Ethical Leadership and the Public Trust. (Leadership Training Institute)

By Meyers, Robert; Patterson, Valerie | Nation's Cities Weekly, October 7, 2002 | Go to article overview
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Ethical Leadership and the Public Trust. (Leadership Training Institute)


Meyers, Robert, Patterson, Valerie, Nation's Cities Weekly


When one surveys the landscape of government leaders, past and present, they usually fall into one of two camps--effective or ineffective. Unfortunately, history is replete with examples of leaders who have caused untold suffering in their societies, but yet somehow receive praise as effective leaders whose leadership skills are to serve as models for others to emulate. Those who pay tribute to these leaders are quick to point out they possessed superior motivational skills to mobilize their constituents, demonstrated fortitude during calamitous times and expressed a commitment to the cause (no matter how horrific it might have been).

Clearly, what is omitted from this analysis is the degree to which the unethical leader ascends to a position of public trust or maintains such a position by deliberately misleading others, using highly inflammable, emotional rhetoric to seduce the public and prey upon people's fears and suspicions.

Unfortunately, there are many documented cases of public officials who have enriched themselves at the public expense, but have received accolades from their constituents and the media because they were viewed as attentive public servants. An essential element of effective community leadership is a commitment to the highest ethical standards. To my way of thinking, a leader who lacks the capacity to subscribe to fundamental ethical values, should not be judged as a effective leader.

Often times, a leader is measured by one's ability to handle emergency situations or crises, as opposed to managing the more mundane affairs of governing. The misconception is that the official's worth as a leader depends upon that individual's ability to cope with or diffuse a crisis or other extraordinary event. Therefore, grappling with an unforeseen set of circumstances that may arise during one's term in office becomes the only test of the leader's effectiveness. This theory postulates that leadership is something contextual or situational and gives little credence to the belief that through suitable preparation and training leaders can be better equipped to lead.

A more enlightened attitude is one that recognizes that education and training is likely to yield positive results for public officials and their communities.

If we accept the premise that there are beneficial aspects to providing elected officials with a foundation in ethics and leadership, the only unresolved issue is the optimal method to deliver such information. In a perfect world, it would be preferable for elected officials to be exposed to ethics, values and leadership courses at the college and university level, to lay the foundation prior to public service.

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