On Ethical Leadership and Education

In late October, I was asked to keynote on a very interesting conference in Brussels, organized by the Asia-Europe Foundation (more). The conference was on ethical leadership and it was organized as a summit of young professionals, talking – for three days –  about ethics in leadership from many different perspectives. Here is a nice video.

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A thoughtpiece is an opportunity for a writer who is used to write scientific articles. It carries in it the opportunity to convey what’s on one’s mind without being tight to the ridgid structure and rules of scientific writing. In this sense I would like to ask my readers to be mild with the following text, when they perhaps feel that it is becoming to opinionated at times. Take it as a thoughtpiece.

  • It is clear that there is no leadership without ethics. This does not mean that leaders are always leading in an ethical way. No! We all know many examples where we can judge leadership actions as unethical. However, what is meant is that: There is no leadership without considerations what is right or wrong to do, for example for an entire organization, but also for a state (policy leadership) or also in civil society contexts, private initiatives, the family or ones own lives. In this way ethics cannot be separated from leadership. Still, it is important to notice that ethics – of course – is not just a concept for leaders. Ethics is a concept which is important for societies, groups, or individuals in general. They are the context and environment leaders act in, e.g. the organization they are situated in. The very general (ethical) question what serves the public good is important for everyone who is leading,  be it in policy, in other position in societies, or in organizations. In essence, leadership cannot be separated from the context it is happening in. And the context is connected – like an ecosystem – with a larger context, e.g. a society. When we ask the question which values should drive our action, we will sooner or later arrive at the point to notice that society is one main reference point for the answer. That is why in the question how leaders should act ethically, we need always to take into account the larger context, e.g. the prosperity of the organization or the development of the society. This is one main reference point to come to an answer.


  • Ethics needs pragmatics. To illustrate this we can look at justice: One concept for leaders on a national level is for example the concept of equality, striving for social and just societies in which every member of the society has the same rights and the same opportunities. Justice, however, is a very broad concept with no easy and clear answer to what is it. Therefore it needs a concept which helps to operationalize it into pragmatic every judgements and actions. A translation into action. A tool to provide pragmatic help for leaders in such situations can be concepts and approaches on justice. For example theories of justice which deal with the question which are the guidelines and criteria for just behavior or a just society. One example is the theory of justice from the Harvard Professor John Rawls. Or the works ad writings of US political Philosopher Michael Sandel. The concepts help to arrive to pragmatic judgements, conclusions and actions from ethical considerations. They form the concrete reference frameworks which lead to pragmatic recommendations. In that way ethics can only serve as a guideline for action if it is accompanied by pragmatics, helping to operationalize leadership situations.

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