguous and illusive. There is no absolute answer to the question ‘what is moral?’, therefore there can be no useful framework for development.

Morals are fundamental to leadership, but they are not a useful starting point for improving it.

So, please do not ask me to be humbler, to always place the needs of others above my own, to be truthful, to act with integrity, to be above reproach, just because I hold a leadership position. Instead, expect me to be a decent human being, as you expect others to be. Beyond that, just ask that I seek to learn more, reflect on my mistakes, and do my best. I can hope to get better at my job, but I am not paid to become a better person. Perhaps we all have a duty to aspire to goodness, but that duty is a social one, not a contractual one.

Invoking virtues is not necessarily virtuous, despite how much we may want that to be the case.

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