Ethics, Leadership and Persuasion

If you have been following along at all, this blog has been looking at issues of leadership. We looked at power—from where does it come and how is it used. (As an aside: I was asked to review a book on educational leadership that will be published by a former colleague—it is a very good book by the way and when it comes out I will recommend it—and in reading the book the author reminded me of how I think power works: As soon as you exert authority, you begin to lose it.) We looked at persuasion and what that means. Now, if we are to think about leadership in a more complete manner, it is time to consider ethics.

Power and persuasion are both tools, or tactics, of leadership. They are means to achieve an end. Ah, but to what end? That is where ethical considerations come into play.

As has been noted in previous posts, I am a rhetorician, and proud of it. That is what I study; that is what I teach; that is what I practice. For the over 2,000 years that people have been studying, teaching and practicing rhetoric, one of constant issues is the relationship between rhetoric and ethics—after all, these were two different treatises from Aristotle (though if you read closely you will find that Aristotle shared ideas from both works).

Ethics provides the grounding for the ends of persuasion and leadership, for the proper and wise (as opposed to simply the effective and efficient) use of rhetoric.

There are of course, many ethical frameworks, theories, schools and approaches—and outside of the very few, most people (consciously or unconsciously) ground their lives in ethical approaches that are not pure applications of any one ethical theory or framework (or for a different view, some may argue that a specific ethical framework is so broad and all-encompassing that it really does provide the answer to all dilemmas—I’ll leave that argument to those who spend more time studying ethics—and as another aside, it was good to see that my school, William Paterson, is establishing a minor in Ethics—now more can study and think about ethics).

So—how does ethics, for me, inform and guide the use of persuasion and the practice of leadership?

I find, at least at this point, that a general utilitarianism framework provides the best ethical guidance. And of course the concept of utilitarianism is so broad as to perhaps be meaningless as a phrase, so some specifics.

As I think about utilitarianism as an ethical guide, the basic heuristic I use is this: what is the best outcome that provides the most advantages with the least cost? How can we help the most people and not cause harm to others?

One specific application: Like all of us in public higher education, here at William Paterson we are watching every penny carefully. There are a lot of great ideas and a lot of people and programs who need/want additional (or even continuing) resources. The value criteria that I look at (and just as a reminder, I am but one voice in decisions not a final arbiter) is: how will these resources help the most people and hurt the fewest (because in many cases, the “new” resources come from something that we then have to stop doing in order to do the new thing).

And because this is higher education, one additional twist: of the people that will be helped/harmed, students are at the top of the ladder in consideration. So how will these resources best help the university and its students without hurting others.

That, at least, is the basic ethical configuration that provides the framework for how I try to use persuasion in the practice of leadership.