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Institution of Ethics | Finding truth in the academy |

Faculty essays

We asked: What is ethical leadership and what is its place in higher education?

Paulette Burns Director
Harris School of nursing

Paradoxically, ethical leadership at its best is all about the leader and nothing about the leader. "All about the leader" means the leader has probed the depths of self and knows self intimately.

This knowing includes personal values, beliefs and attitudes; strengths and weaknesses, even flaws, as a human being; and the underlying motivation for actions. The knowing is a continual dialogue and examination of self to uncover new insights and revelations.

"Nothing about the leader" is the leader's intentional focus on others rather than self in the acts and process of leadership. It is the leader knowing enough about self and being willing to forego the needs of self while giving of the whole self to something larger than the self. Examples of something larger are a profession, a career, a movement or an ideal.

True leaders hold leadership authority because followers grant them the authority. Expertise in a designated area of knowledge is a personal commodity that often attracts followers and allows the expert to be in a position of leadership. Expertise by itself is valueless. What one does with expertise makes it a leadership endeavor involving ethics. Use and application of knowledge often require making decisions in light of competing concerns that demand ethical reasoning.

Institutions of higher education exist because society values the product -- an educated individual who can think critically and act ethically. The TCU educational experience provides myriad ethical leadership development strategies for students. Demanding self-examination in concert with academic rigor from our students should pave the way for TCU graduates to be ethical leaders in their personal and professional lives.

Mary Volcansek
DeanAddRan College of Arts and Sciences

Can we in higher education teach leadership? I know that we can teach students ideas about leadership and can analyze the lives and thoughts of leaders; I know that we can coach students who are already budding leaders to hone their skills.

More importantly, do we at TCU want to proclaim that our graduates are all leaders? I prefer to focus on two other elements in our mission: educating students to behave ethically and to understand responsible citizenship.

People can be taught to recognize ethical dilemmas and to apply disciplined moral reasoning to those problems. We can teach how to think rationally about being a good person and doing the right thing.

People can also be taught what is involved in responsible citizenship, which goes beyond simple patriotism.

We can teach students how to approach social, economic and political problems knowledgeably and analytically. We can teach them how to present their concerns and solutions effectively and to have an impact. Ethics is intrinsically intertwined with citizenship, for responsible citizens not only monitor their own moral behavior, but also that of their leaders in politics, business, the arts, education, medicine and science.

If we instill the traits of ethical analysis and informed citizenship in our students, those who assume leadership positions can be counted on to behave ethically. More importantly, those leaders will be held accountable by knowledgeable and engaged people if they violate the trust placed in them.

Tommy Thomason
Chair, department of Journalism

Reporters joke that doctors bury their mistakes, lawyers see theirs go to jail, and journalists put theirs on the front page for thousands of people to read.

Actually, if they're broadcast journalists, they air their mistakes for millions of people. And if they're PR practitioners or advertising professionals, their mistakes are similarly public and sometimes get dissected by the entire nation.

Indeed, mass communications professionals work in our culture's most public arena, an environment of daily ethical dilemmas -- and always on deadline. TCU's journalism faculty realize that we are preparing students for a high-pressure world where ethical pitfalls are common and mistakes costly. For us, the University's mission of preparing ethical decision-makers is very real, because the stakes are so high.

Our faculty include one of the nation's best-known journalism ethicists, professional-in-residence Phil Record. But we believe that the real key to developing ethical decision-makers lies not in a stand-alone ethics class but in examining ethical implications in all of our skills areas, the places where working professionals must make the decisions that impact all of society.

So our mission is not to teach "the answers" but to teach students to reason through ethical dilemmas to responsible choices.

How are we doing? Better than many people realize. After all, when mass communications practitioners make ethical mistakes, everyone knows.

But consumers never know about the thousands of times we made those deadline decisions in ways that served both the public's right to know and the best ethical standards of our professions.

Jim Riddlesperger
Chair, Department of Political Science

Ethical leadership is the cornerstone of good governance. As a scholar of the American presidency, I examine political leadership, which involves far more than simply choosing "right" or "moral" positions.

Political leadership has to do with defining aspirational goals and accommodating differences among people while helping to guide a nation toward defining shared values such as justice, fundamental fairness, opportunity, security, liberty and equality. When shared values conflict, as they inevitably will, the duty of an ethical leader is to ensure that difficult decisions are made, moving toward aspirational goals without discarding core values. Making choices between those values is not always appropriate. Rather, finding imaginative ways to accommodate competing values is essential.

The value of a liberal arts education is that it allows students to become conversant with the intellectual and historical underpinnings of civilizations. It forces students to confront complexities in human interactions rather than simply trying to pick one political position over another.

In the United States, such an education guides the nation on its democratic path, allowing it to aspire to the proposition, as Abraham Lincoln declared in his Gettysburg Address, that "government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth."

Donald Jackson
Professor of Political Science

Ethical leadership requires a fundamental commitment to the truth. In debating public policy, it is too easy to trim the truth to fit the audience. When leaders make arguments that they know (or should know) to be untrue or misleading, rational discourse is made impossible.

Ethical leadership also requires that legitimate counterarguments be taken into account. To do that is to respect both the democratic process and one's opponents. Unfortunately, commitments to the truth and respect for both the democratic process and for political adversaries are exceptional in American politics.

Certainly there are times when it is appropriate to remain silent. These instances usually involve considerations of confidentiality, privacy or avoidance of personal attacks that have nothing to do with real issues.

A fundamental commitment to the truth makes civility and rational discourse possible and builds a cornerstone for seeking to solve problems rather than simply scoring points or winning votes.

Gay Wakefield '74
Director, Center for Professional Communication,
M.J. Neeley School of Business

At its most basic, ethical leadership is doing what is right, fair and decent, and setting an example for doing so. In my opinion, this requires five activities: 1) recognizing what is right, fair and decent; 2) acknowledging to others that which is right, fair and decent; 3) acting according to what is right, fair and decent; 4) expecting others to do likewise; and 5) rewarding them for doing so.

I suppose it's too much to ask that our society, in its ever-expanding secularism, fully embrace these principles. Likewise, as research clearly shows, it is too much to expect that most students arrive on our campus already practicing these principles.

So I believe that, as an institution of higher learning established on Christian tenets, TCU has both the freedom and the responsibility to address ethical leadership as a nuclear purpose for its educational programming.

What better way to make a positive impact on our nation and our world than to develop generations of leaders who are prepared to support, both personally and publicly, that which is right, fair and decent?

Cyndi Walsh
Director of TCU Leadership Center

In the era of Enron, human cloning, and reality T.V., students are faced with ethical questions on a daily basis. Yet, the need for ethical leadership goes unquestioned.

As institutions of higher learning, it is our responsibility not only to raise this question, but also prepare students for the ethical situations they will face upon graduation. Rather than simply dictate to students what is "right" and "wrong", at TCU, students are expected to continually assess the ethical dimensions of their individual, professional and civic lives through continual self-exploration, examination of ethical systems and theories of decision-making, and, most importantly, through practical application.

As affirmed by the TCU mission statement and the new academic core, the role of the university is to provide students with curricular and co-curricular experiences that will teach them to critically analyze information in an ethical manner and provide them with the practical skills necessary to put ethical leadership into action.

By implementing such a holistic framework in which students can both learn and practice how to become ethical leaders, universities are certain to produce effective citizen leaders -- a long-standing goal of American higher education.