Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Administrative Sciences

Carving Leaders from the Warped Wood of Humanity

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Administrative Sciences

Carving Leaders from the Warped Wood of Humanity

Article excerpt


This essay argues that the ethical standards for leaders should not be different from those for everyone else. Leaders are carved out of morally fallible humans who are put in positions where they are expected to fail less than most people. The author believes that understanding the moral challenges distinctive to people in leadership positions is fundamental to understanding the very nature of leadership. This essay discusses a few of these ethical challenges including self-interest, power, discipline, and trust. In the end, the author suggests that we may gain more insights into leadership development by studying ethical failures of leaders than by studying their successes.


Cet article soutient la these que les normes de conduite des chefs (d'entreprise) ou dirigeants devraient etre sensiblement les memes que ceux des effectifs de tons rangs. Les chefs sont faits d'humains peccables que Von a places dans des situations oil Von croft qu'ils reussiront mieux que le commun des mortels. L'auteur croft qu'une meilleure comprehension des difficultes morales qu'affrontent les chefs en particulier est essentielle pour une comprehension de la nature meme du travail de direction. L'article passe en revue quelques-unes de ces difficultes, dont l'avantage personnel, le pouvoir, la discipline, et la confiance. En conclusion, l'auteur suggere que l'etude des manquements de conduite, plutot que des reussites, tend a nous renseigner davantage sur le developpement des capacites de "leadership."

"...from such warped wood as is man made, nothing straight can be fashioned."

Immanuel Kant (Kant, trans. 1983)

The ethical problems of leadership stem from the fact that leaders are carved from "the warped wood of humanity." This does not mean that humans are evil, but rather that they are imperfect. By its very nature, leadership calls for people who are a cut above the run of the mill. That is why we stand in awe of great leaders. So much of the leadership literature, particularly the popular literature, overflows with descriptions of the ideal leader, that magical being whose wisdom, courage, vision, and compassion inspires and transforms people by tapping into that which is great in the human spirit. Every once in a while leaders like these come along. We're all familiar with the standard list of greatsGandhi, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, and so forth. We admire these leaders because they are heroic, larger than life, and sometimes martyrs for a cause. Yet, for the most part, governments and organizations are stuck with mere humans as their leaders, with all of their passions, flaws, and weaknesses. Since most of us have given up on waiting for great leaders to be born, we need to understand the ethical challenges of leadership so we can develop moral leaders in society and in our organizations.

I was very pleased to be asked to comment on the engaging and provocative articles in this volume. In this short essay I will not be able to give each paper the attention it deserves, so instead I will offer my reflection on some of the general ethical themes in these articles. The themes I will discuss include altruism, self-interest, virtue, teleological and deontological theories, organizational ethics, and transformational leadership. As I reflected on the ideas in these articles I was struck by how many of the ethical problems faced by leaders and organizations were as old as humanity itself. Unlike science, ethics does not progress in a linear fashion through history. We cannot say that people's ethics have gotten better every century. I also noticed that the ethical concerns about leaders have not changed very much since people started writing about them. This is fortunate because it allows those of us who study this topic to consult with some of the finest thinkers in the world and reapply some of their ideas to our problems today, which is exactly what I shall do in this paper. …

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