Academic journal article Journal of Leadership Studies

The Organizational Context of Moral Dilemmas: The Role of Moral Leadership in Administration in Making and Breaking Dilemmas

Academic journal article Journal of Leadership Studies

The Organizational Context of Moral Dilemmas: The Role of Moral Leadership in Administration in Making and Breaking Dilemmas

Article excerpt

Executive Summary

This paper reviews literature on ethics, ethical decision making and moral leadership in order to frame moral leadership in the organizational context of administration. Both organizational contexts and administrative decisions are characterized as having routines, challenges and dilemmas. Moral leadership in administration attempts to use these types of decisions to lead the organization through the four stages of moral decision-making--moral awareness and sensitivity, judgment, intent and action. Guiding institutionalization and nurturing conflict are both viewed as useful in moral leadership within organizations.


As a father of preschoolers, I know first hand the power of routines in making family life easier, motivating decisions, guiding behavior, and disciplining the wayward emotions. It is great both for children and parents. However, it is clear that good and bad habits are alike cemented by routines. The power of routines work not only on children in families but on employees in organizations, on citizens in a nation, and on people in a culture. It works on the simplest areas of human activity, like the times of day we eat and the way we bathe, to more complex structures of human interaction, like courtship, marriage and parenting, and even at the level of large scale social interactions like the way we do economics and education. Routines are everywhere.

Discourse rages on in sociology on how best to understand the origin, the adaptation, self-perpetuating quality, and agency of complex social routines. Exploring that debate is not the purpose of this paper. We merely acknowledge that these far ranging routines, called social institutions, influence the moral operation of our society at very complex and very simple levels. They also influence, as institutional theorists have shown, the way organizations do business. This in turn provides a local context for moral administration. All moral action, ultimately, can be understood in the context of social interactions. It was Justice Earl Warren who noted that "law floats in a sea of ethics" (Warren, 1962, 1). It is also true that ethics itself floats in this sea of human interactions. Social networks frame our moral and social lives. They set the scripts and the norms which guide in determining what we should and should not do. It is in these networks we encounter the care of another, the principles that are valued in guiding actions, and the examples of virtue that are used to build character. In understanding the moral actions of those who operate in organizations--professors in universities, teachers in high schools, administrators in elementary schools--moral action must be linked to the moral ethos of social interaction.

This paper explores a limited area for understanding moral leadership in its organizational context. I argue that one role in moral leadership in administration involves making and removing dilemmas for organizational participants. I first introduce general concepts about decision-making, ethics, and ethical decision making. I then try to show how some have successfully woven these ideas into models of moral decision making. I then take a brief detour to talk about moral leadership. I then use these ideas to suggest one aspect of moral leadership in administration. My basic observations stem from my readings of the life-long scholarly work of Philip Selznick (1948, 1949, 1957, 1992, 1996).

Administration is the coming together of many elements. It involves leadership and management, decision-making and conflict resolution, human relationships and budget proposals. It is a very complex process, one that continues to keep administrators busy and researchers theorizing. In the past decade, much has been written about moral aspects of administration. Much of this work has been more prescriptive and normative (applied philosophy or anecdotal) than based on empirical research. …

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