Thursday, September 18, 2014

Can Ethical Leadership Be Taught?

Can ethical leadership be taught? In the typical business school, this question would be interpreted, or “refurbished.” Can students be trained to become ethical leaders? While often conflated contemporaneously, these two questions are indeed distinct. Instructors, professors and school administrators should first decide which question is more relevant to their purposes. The question chosen should fit with the education, pedagogical method, and philosophy of education of not only the instructor or professor, but also the school itself. In this essay, I distinguish the two questions in order to unpack them with their full significance.

The question, Can ethical leadership be taught, can be interpreted as being centered on knowledge of the concept and theories of ethical leadership. Can this particular knowledge be taught? That is to say, if a student were to ask, What is ethical leadership? could the instructor or professor answer with a definition? Have scholars even come up with an agreed-up definition? More broadly, how does ethical leadership as a concept differ from that of leadership more generally? Do theories of ethical leadership explain it rather than merely being oriented to how to? Furthermore, do any extant theories relate the concept to other, related concepts such as strategic leadership or even strategy? If so, can such theories be taught to the students at a particular level of education? Last but not least, would teaching the theories toward an understanding of what ethical leadership is be in line with the approach of the particular business school? Some schools are more commercially-oriented than others.

The pedagogical goal in line with the question of whether the knowledge we have on ethical leadership can be taught is that students know more about ethical leadership as a phenomenon. Studying ethical leadership in applications, as for instance through case studies, is oriented here to understanding more about the concept through how it is exercised in practice. To be sure, praxis (i.e., in practice) cannot capture the entirety of a given concept. Accordingly, the case studies and even in-class simulations are secondary here.

Moreover, whether or not the students are more able to become ethical leaders themselves is theoretically separate even if, as Plato wrote, knowing to do the good is all one needs to do it on a regular basis. In other words, understanding what ethical leadership is may contribute toward a student being able to practice ethical leadership, but this byproduct is not the immediate goal in getting students to understand what ethical leadership is. In this perspective, moreover, a business school’s faculty studies the phenomenon of business so as to understand it better.

Alternatively, a business school may be oriented to training its students to be practitioners of particular skills in business. Here, the question of whether teaching ethical leadership can facilitate or enhance a student’s ethical leadership skills in practice is relevant. Crucially, we have shifted qualitatively from education to training—from knowledge to skills.

In their article on teaching ethical leadership, Carla Millar and Eve Poole point to character, or moral intuition, as being improvable in the classroom setting if experiential learning is used.[1] Whereas case studies involve examining how someone else exercised, or should have exercised, ethical leadership, experiential learning focuses on the decision-making in the student. “How would I handle this situation,” according to the authors, stimulates a student’s own moral compass, which in turn can facilitate the student’s skills in ethical leadership. Here, how is the operative question word, as it befits skill as primary.

Millar and Poole can be criticized for treating a simulation in a classroom as a “real” situation. Relatedly, lab experiments in psychology are not in the “real” world, so the artifacts of the lab environment must be taken into account in analyzing the data. Even if a simulation or putting the students in the place of an ethical leader in a case study gets the students to get an experiential sense of how to be an ethical leader, it is quite a leap to propose that such classroom activities make students more ethical or more inclined to be ethical should they become leaders. Ethical leadership is not like typing. Therefore, I think Plato’s approach is superior even though it puts knowledge of a phenomenon first. This would be ironic.

In terms of institutional conflicts of interest, being able to recognize them in practice, which is presumably preliminary to an ethical leader being able to avoid them, depends on first knowing what an institutional conflict of interest is. What is the relation between the two roles in a conflict of interest? How do they differ? What is a conflict of interest? Is such a conflict unethical even if it is not exploited?  The scholarly literature is split on this last question. Using case studies to learn how to handle institutional conflicts of interest depends on the student to generalize across a sufficient number of cases to figure out what a conflict of interest is. Most likely, however, an instructor simply assumes that presenting a few conflicts of interest to the students is sufficient for recognition purposes, and thus for being able to deal with them. The problem with this approach is that understanding in necessary for recognition beyond the few cases a student has studied. Moreover, studying what a conflict of interest is makes it more likely that a student will take them more seriously, ethically speaking.

It should be pretty obvious where I stand with respect to the two approaches. I contend that paradoxically learning what we know of an applied concept is the best means of enabling students to use the concept in praxis. Abstract knowledge and praxis are synergistic rather than antithetical. If I am correct here, then business school deans who are under the impression that companies want the schools to train future employees are not even serving those companies well by replacing education with training. Generally speaking, if something looks too convenient, it probably is better to take a more arduous route.

[1] Carla Millar and Eve Poole, “Business Schools Are Failing to Teach Ethical Leadership,” The Guardian, November 26, 2010.